In our Motherhood Around the World series, we talked to American moms who are raising their children abroad. This week, we turned the tables and talked to nine moms who grew up abroad and are raising their children here in the United States. Here are 24 things they have found surprising about parenting in the U.S….

Lee Jensen

On food:

I had never seen cereal eaten dry as a snack before going to American playgrounds. But Cheerios seem to be a big hit with American kids. Also I had never seen such colorful snack containers and sippy cups. In Denmark, a kid’s snack would be a slice of rye bread with cheese wrapped in tinfoil or an apple straight up. I must admit that now I too have a fancy snack container collection!
—Lee Jensen, who moved from Denmark to New York

The most surprising thing for me was the lunchbox. In Japan, we take it quite seriously. Growing up, our typical lunch box would be eggs, fried chicken, vegetables — a proper meal. When I first saw my husband prepare a lunchbox for our son, it was bread, peanut butter, chips…and that was all. He assured me it was normal.
Reika Yo Alexander, who moved from Japan to New York

Sandra Ajanaku

On safety:

I was surprised by how supervised children are here. In Japan, kids go to school by themselves. As soon as children start first grade, they walk and ride trains and buses by themselves — even in Tokyo! I was surprised that in New York, my friend walks her 12-year-old son to school everyday. My son is five and in first grade, which is a ten-minute walk from here. If I let him go alone, I would be put in jail! So I walk with him to school every day.
—Reika Yo Alexander, who moved from Japan to New York

Here in the U.S., there is a huge “baby industry,” which does not exist in Romania. There’s special baby food, special baby utensils, special baby safety precautions and special baby furniture. In Romania, children eat with a regular teaspoon and drink from a regular glass. They play with toys that are not specifically made for “brain development from months 3-6.” Also, before I came here, I had never heard of babyproofing! Now I’m constantly worried about my daughter hurting herself, but my mom and friends from home just laugh at me and my obsession that bookshelves might fall.
—Arabella Hester, who moved from Romania to California

In Denmark, babies often nap outside in a big pram with warm bedding (a big no-no in the U.S.). We believe napping in the fresh air is good for babies. When it’s naptime you just find a quiet spot outside, put the baby monitor in the stroller and go back inside. This goes for people living in a house, but also for people living in apartments in Copenhagen. (Most apartment buildings have an interior courtyard where you can park your stroller for naps.) It’s common to see strollers with napping babies parked outside shops and cafés, so mom or dad can pop in for some quick shopping or meet a friend for coffee. My Danish mom friends aren’t concerned, and I’ve never heard of anything bad happening.
—Lee Jensen, who moved from Denmark to New York

When she was six months old, I took her to get her ears pierced. (That is a culture thing: ALL baby girls in Brazil get their ears pierced in the hospital when they are born.) So my Brazilian friends kept bugging me about when I was getting them pierced. But people here are pretty surprised that she “already” has earrings. I’ve also gotten dirty looks from people when they see my daughter riding her tricycle without a helmet, even though she’s only riding on our driveway. I feel the judgment!
—Ana Willenbrock, who moved from Brazil to Montana

Arabella Hester

On community:

New York is an extremely easy place for mothers to make friends. You make casual playground friends with the women you see all the time, and then, if you’re lucky, you find a kindred spirit. I made one girlfriend on the street when I cornered her and her stroller, and yelled “WHAT IS THAT?” (It was a SnoozeShade, and it’s amazing.) Another girlfriend I made when we were having picnics side-by-side with our babies in the park. I’ve certainly never made friends like this before — I literally pick these women up in the street. Motherhood is a great equalizer. You can always find something to talk about when you have a baby, and I think American women are particularly friendly.
Gemma Burgess, who moved from Hong Kong (via London and Switzerland) to New York

People here are scared to touch each other! What’s that about? When I first moved here I was hugely pregnant with a two-year-old daughter in tow. She was still getting used to the Brooklyn block system — stopping for traffic lights at every block. She’d sometimes run down the pavement without a care in the world and my heart would stop as I screamed behind her to stop. Sometimes I’d yell at people walking towards us to please stop my child. They wanted to help, but I got the impression they were all too scared to actually just grab and stop her. In the Netherlands, people would have gotten involved. I’m guessing it’s more of a liability here. Another parent suggested maybe they were worried the child would be scared (the whole stranger danger thing). But seriously? I’d rather grab a child and stop them from running onto a road than worry about behaving appropriately! We all appreciate getting help.
—Sandra Ajanaku, who moved from the Netherlands to New York

One big difference that I miss is greetings. Sometimes when I take my son to school, the teacher doesn’t even say good morning — to the kids or to us. In Japan, it’s a very important thing to greet people. You say good morning very loudly to everyone — the teacher, the traffic person, everyone you pass. It feels very good to start your day that way.
—Reika Yo Alexander, who moved from Japan to New York

I was really surprised that play dates and birthday parties in America have a specific time to start AND finish. Because I come from Brazil (where we like to party) I never thought of stipulating a time to “end” a party. For me, we always thought, “Okay, let’s go to the birthday party from the start time until the end, and who knows, it can be a two-hour party or a six-hour party!”
—Ana Willenbrock, who moved from Brazil to Montana

Nitya Karthik

On manners:

I was surprised that American children as young as one year old learn to say please, thank you, sorry and excuse me. Those things are not actively taught in India. Another difference is how parents here tend to stay away from “because I said so” and actually explain things to their children. It’s admirable the way parents will go into basic reasoning to let the child know why some things are the way they are. When I last visited Bombay, I explained to my then four-year-old about that we couldn’t buy too many things because of weight restrictions in the flight, etc. My relatives were genuinely wondering why I didn’t just stop at “no.”
—Nitya Karthik, who moved from India to New Jersey

Children in America have amazing freedom that children in Romania don’t have. Here, they are permitted to make decisions from a very young age, their opinion is asked for, and it matters. In Romania, parents and elders have more authority, and children in Romania seem better mannered. But at the same time, they might be more timid, shy and compliant. It’s a hard task for me to find the balance and raise my babies in a way that takes the best from both worlds.
—Arabella Hester, who moved from Romania to California

My family is appalled at the way my son behaves at the table. He can’t focus, he doesn’t finish his meal, he refuses to eat certain foods, etc. Here in the U.S., it is considered normal. In France, that’s considered rude. My family sometimes thinks my child is pretty spoiled and that I am a so-so parent. Yikes!
—Johanna Trainer, who moved from France to California

Something we love in New York is the sense of community! People give up their seats for pregnant ladies in the subways and buses, say “hi” on the streets and help moms with strollers get down the stairs. When I first arrived and was opening up my map in the subway, people would ask if I needed help! In the sandboxes at playgrounds, children are taught to exchange and share. That’s something that definitely isn’t taught in France.
Melanie Roüan, who moved from France to New York

Johanna Trainer

On school:

American schools try to involve the parents much more. Parents often go on class trips and to events. In Japan, there is nothing like that. We’re also really involved with homework, which is good. My parents never helped me with homework — ever!
—Reika Yo Alexander, who moved from Japan to New York

There is a total hysteria in New York about preschools and kindergartens. I am opting out of the freak out. I felt intense pressure to get my son into a preschool at two, and kept thinking “but I’m sure he’s too young.” I kept re-reading that Slate article ‘If You Are Reading This Article, Your Child Probably Doesn’t Need Preschool’ and trying to calm down when some of the playground mothers were like “YOU’RE SKIPPING TWOS? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?” I need to ignore the paranoid little voice that tells me that I’m making a giant mistake when deep down I know I’m right. Everything will be fine. It always is.
—Gemma Burgess, who moved from Hong Kong to New York

Melanie-motherhood-united states

Melanie Roüan

On fashion:

American moms are permitted to dress more casually. I recently went back to France and was surprised by how well dressed French moms were. Yoga pants are a big no-no. Even a mom of a newborn will be dressed well. For me, a person who loves yoga pants, that was stressful. And now that my son goes to a French school here in New York, I stress when I pick him up.
—Johanna Trainer, who moved from France to California

On bedtime:

Here in America, we have friends that put their kids to bed around 7pm. It can be great to have the kids go to bed early so the parents can have a glass of wine, watch a movie and relax. But I come from a country where people go out to dinner at 9:30pm at the earliest, so I still cannot get myself to have dinner before 7:30. Sometimes my two-year-old doesn’t go to bed until about 10pm if she doesn’t seem tired and doesn’t need to wake up early the next day. I don’t see why I shouldn’t spend a little more time with her playing or reading at night?
—Ana Willenbrock, who moved from Brazil to Montana


Reika Yo Alexander

On work/life balance:

In the U.S., it’s common to hire an evening babysitter now and again. In Japan, most families don’t have a babysitter. Personally, I think it’s important to spend time with your kids, but it’s okay to get some help, too. Parents need to have their own life! Here, you’re actually encouraged to go out and enjoy yourselves.
—Reika Yo Alexander, who moved from Japan to New York

My friends in Brazil have nannies and maids, which is normal in the culture. I’m a little envious! But here childcare can be very expensive. I’ve found American moms to be very practical and smart. Many things in America make your life easier and help get more work done — diaper pails, baby wipes, slings like the Baby Bjorn and Ergo, blenders, special utensils where you put a piece of fruit in it and the baby can chew on it forever. There isn’t as much gear in Brazil, and I have found these tools to be really helpful.
—Ana Willenbrock, who moved from Brazil to Montana

Gemma Burgess

On philosophy:

One of the things that surprised me the most is the extreme anxiety that goes along with parenting. Countless blog posts, forums, discussions and debates about different aspects of childrearing. There’s anxiety about breastfeeding vs. formula; co-sleeping vs. leaving the child alone in his room; homeschooling vs public schooling — I could go on and on. When I was growing up in India, these debates didn’t exist. Most parents here are so worried about making the “right” choice that the pressure can become oppressive.
—Nitya Karthik, who moved from India to New Jersey

Raising a child here seems to be guided by theories. You’re either doing attachment parenting or Ferberize/cry-it-out, etc. In practice, I think everyone is a bit in-between, but the books seem to encourage divisions among parents, especially moms. It’s daunting to raise a child in this environment! For example, two weeks ago I looked online to see whether I should wake my infant son, who had been sleeping all day. All the U.S. sites said YES, do wake the baby every three hours to feed. All French sites said NO, never wake a sleeping baby. If you don’t have a village and rely on Google, it can be confusing.
—Johanna Trainer, who moved from France to California

When we first moved here, I was given a referral for a Dutch babysitter. She told me from the get-go that U.S. parents treat their kids more like little adults, with more respect. In Holland, a child will be told quickly what she should or should not be doing. Here, there are always choices and suggestions — “Shall we go home now?” “Do you want apple juice or water?” “I think your friend might like it if you share.” Even though I like to think I’m Dutch in my approach, all three of those quotes are things I say, daily. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way.
—Sandra Ajanaku, who moved from the Netherlands to New York

Ana Willenbrock

Thank you to all these lovely mothers for sharing your perspectives!

P.S. Motherhood Around the World, including: Japan, Norway, Mexico, Northern Ireland, China, England, India, Abu Dhabi, Congo, Germany, Australia, Turkey and Chile.

(Illustration by Caitlin McGauley for Cup of Jo. Interviews by Caroline Donofrio.)