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There's no secret key

Guides claiming to share tricks from foreign countries on how to raise the happiest and most successful children are popular, but it's really just common sense, Dave McGinn writes

At this point, one of the only things we middle-class parents in North America can say with certainty is that we have no idea what we're doing. Stuck between the poles of helicoptering and free-range, we've lost confidence in our ability to raise happy, successful kids. The compass needle for previous generations pointed to a reliable true north. For us, it's spinning uncontrollably.

It's no wonder, then, that like a teenager desperate to solve her own identity crisis with a trip abroad, we've begun looking for answers in foreign cultures.

Anthropologists have been voyaging in search of answers for how to raise kids right since Margaret Mead packed her bags for Papua New Guinea nearly a century ago. Mass-market publishing has only recently picked up the bug. Three new titles – The Danish Way of Parenting, Mamaleh Knows Best and Do Parents Matter? – are the most recent additions to a steady line of foreign-fetishizing parenting manuals that kicked off in 2011 with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

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Remember that? Author Amy Chua told of banning sleepovers, demanding her kids practise piano for two hours a day, calling them fat and throwing a handmade card back in one's face, all in the name of producing high achievers. How could we have countenanced such a horror show?

Then came Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman's delicious-as-a-box-of-bonbons idyll. The American expat in France spun a tale of well-behaved kids supping on duck confit without complaint while their unharried mothers lazily perused Le Monde in peace and quiet.

The latest influx of passport parenting tomes relies on the same promise of culturally proven principles of success. Let's start in Scandinavia.

Denmark has been voted as having the happiest people in the world by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development almost every year since 1973. So Jessica Joelle Alexander, who married a Dane and is raising kids with him, and her co-author Iben Dissing Sandahl, a licensed psychotherapist and family counsellor, set out to find out why.

"The answer, quite simply, is in their upbringing," the authors conclude, before launching into their simple pitch for raising kids the Danish way. The cornerstones of handy-dandy Scandy child-rearing include: prioritizing free play over heavily scheduled activities; helping kids see past negatives to become "realistic optimists"; and promoting empathy by pointing out the good in others.

If we're in the market for cultures with a long track record of producing the kind of kids we want ours to be, Mamelah Knows Best author Marjorie Ingall would like a word. It's all there in her subtitle: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children. That would be encouraging kids to ask questions rather than blindly accept authority, nurturing a sense of humour to help them through hard times and ensuring they become upstanding moral citizens.

Most of these books are targeted at stressed-out American mothers. Don't publishers think fathers care about parenting (or read books)? That sin of omission is annoying, but most of these books commit one much less forgivable: If you are going to start pontificating on why Danish parents are happier than their U.S. counterparts, you're living in a Hans Christian Andersen-level fantasyland if you don't look at government support.

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It's a lot easier to bring up a bébé in France, a country with generous parental-leave policies and a national childcare system. Denmark's 52 weeks of parental leave (with the kingdom often kicking in 100 per cent of paid wages) would go a long way to brightening the smile of an American parent existing on a measly 12 weeks of unpaid leave (or even a Canadian one whose year with a newborn comes with a hefty pay cut).

Of course, good parenting isn't entirely contingent on government support. If there's a proven model out there for how to do things right, what responsible parent wouldn't want to go looking for it, especially when the ground seems to be always shifting underneath our feet? Read enough of these books, however, and it becomes clear that the fundamentals of good parenting are both universal and accessible to common sense.

Raise your kids to value hard work instead of showering them with empty praise. Respect them. Set high standards and be demanding but responsive to their needs. Encourage the values of empathy and integrity by making sure they don't always put themselves above others. Allow them to pursue their passions with creativity and drive. Let them play. Read to them all the time.

The amount of social-science research supporting this is vast and regularly cited throughout the books that promise to possess a cultural master key.

As pointed out in Robert and Sarah LeVine's Do Parents Matter?, worrying about the details is well-intentioned but largely irrelevant. We've been led to believe that parents play a near-incomprehensibly huge role in who our kids turn out to be, down to our every little choice of what to put on a chore chart or how many minutes a day to let them watch TV. But as LeVine and LeVine's examination of parenting styles around the world shows, fixating on Japanese co-sleeping or the serious responsibilities borne by kids as young as 5 in some African and Latin American countries just doesn't do very much.

"The expert advice that parents attend to has grossly exaggerated the influence of parenting on child development," they write.

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Ouch. But that isn't to say reading these books isn't worthwhile. Much like actual travel, there's plenty in the experience to enrich and inform your life as a parent.

One such beauty is the Danish value of hygge, which can be translated as both "coziness" and "togetherness." Imagine a night where you all put aside cellphones and tablets and the noise of daily life and instead gather together in a room lit by candles, cozy blankets draping everyone, while you share "funny, lovely and uplifting stories about one another from the past."

Who wouldn't want to pocket that little trinket and bring it home? Similarly, there can never be enough books explaining how to raise a real mensch. Ingall does it with humour, warmth and insight. But reading these books is also akin to returning home from far and wide to realize that what you were seeking was here the whole time.

As parents, our compass needles look like they're spinning because we are pulled by the magnetic force of a million experts, not to mention the unceasing torrent of a million shaming social-media posts. My advice is to trust your own true north.

GIF illustration by Ming Wong/The Globe and Mail


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