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To say that there is a national style of parenting in every country sounds overly reductive. But there have been a series of top-selling books on just this concept, from Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe, about raising children the French way (which is primarily about parents doing whatever they want and the children happily conforming and following the lead), to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother about Chinese parenting (where an authoritarian insistence on practice and achievement is thought to be beneficial in the long run, even if difficult for children from moment to moment) to Rina Mae Acosta’s The Happiest Kids in the World about Dutch parenting habits (how parents can help their kids by doing less). With a demonstrable audience of parents curious to know how it’s done abroad, and what tips they might glean from those other cultures, the Slovenian approach is worth considering.
I have been happily married to a Slovenian woman for a decade. We have two daughters, ages 3- and 5-years-old, and we live in what I consider just about the best place to raise children: Kamnik, Slovenia, a small town capped by three castles (and six microbreweries!). It’s clean and safe and charming — imagine a Slavic version of a gee-whiz Norman Rockwell town. As a dad with two young daughters, I’ve become friendly with a number of specialists here in schooling, child development, and parent-child dynamics. By talking with them, along with watching my wife’s approach to raising our girls, I’ve learned a lot about Slovenian parenting over the past few years. Do they have a national parenting style? I would argue so. And these are five lessons American parents can take from it:
1. Shift responsibility and consequence for decisions onto the children
When I started exploring the idea of Slovenian parenting, my first port of call was the book Connect to Your Teenager: A Guide to Everyday Parenting by Leonida and Albert Mrgole. The Mrgoles are a hugely popular Slovenian therapist couple specializing in helping parents enjoy a better dynamic with their teens. Their primary lesson is shifting responsibility and consequence for decisions away from the parents and onto the children, so that children recognize that they are responsible for their own destinies.
This is not only empowering for the kids but relieves the pressure of being authoritarian from the parents. It helps children recognize that the choices they make result in consequences that they will either be happy with, or not. The key phrase is to offer your child a choice, i.e. “You can choose to do your homework and go to the concert this weekend, or you can choose not to do your homework and therefore you will not be able to go to the concert. It’s up to you.”
2. Don’t overdo it with the praise
One of the first things that Slovenians notice about American parents, whether it’s from Americans they know in person or have discerned from popular culture, is a tendency to overpraise. Past generations of Slovenian parents, particularly during the time of Yugoslavia, tended to under-praise. There was an acceptable level that children were expected to attain and sustain, which involves good behavior and also doing reasonably well in school. Achieving this expected level was not normally deemed praiseworthy. It was an expectation, so praise was doled out in moderation if at all. Today, many Slovenes look back on childhood and say they received far too little of it, and that they felt under-supported.
On the other hand, Slovenians often mistrust the enthusiasm and praise lavished by Americans, whether rating a local pizza place or talking about the achievements of their children. They see Americans as praising too much, with too enthusiastic a hand, and as a result, they are unsure what is genuine. The current generation of Slovenian parents strikes a nice balance, recognizing that children thrive on positive reinforcement but still thinking that American parents overdo it.
3. Aim for a Buddhist-level of contentment
During the Yugoslav era, most of the country was part of a single comfortable but working-class social order, as might be expected in a socialist country. Everyone had the same clothes, bags, shoes, and toys, and so there was little room for kids or parents (as is often the case) to showboat their distinctive social status. Materialism has infiltrated Slovenia as one of America’s primary exports, but only in the last two decades. Still, its presence is not ubiquitous.
Since there is far less of the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots than in the United States, just about everyone in the country lives comfortably, within reason, and would self-describe as “content.” There is something to be said for contentment, and it is a more modest approach than Americans seem to have. Americans tend to feel that they are either on top of the world or miserable, and if they are miserable then someone else is likely to blame. Slovenians, on the other hand, have a more modest expectation of what life should bring and this is reflected in their parenting. You don’t see the American insistence on, some might say obsession with, their children achieving superlatives. Instead, ensuring their kids are content and cared for are the top parenting priorities.
4. Curb the competitiveness
Parenting in the US can involve a general nervousness about college, the job market, and a child’s future prospects in life. That fear often causes parents to put excessive pressure on their children at a very early age. The cliché about parents being so worried about their kids getting into the “right kindergarten” is almost entirely absent in Slovenia.
There are only a couple of universities in the country, and the state of the economy and job market is such that having a university or even post-graduate degree is no guarantee that a Slovenian will find interesting, ready, and gainful employment. So, the argument that you must to do well in school, that it is imperative for you to have a good future, is much harder to reinforce here ⏤ it’s simply not a universal truth the way it is in the US. There are also almost no private high schools and the universities are state institutions. This means that there is nothing really to compete for, in terms of doing well in school. This alleviates the pressure that American parents put on their children to do well in class. There is a negative side, however, to the lack of academic competition ⏤ it’s harder for parents to explain to children why they must study hard.
5. Encourage independence
It is unusual, from an American perspective, that Slovenian children expect to live at home until they marry. And while there is a danger that Slovenian children will become over-reliant on the family taking care of them (in terms of cooking and laundry and household chores), many self-aware Slovenian parents take action to prevent it. Tina Deu is a mother of three and writes an enormously popular parenting blog in Slovenia. She describes putting her 15-year-old to work in the summer and sending him to the bank to open his own account. In order to help her children become more independent, Tina insists that her kids make do for themselves. They are on their own to take the bus to sports practice, for instance, instead of the parents acting as a taxi service. And while she admits that “there is no shortage of 30-somethings [in Slovenia] who still live in their childhood room or who move only as far as the top floor of the family house,” more Slovenian parents are working to ensure that they at least do so as independent adults.
Dr. Noah Charney is a professor of art history and best-selling author, as well as a regular contributor to the Guardian, the Washington Post, Salon, and more. He’s an American who lives in Slovenia with his wife and two daughters.