I Tried Parenting Like The English For A Week
I’m not sure when I officially became an Anglophile, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be British. Fortunately for me, when I was 16 I met an English guy and married him five years later, thus taking my love of English culture to its logical conclusion.
When we had our first child last year, I can’t tell you the thrill it was for me to know that she is an English citizen by birth. (She has both American and British passports.) Although she spent the first year of her life in my home state of North Carolina, I was eager to immerse her in the real British child experience. So it made sense that I'd want to try my hand at British parenting.
But what does British parenting actually entail? To find out, I asked my sisters-in-law and my English friends what elements of English parenting stood out to them. One of my English friends said, “Traditional English parenting is about getting the nanny to do the parenting whilst the parents go to balls (or work, if not upper- class). Also, children should be seen and not heard. And there should never be any books written about parenting — that's what nannies are for. Like Mary Poppins.” Though that might be a stereotypical idea of British parenting, it's also a somewhat outdated one. I discovered the modern British parent operates under a few other ideas.
For my week-long experience of being a real British “mum,” I set out to incorporate several key approaches to parenting I gleaned from my research on British parenting blogs: not worrying about childproofing, not bragging about my daughter, and practicing “negative politeness" (essentially, not talking to strangers in public and operating under the assumption that they'd rather just be left alone).
“Traditional English parenting is about getting the nanny to do the parenting whilst the parents go to balls. Also, children should be seen and not heard. And there should never be any books written about parenting — that's what nannies are for. Like Mary Poppins.”
I also planned take a more laid-back approach to child-rearing as a whole, including not worrying about swear words or how much sugar she’s taking in. Peppa Pig would be on our TV screen a ton, I’d make sure to cook British meals, and I’d try breastfeeding in public (as it seems to be generally accepted in the United Kingdom).
Day 1: Long Live The Baby
We started out the day with our usual routine: I let my daughter play in my bedroom while I tried to muster up the energy to get out of bed. Usually I take her into the bathroom and then living room with me as we get our day started, but this morning, in the spirit of British hands-off parenting, I left her in my bedroom alone for a few minutes.
My partner and I don’t have our bedroom baby-proofed, so I was a little hesitant to let her be alone. In fact, I couldn’t help but have a glance around to make sure there wasn’t anything there that could hurt her. Later in the day, she wandered into her bedroom on her own, and I purposefully kept myself from following her in there. It was interesting to see her feel so comfortable with her own independence, and I felt like it was good for the both of us.
Later, while we were outside, she fell and scraped her knee. I posted on Instagram about how well she took the fall, until I realized that was technically bragging. I realized I pretty much always bragged about my daughter on social media, which made me realize how quick American moms are to post those weekly updates on all the new things our babies are doing.
Day 2: Peppa Pig Comes To America
I knew about the Peppa Pig frenzy in the United Kingdom from my sisters-in-law and nieces who live there. But it seemed the pesky little piglet has made a name for herself in the States, too: that day, I saw a promotion for an upcoming live Peppa Pig show at a local venue, as well as a Facebook ad for Peppa Pig mini-books at Chick-Fil-A.
I found some clips of Peppa Pig on YouTube, and put it on the telly for my daughter to watch for the first time. She was totally enthralled and let out several little giggles while she watched. "How does this happen?," I thought as I watched her mesmerized by the child-like animation and simple plot lines. Parents will never know.
I also was getting the hang of British slang, such as using the word “nappy” for diaper. So was my daughter: in fact, at one point, I exclaimed to her, “Time to change your nappy!” and she happily followed me into her room to do it. But maybe she just thought a nappy was a new toy.
Day 3: Lost in Translation
We went out to “the shops” — as the Brits would say — to find some shoes for her to wear to her first birthday party. We also popped into Chick-Fil-A for those Peppa Pig mini books. I mean, how could I resist?
When I was telling someone about how my daughter loves walking behind her stroller and pushing it along with me, I used the word “push chair,” which is what the English would generally call it, and the person thought I was talking about a shopping cart. I didn’t bother correcting them.
Day 4: Politeness Theory as Parenting Theory
Usually, if my daughter cries about something, I’m pretty quick to comfort her. Since I stay at home, she’s never had to be without me for a long period of time, so we're not used to being separated.
On Day 4, however, my friend came over with her son to watch my daughter so I could get some deep cleaning done around the house. At first, I just shut the bathroom door to let her play in the living room, but that clearly wasn’t working. She hated not being able to see me and come in the bathroom so she could “play” with the cleaning stuff like mama was, which of course, was a huge deterrent to me actually getting any cleaning done.
She cried and cried, but I tried to keep a stiff upper lip. I thought of the British theory of "negative politeness," which basically means just leaving someone alone when they are upset, and I left her alone during her little ordeal, not coming out to calm her.
Eventually, my friend took her with her son to the park to play and she quickly got over her separation anxiety. I’m not sure if it was negative politeness or the promise of going to the park, but she calmed down, and while it was hard for me to hear her cry without saying anything to her, I didn't feel mean or like a bad mom for it.
Day 5: A Full English Fry-Up
Having an English husband means I’m familiar with English cuisine and often incorporate it into my cooking at home, too. Breakfast is a favorite of ours, and there’s nothing quite like a traditional English fry-up in the morning, which generally includes eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried mushrooms, toast, and tomato. It went over very well with my daughter, as she loves eggs. While she didn't seem to be a huge fan of the mushrooms, the baked beans were messy but definitely a hit.
Day 6: Breastfeeding in public
I’d gathered from the many English mums I knew that it’s generally acceptable for women to publicly breastfeed in England. When we're in public, I usually opt to breastfeed in my car, but I decided to nurse while we were out at a coffee shop. Thankfully, I didn't get any comments from strangers, but I definitely had to overcome my own anxiety about public breastfeeding, as I had only previously done it once or twice before.
Although I only ended up breastfeeding my daughter for a few minutes, afterwards I felt a major confidence boost for having overcome the fear of what other people might think. No matter what anyone might have thought in the coffee shop, I walked away from the experience of public breastfeeding proud — and not totally opposed to doing it again.
Day 7: Chill Pill
My daughter isn’t speaking actual words right now, but she says "mama" and "dada" with loads of babbling to herself and others. The interesting thing is that she is cognitive and understands tons more words like “hands,” “belly,” “toys,” and more. My partner and I don’t generally use swear words in our everyday speech, but we've been known to let one out here and there, and we’ve been conscious to not say them in front of our daughter.
In the spirit of British Parenting Week, however, I challenged myself to not be so conscientious about that. (According to one 2009 survey, 9 out of 10 parents swear in front of their children, making it as much of a British tradition as an afternoon cup of tea.) I don't know if my daughter hearing me swear actually had any effect on her, but I appreciated the opportunity to be a bit more laid-back about the language I use around her. It made me realize that taking a little “chill pill” like the British do definitely helps to minimize the overwhelming “mom guilt" that we Americans feel.
I’m definitely prepared to take on these approaches toward raising my daughter, especially because we’re preparing to move to England next year. By this time next year, I won’t just be trying out these ideas for a week at a time, but we’ll be totally immersed in British culture. I can’t say that I'll totally abandon many typically American ways of parenting, but I also know from this experiment that it won’t take me long to feel right at home raising my daughter in England.