I am a born and bred Londoner. I love to complain about the weather, my fair skin burns if I so much as look out the window on a sunny day, and I mainline tea as though it were oxygen. In short, I am very, very British. Since moving over a decade ago, I have made North America my home and appreciate so many of the sights and sounds that seem foreign and exotic to me. I've also realized there are more than a few things British moms do that American moms should try.
I have also realized that there are many untrue myths circulating about Brits and the way they parent that need to be addressed. While I hate to be the bearer of bad news, the sort of foppish posh Englishman played by Hugh Grant in countless romantic comedies does not — I repeat, does not — represent normal British. Like, at all. The majority of British parents don't hire uniformed nannies or pack their children off to boarding school as soon as their little ones can string a sentence together, either. (Although, I'll admit, there are times when that sounds nice.)
There also seems to be some strange untruth circulating that British parents swear in front of their children. I have actually found the opposite to be true. In fact, there are many words English people would never say in front of their children, that Americans feel quite comfortable repeating.For instance, “crap” (which is thought of as quite rude in England) and “fart” (which in Britain is usually replaced with charming euphemisms like “pop off” “blast off” and “fluff”) are words we wouldn't say in front of our kids.
What I have discovered, after caring for countless children as a nanny and teacher and now as a mother, is that we can learn a lot from each other. Regardless of how different things may be "across the pond," there are a few things British moms do that American mothers should at least try, up to and including the following:
They're Seen By A Midwife
It’s very uncommon for pregnant women to be seen by an OB-GYN in England, unless the mother is at high risk or needs interventions. Instead, almost all moms are seen by a midwife who, will also visit you and your new baby at home after the birth. This specialized, in-home aftercare often results in new moms spending less time in hospital and being able to go home sooner after birth.
I gave birth in Canada, where the waiting list for a midwife greatly exceeded my actual pregnancy. Ugh.
They Use Gas And Air During Labor
Laboring moms in Britain are offered "gas and air" to deal with the pain of childbirth. Gas and air is Entonox, a drug (sometimes called laughing gas) that can reduce pain when inhaled. A definite advantage to using this method of pain relief is that the mother is totally in control of the administration of the drug. It also wears off fairly quickly, allowing women to tailor its use to their contractions and individual pain tolerance.
They Have Mandatory, Paid Maternity Leave
Standard statutory maternity leave in the UK is 52 weeks, which includes payment of 90% of the mothers wages up to a maximum payout for 39 weeks. The leave can be shared between partners, and many companies top employees up to their full pay.
It’s quite unusual for moms to return to work before their leave runs out, so many British moms enjoy a full year at home with their baby before returning to work.
They Nap On The Go
When I first moved away from England and started work for an American family as a nanny, I was quite surprised at how regimented their child's naps were. They expected me to stay close to home with their little one, so every nap time could be spent at home, with a routine to follow that seemed very similar to bedtime.
In the UK, moms take their babies out in their strollers (or buggies as we call them), go about their daily business and errands, and let their children just sleep on the go. In my experience, this seems to result in a slightly less restful sleep for the child, but a whole lot more freedom for the mother.
They Consider Bedtime To be Sacred
Even though naps are less regimented than in the states, bedtime is sacred. British parents really value their adult time once the children are asleep, and most English parents stick to a fairly strict (and early to Americans) bedtime, even if this means moms and dads don't get as much time to play with their children after work.
They Can Take Their Kids To Pubs
Pubs in the UK are incredibly family friendly; many of them have highchairs, toys, kids menus and play centers. They are advertised as suitable for the whole family, so it's very common to see babies and small children enjoying their Sunday roast dinner in a pub with their parents. One of my favorite things to do when I go home to London, is to visit a gastropub and have a delicious meal with my friends. Now that we're all becoming parents, this means the kids can come along, too.
They Involve Grandparents
Of course many grandparents like to be involved in caring for their grandchildren the world over, but in Britain there is a tradition for mothers to return to work part-time initially, and for the grandparents to care for the children a couple of days a week. This cuts down on expensive daycare costs and allows children to learn from the older generation, forging strong family relationships along the way.
My own mother often laments (rather loudly) that she isn't able to participate the way most British grandparents do, because I live so far away. #momguilt
They Tell It Like It Is
British parents are kind to their children, just like American parents, but we tend to be a little more honest. If shown a child’s drawing of a flower that looks more like an alien, British parents will often tell the truth and say something along the lines of, “It doesn't really look like a flower. Try adding petals and a stalk."
Rather than heaping undeserving praise on our children, we tend to be a little more critical and certainly expect quite a lot from children. I have found, especially as a teacher, that children are far more capable and resilient than many adults give them credit for.
They Handle Birthday Parties Differently
In England, children's birthday parties are quite different from the celebrations stateside. For one, small children's celebrations are usually confined to a party in the home, with a few friends. The biggest difference, however, is in the opening of gifts. In the UK, it is expected that presents will be opened in private, after the party has essentially ended. Then the child can send their thank you letters.
The idea of opening presents in front of everyone fills many English people (including this nervous mom) with dread. We also don't serve the birthday cake at the party. We cut slices wrapped in napkins and put them in “goody bags” to be sent home at the end of the event.
They Talk To Their Kids As If They Were Adults
Once children are out of the infant stage, it’s quite uncommon to hear British parents talking in baby talk to their children. We often use the correct terms for most things, and have fairly grown-up conversations with our children. My friend just had a very involved conversation with her 4-year-old toddler about dinosaurs and evolution, for example.
They Don't Spank
Spanking (or smacking, as we call it) is really frowned upon in the UK. I personally don't believe in corporal punishment at all, and think it's destructive to the parent-child bond and has zero effect on behavior management. However in the UK, spanking can actually be illegal, especially if it leaves a mark or any damage to the skin.
They Use Public Transit
The UK is a pretty small country. In fact, many single states in America are larger than all of Britain combined, including Alaska, Texas and California. Because our towns and cities are tightly packed with a population of more than 65 million, for many people amenities and attractions are within walking distance. Most people still have a car, but they are often used less frequently than in the United States. Instead, many moms relying on public transit.
They Have Access To The Best Kids' Literature
Of course, every nation thinks its own unique cultural contribution is the finest. Make no mistake, America has some great literary talents. However, the UK really has produced some of the best children’s authors and fictional characters in all of history. We gave you such genius creative minds such as CS Lewis, JM Barrie, Roald Dahl, and JK Rowling. So, you know, you're welcome.
The longer I spend entrenched in motherhood, the more I firmly believe there is no right way to parent. So, in my opinion it can't hurt to see how parents from different countries and cultures approach the hardest job in the world, and see if we can't share our best practices.