An American Father in Slovenia

/ by Noah Charney

With a Slovenian mother in the White House, this Trumpy era may be the first time that American parents have wondered about the Slovenian approach to raising children. To say that there is a national style of parenting at first might sound overly reductive, not least to assume that Melania’s dynamic with Barron matches that description. 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 would like to do 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 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 implement at home, the Slovenian approach is worth considering.

I have been happily married for a decade to a Slovenian goddess, and have two daughters, aged 3 and 5. I have also become friendly with a number of specialists in schooling and child development and parent-child dynamics on, as the locals like to say, “the sunny side of the Alps.” Feeling in a reasonably good position to weigh in on the Slovenian approach, I examined my own experiences and also polled a handful of local experts. 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 have a better dynamic with their teens. They appear regularly on TV talk shows and sell out theaters for their workshops. While teens are their focus, I found their book hugely helpful for my preschoolers, too. The 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 both empowering for the children and it 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.” This is a powerful potion that works regularly, but it seems to me just like generally good advice. Is it particularly Slovenian?

It is in the sense that this more enlightened and liberal approach to parenting is in stark contrast to the more traditional, patriarchal and authoritarian method that was generally prevalent in Yugoslavia (and this is the context in which Melania grew up). But many of the world’s countries had a similar old-fashioned parent-child dynamic. Ivana Gradišnik, the head of Slovenia’s branch of Familylab, says “The main feature in everyday life of Slovenian parents is tha fact that there are no more ‘universal rules’ or guidelines or even values for us to lean on. No more is there one and only outside authority to go by. Parents have to decide – decide for themselves – and then take responsibility for their decisions and the consequences of those decisions. And that is difficult.”

In search of other answers, I found myself considering what Slovenian parents will often ask me, to highlight for them the differences in American approaches. One of the first things that Slovenians notice about Americans, whether they know Americans in person or gather data from popular culture, television and film, is a tendency on the part of American parents to overpraise. Past generations of Slovenian parents, particularly during the time of Yugoslavia, tended to under-praise. There was an accepted 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, and many Slovenes look back in retrospect and say they received far too little of it. This meant that they felt rather 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 not sure what is genuine. If every scribble that a child makes is “the best thing ever,” then how is the child to distinguish when they do a particularly good drawing and put a lot of effort into it, as opposed to something that they are only half engaged in? The current generation of Slovenian parents strikes a nice balance, it seems, recognizing that children thrive on positive reinforcement, but still thinking that American parents tend to overdo it.

There is also a distinction in competitiveness, which is more about parents that children. Slovenian children may engage in sports, but this is extracurricular and is not linked to their school system. As a result, there is none of the school dynamic of the athletes at the top of the social food chain and the rest of the student body cheering for them. Sport is distinct from school, and so there is far less parental engagement. This extends to other aspects of the projection that some parents have upon the successes of their children. During Yugoslavia, most of the country was part of a single comfortable but working-class social order, as might be expected in a socialist country. Just about everyone had the same clothes, bags, shoes, toys and so there was little room for kids, or their parents (as is often the case), to showboat their distinctive social status. A relative-in-law of mine recalls one schoolmate who showed up one day with a “fancy” pencil case that had been purchased in Austria, and how she was envious, but this was about as extreme as it got. Materialism has infiltrated Slovenia as one of America’s primary exports, but only in the last two decades. Here it is present but not ubiquitous.

Since there is far less of the discrepancy between the have and have-nots than there is in the United States, just about everyone in the country lives reasonably comfortably and would self-describe as content. There is something to be said for contentment, and it is a more modest approach than Americans tend 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. There are very few Slovenian who are completely destitute, and also very few who would consider themselves on top of the world and living the life of their dreams. There is a more modest expectation of what life should bring, and this is reflected in an upbringing in which you don't see the American insistence on their children achieving superlatives, but where being content and cared for are the priorities.

Parenting in the US can involve nervousness about universities and the job market that result in pressure on children at a very early age—the cliché about parents worried about their kids getting into the “right kindergarten” that will start a chain reaction leading, the thinking must go, to inevitably success thirty years later. This is almost entirely absent in Slovenia. There are also only a couple of universities in this 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. There is an argument to be made for skipping university altogether, and there are relatively few professions here that you cannot engage in, if you do not have an undergraduate degree. There many Slovenian students with master's degrees or even PhDs who are unable to find work here. So, the argument that you must to do well in school, that it is an imperative for you to have a good future, is much harder to reinforce here, because it simply is 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 tend to force on their children about doing well in school, but the negative is that it is hard for parents to explain to children why they must study hard.

Slovenian fathers are among the top in Europe in terms of the amount of time they spend with their children, which is a holdover from Yugoslavia. During socialist times, most women worked regularly alongside men, so stay-at-home moms was not a thing. Ajda Kristina Vučajnk, a Montessori-trained kindergarten teacher, explains: “After my brother and I were born, my mother put her career of a physiotherapist on hold and remained at home to look after us and tend to a big garden. That was rather unusual, because at that time in Yugoslavia, a significant percentage of women had jobs and housewives belonged mainly to agricultural households. Children as young as three months were usually sent to day-care for up to ten hours per day. My mother still remembers how the villagers, especially the women, viewed her with contempt and talked behind her back, when she would take the pair of her small children for a walk to the village park in the middle of a weekday.” Caring for children is most often evenly divided between the parents, though with grandparents often lending much more of a hand than is the case in the US. But while fathers put in the hours, it is the mothers who are most proactively interested in parenting approaches. Ajda continues, “mothers remain the main purchasers of literature and lectures on upbringing, as well as the main participants in the activities, where children are accompanied by a parent. Fathers do not decide to join the lectures as often and even fewer attend meetings with their child's teacher in the kindergarten (when they do, they usually accompany the mother). In my seven-year experience, I held a parent-teacher meeting with a father only twice.”

It is unusual, from an American perspective, that Slovenian children expect to live at home until they marry. Few leave home sooner, largely for financial reasons, but also out of tradition. This is true throughout mainland Europe, but seems odd from an American perspective, where children almost always leave the house at age 18 or soon after. There is a danger to this, that Slovenian children become over-reliant on family taking care of them (in terms of cooking and laundry and household chores). In Italy there’s a term for a son who wishes to forever be taken care of by his mother (sometimes even after he marries), a mamone. I know a few in Slovenia like this. To counteract this, self-aware parents take action. Tina Deu is a mother of three and writes an enormously popular parenting blog in Slovenia. She describes putting her fifteen-year-old to work in the summer and sending him to the bank to open his own account. “There is no shortage of 30-somethings who still live in their childhood room,” she says, “or who move only as far as the top floor of the family house, so Mama can still wash their undies and iron their shirts.” In order to help her children become more independent in a context in which it is likely that they will remain at home until adulthood, or possibly beyond, Tina insists that her kids make do for themselves whenever possible. They are on their own to take the bus to sports practice, for instance, instead of the parents acting as a taxi service. Slovenian families will be concentrated in one area far more often than Americans would, and there is a tendency to have grandparents who are much more active in the daily lives of their grandchildren. Grandparents in Slovenia tended to have children earlier than their American counterparts, by a decade or more, so it is not uncommon to have a grandmother aged 50, a mother aged 30, and 5-to-10-year-old children, all under one roof or in one neighborhood. The joys and burdens of childcare are balanced more evenly between grandparents and parents. But as Tina says, “It’s a beautiful thing that families are close here, but it also has a negative side. Not only for the kids, who can be less independent, but also for parents, whose lives are too tightly dictated by the children for too long. Parents need to have fun, too.” I see this tension in myself, as well. My liberal American-ness tells me that I should always prioritize quality time spent with my children over myself. But I see there’s a balance to be struck. I was playing with my daughters so much that they almost never played with each other or used their imaginations. They were over-reliant on me and my wife. I had to overcome my ingrained guilt and now, for at least thirty minutes a day, our girls have to play on their own. Of course, they do so happily, and their relationship is stronger for not always having a parent as a third party. It appears to be better for all, children and parents, if my American habit recedes a bit and I am a touch more laissez-faire, taking a bit more time for myself and my wife.

Slovenian parenting these days is heavily influenced by foreign cultural trends, and so is not all that different in approach from what you’d find elsewhere. But I admire the fact that fathers spend more time with their children than just about any nationality in Europe. While some children can take too long before becoming independent, due to living at home longer and the proximity of caring relatives, the closeness of families is something Americans have only rarely. It is interesting to see the change from socialist Yugoslavia, when everyone worked and it wasn’t the done thing to stay at home and focus on children. Now the more American approach of perhaps even over-focusing on children, at the expense of the mother-father dynamic or work or leisure time, is encroaching. I’m delighted to learn a thing or two from my adopted homeland, and think my children will be the better for this more international approach.

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Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at www.noahcharney.com or by joining him on Facebook.


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