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How to handle different parenting styles

Or, how to tell when someone is from a different planet

I went to a friend's birthday coffee the other day at a fancy hotel. It was very civilized—bunch of western expat ladies, sipping tea and coffee, exchanging pleasantries. At first glance, we all had a lot in common, despite being quite a mixed bunch. There were a couple of Americans, a few Brits, a couple of South Africans and an Australian or two, and well, me. We were all married expat women, all living in Doha, most with the kids going to the same school—lots to discuss, lots to agree on. And yet, I witnessed a major clash of personalities, right there. A girl next to me, whom I had briefly met before, was a young American mother of a small baby, which she brought along with her. She was a certain type, you know—an Earth mother, a tree-hugging hippie and probably a vegetarian. All in all, a very nice woman, really.

As the beautiful birthday cake was cut and passed around the table, and the baby squealed in excitement, the South African mum across the table smiled and suggested that the child was probably after a slice.

“Oh, no,” said the American mother. “She is not allowed any carbs until 12 months of age.”

Having met this lady before, I was not that surprised. But the SA lady looked shocked. “What exactly do you mean?” she asked with an intense sort of smile, tilting her head to one side. “Why? Based on what??”

The hippie mother proceeded to explain how, according to a recent research, babies' stomachs were not ready to digest carbs very well until they were a year old. Encouraged by our obvious interest, she added that she was going to try feeding the baby raw liver next. (She read somewhere that many generations of native Mauritians let their babies suck on the raw cow's liver. Not sure why she decided it was therefore a good idea? Perhaps she read that Mauritians tend to live longer or are known for superb brain development. I did not want to ask. I felt that asking that question would sound like I was trying to challenge her.)

She had found liver of an Indian water buffalo, which fed on green grass only, and was, according to her, quite safe.

At that precise moment, I am sure I noticed the SA mother jerk compulsively in the direction of the baby, as if following an impulse to grab her and run for the door.

It is amazing, isn't it, how aggressively judgmental we all get when it comes to parenting? Parenting approach, to me, is one of the most dangerous topics, in many ways not unlike religion, something mothers from all sorts of cultures can get incredibly passionate about, if challenged by someone else. At the same time, it is something we all, without fail, seem to consider ourselves experts in. Even when we pretend, like I did that morning (hopefully successfully) as I nodded and smiled, listening to the Mauritian raw liver theory, to understand and respect a very different approach to what we are used to, we still secretly think to ourselves, “Jeez... what a nutcase!”

Following the principle of a well-known joke of George Calin, where “anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you a maniac,” we tend to judge other parents for their inability to handle a tantrum, their bizarre sleeping rituals or crazy feeding routines by our own specific norms.

Raising my first daughter in the U.K. was easy for me.

Having had very little interest in parenting or babies before I actually had one myself, I submerged myself happily and entirely, without questioning what was actually right or wrong, into the way things were done in the U.K. at the time. Besides the division between most of the mums I knew between those who followed Gina Ford's routine, or those who believed in a softer, Baby Whisperer approach, there were not many other major differences to get excited about. Most of our babies were weaned on the same foods, following Annabel Karmel’s plan, with no raw liver or other unorthodox products involved, went to bed around 7pm, watched Baby Einstein and played with similar toys.

However, living in Doha, I see that there are so many more approaches to everything I used to do back in the U.K.! Not all parents put their kids to bed at 7, some small children stay up as late as 11pm, running around the compound like feral kittens, while I myself could already be on my second dream about Clive Owen. Some mums are a lot more earth-motherly than I'd ever met before, with washable nappies and co-sleeping, some are stiffly strict about no-sugar diet, and some don't believe in vaccinations. We are all amazingly different, in many ways, and parenting is no exception.

It is okay to have such different approaches. In fact, it can be quite useful. Parenting styles are brilliant tools for being able to judge the extent of craziness in some people. You might want to use this tool if you are otherwise unsure or unable to tell if your new acquaintance is cool, alright, a bit wacky in a charming sort of way, or a total nutcase. And we all have our own, personal, built-in threshold of how much madness we are happy to deal with. I always try to understand. I honestly do. And sometimes, I even take something back from other approaches, having compared them to mine and having perhaps realized where I could improve what I am doing. But then, there are some cases where I just know, very quickly, that the person is soooo different that she or he lives on a different planet, somewhere in the galaxy far, far away, so far that no translation into any of my Earth languages would ever be possible. In such cases, I just smile and wave. Smile and wave.

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