Dispatches from England: Differences in Parenting between American and Britain

puddle jumping

I’m a little hesitant to write this post, as I know making any sort of commentary about parenting approaches is like opening a gigantic can of worms. So I’ll ask you to be kind and respectful in the comments. I will make some generalizations in this post that I know are not true for every family or every parent. And I realize my thoughts and opinions on parenting are not shared by everyone. I wouldn’t expect that to be the case, and I embrace that. But I thought addressing some of the differences I’ve noticed in parenting styles between the U.S. and Great Britain was an interesting topic, and something I’ve spent a lot of time observing over the past 9 months since moving to England.

  • In general, I feel as though British parents seem to be less “helicopter.” This is by and large the biggest difference I’ve noticed, and for the most part I think it’s great. At the playground, in the school yard, even just walking around town, I notice that parents hover much less than American parents. They don’t seem quick to get involved in some of the little squabbles that develop between young children, instead letting the kids sort it out for themselves. And I find parents here to be much more encouraging of children taking risks (but safely!) at places like playgrounds. I think it leads directly to my next observation:
  • British children are encouraged to be more independent at an earlier age. At the parent meeting we attended in the summer, during the weeks leading up to our 4-year-old starting school, we were encouraged to make sure our son could cut his own food and dress himself completely on his own. This came as a bit of a shock to us… he hadn’t mastered either skill, and I knew of few kids his age in the U.S. who could do these things at such a young age. But sure enough, he’s picked it up quite quickly and can now do both. He’s now expected to keep track of all his belongings at school, get his homework done, etc. I’ve heard from fellow expats living here with older kids that this will continue on into his school years. I’m excited to see this develop in him, as I think in America we tend to “baby” our children well into their school years (not that there is anything wrong with that either, but it’s been fun to see him come into his own a bit since we moved here).
  • British children begin school at a younger age. Yes, school starts at 4 years of age here with reception (roughly equivalent to the U.S. kindergarten, which typically begins at age 5 or 6 in the U.S.). But it’s common to begin placing children in nursery (equivalent to U.S. preschool) as early as 1. Beginning at age 3 in the UK, families are entitled to 15 hours per week of government funded nursery/preschool. In the U.S., some kids don’t set foot in a school setting until PreK (age 4-5), and even then, it’s often only for a few hours each week, as the cost is typically on the shoulders of families.
  • Napping seems to be less of a priority here. This is very much anecdotal, just what I’ve noticed on a personal level. In the U.S., I feel as though parents of young children place a big emphasis on napping, and ensuring that young children take a good nap each day. Here, I often notice toddlers out and about in the middle of the afternoon (when my own 2-year-old is sound asleep each day). Toddler groups and classes often meet in the afternoons, whereas in the U.S. those were typically limited to mornings or early evenings. People here are sometimes shocked when I say that my 4-year-old was still regularly napping until he started school this fall. I’m not saying British kids don’t nap, I’m certain that they do. But it just seems less routine here than in the U.S.
  • There is a greater emphasis on outdoor play. I’m a huge believer in the benefits of children playing and spending a lot of time outdoors. So I’m glad it’s a priority here as well. Every school we toured prior to moving (both private and public) had a classroom style that allowed a lot of indoor/outdoor movement. My son spends a large portion of his school day outdoors, regardless of weather conditions. In the U.S., outdoor time is often restricted just to recess. Even cultural attractions, like National Trust properties, spend a lot of their resources maintaining and encouraging families to use outdoor spaces, like adventure playgrounds, bike trails, hiking paths, nature workshops, etc.

It’s impossible to articulate an entire country’s parenting philosophy in under 800 words, nor do I know enough about that to do so. That’s definitely not my intention in writing this post. Again, this is just my very unscientific observations regarding some general differences in parenting between the U.S. and the UK.

Comments

  1. avatarA-A Lloyd says

    The American style of parenting used to be more like what Jonathan observes in England now: more independence. The job of a child was to learn and explore and experience, and s/he did that without the interference (“guidance”) of an adult. My toddler played in a fenced backyard mostly by herself or with dog. I looked out the window now and then to see where/what she was doing, but I didn’t think it necessary to be present by her side. When it came time to put my son in a nursery (since I had to work), I made sure it was a place that did not require naptime, since he was not an afternoon napper. I am grateful that my parents did not intrude themselves into my play life, and school was my business. If I didn’t do well, it was up to me to improve, not up to them to make sure I got it right. I’ve been shocked to see the mother of a teenage girl I was doing a show with not only accompany her everywhere, but plan her schedule with her, including comments about when she was doing homework, etc. The girl was not a slouch and hardly needed this supervising. With toddlers, however, there can be separation anxiety, so I think it wise to gauge each child individually as to when to send them off to school. Unfortunately, the needs of working parents frequently outweighs the needs of the child, and schools are notoriously inflexible. The amazing thing is how well children turn out despite our mistakes!

    • avatarBecky says

      I too think it’s a generational difference rather than cultural difference. My mother was not a hoverer, and neither did I hover over my daughter who is now 44. I would have been mortified had my mother been that active in my playtime! Also, the cutoff age for starting school gets earlier all the time – when I started kindergarten, you had to turn 5 by mid November … Now it’s late July or August. Independence used to be a cultivated trait – now it’s seems to be disregarded … Which may explain why many young American adults move back home so many times before they make the final break.

  2. avatarDiane Clement says

    A-A Lloyd is correct. When I was a child in the 1950s, we kids roamed around the neighborhood, playing street ball games, hide n’ seek until it was pitch black outside, dug holes in our yards in an attempt to reach China, lugged around old WWII combat gear our fathers brought back, and rarely came inside. We were all over the world in our imaginations and we learned to solve our own disputes. My only real upset was that the boys got to play Little League baseball, leaving me alone to climb trees and sit alone with my dog contemplating the unfairness of the world. Of course, today girls have lots of sports of their own. I raised my own boys pretty much the same way. I think helicopter parenting can lead to young adults having very little real experience with the world and, therefore, very little compassion for those outside their own group. I hear parents complaining if their children away at college or off touring the world do not communicate every single day. In 1850 people left their families and headed west and letters home took months to arrive. Good for the Brits keeping assuming their children are capable of taking responsibility for dressing themselves and keeping track of their stuff. The outdoor thing is something I have also observed on my trips to the UK and I try to emulate that behavior–rain, unless it is a deluge, is no reason to stay locked up indoors. Love this post and envy this young family’s experience.

  3. avatardave says

    I feel that children in England get a better start because the parents get more government help,also the well fare state makes a big difference in the parents confidence that their child will survive, in U S being able to be self sufficient is a matter of life or death.

  4. avatar says

    I agree with a lot of this – but I think there is a big push in the US to get kids outside more, and it seems to be working, at least where we are :)

  5. avatarKara says

    As a Brit living in America I would have to say I agree with above. My kids are now young adults, but I remember how much further ahead my son was after a year in a British school when we moved here and he started schooling in US. He could read and was used to going to the bathroom etc. by himself. Now I work at University and find American parents continue to be helicopter parents even after they are considered legally adults. Frequently hear “I pay for his education therefore I demand to see his grades”. Federal laws do not allow it though.

    • avatarMary says

      I think it’s this generation. My parents didn’t do that with me and I don’t recall other parents being so helicopter with their adult children. One wonders if in a few years parents will be talking to their kids’ bosses for them.

  6. avatarAllifos says

    It sounds like Great Britain has a few key concepts figured out regarding child-rearing. When I tried to use the same principles with my kids-independence, self-sufficiency, anti-helicoptering-It seemed there was always another parent judging/criticizing and/or making second-guess my parenting choices. We’re way too competitive in the US, and that doesn’t help our kids either.

  7. avatarLynn Eddy says

    Goodness, Nicole, you’re not saying anything that you should be being attacked over! What you’re describing is pretty much the way I grew up as a kid in the US in the 50’s and 60’s. I tried to do the same as a parent, but I felt a lot of pressure from my fellow-parent peers to be more involved and protective. My personal feeling is that what you’re seeing as the British approach is far preferable and will produce better results in the long run. Be brave enough to let go!

  8. avatarSan says

    I wish parents of high school students in this country were less hovery. Even for juniors and seniors who are shortly going to begin their adult lives, parents seem to fear allowing them to take responsibility for themselves.

  9. avatarSamantha says

    I think the problem with American parents is that were afraid of being deemed as “irresponsible” if we don’t baby our kids. The truth is you baby your kids when their babies. Great read!

  10. avatarAmina Ruhl says

    As people say above, its definitely this generation. American parents are definitely too “helicopter.” We use a lot of interns here in our Washington, DC office and I have rejected many applicants because the mother or father called for the son/ daughter during the application process. The weak dependent millennial generation is going to be the downfall of the US.

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