Cross-Cultural Parenting in Guatemala: Rethinking Cultural Norms

In a few short months, I will be a first-time mom. So, like any U.S. mom-to-be, I have been doing my reading; bits of BabyWise and Attachment Parenting, WebMD, and my favorite mommy blogs are always open on my browser. I mean what new mom doesn’t want to have the Happiest Baby on the Block? I am a firm believer that our U.S. culture convinces us if we read and plan ahead of time then we will be better parents. And yet somehow I know nothing in these books or websites will totally prepare me for the birth of our first baby.

Because our baby girl will be born in Guatemala.

Cross Cultural Parenting
Image Credit: Wikipedia

What’s Normal?

Having a baby in a culture that is not my own, has forced me to re-evaluate my definition of normal. I am clearly not an expert. I am a mom-in-waiting who is observing and learning. I listen to my U.S. friends, who are becoming moms for the first time, talking about the best brand of swaddle blankets, baby monitors, and oh, how you must get Sophie the Giraffe. Like a dutiful student, I too, add it to the registry, because well, everyone else is doing it.

I spend hours scanning Babies‘R’Us and Target’s list of baby essentials.

Honey, do you think this bathtub is better? Or this one? 

He stares at the computer screen, blankly. 

They look the same.

Sometimes I laugh when I think most moms around the world have gotten by just fine without an Amazon wishlist or a fancy baby bathtub.

It’s funny how groupthink mentality affects us even as moms. Like most aspects of culture, what we see most frequently around us, becomes the new norm. But what if our normal is odd or even alarming to other cultures?

Would You Give Coffee to a Baby?

In my months of pre-motherhood if there is one thing I have learned it is that moms don’t need judgment from other moms. And I think this holds true across different cultures as well. So, if a Guatemalan mom wants to give her nine-month-old a coffee-infused sugar drink from a bottle, I have two options: I can gasp in disgust and silently judge her in my head, pointing out all of the reasons why giving that baby anything but breast milk is not good for its health or newly formed teeth, or I can take time to learn and respect that maybe for this mom, who lives in conditions where there is little access to clean water, boiling water to make coffee is the only way to ensure her little baby doesn’t get sick.

Must Read: What Cultural Norms Around Bare Feet Taught This Mother in Guatemala

You may still be alarmed that many Guatemalans do in fact give their babies coffee. That’s OK. Did you know that many Guatemalans would be shocked to see you give your baby a pacifier? Or maybe even more alarming would be to see you holding a car seat with your little one crying inside, adorned with a cute baby headband and her little bare legs poking out from her flowered onesie?  Again, this scene seems fairly normal to any U.S. parent, but to a Guatemalan mom, it’s shocking. Where is her hat? Why do you leave her in there crying? Pick that little girl up, wrap her in three blankets, get her a hat, and place her in a sling.

I’m not saying I will always dress my baby girl in a hat or that just because she cries means I won’t make her go in the car seat. Nor do I think I will give my baby coffee from a bottle, but maybe what I am offering is an invitation to re-think what is normal.

Cultural Values

Nicholas Day, the author of Baby Meets World, explains that “every society has what it intuitively believes to be the right way to raise a child.” And you can learn a lot about a culture by listening to the words parents use to describe their children. Dutch parents tend to describe their kids by how they follow routines of rest and play. U.S. parents tend to talk about their children’s intellectual development, whereas Italians talk about how kind their children are. I would bet if you were to listen in on a conversation between Guatemalan parents they would mention how polite their kids are or how polite they want them to be.

Babies as young as eight months old are taught, with their mother’s help, to greet each person when coming into a room and say good-bye to each person, kissing adults on the cheek, before leaving. Babies are brought to all social events and functions—weddings, family dinners, evenings out, etc. Babies and young kids are expected to be quiet and polite without lots of toys for entertainment or distraction.

I am used to a culture that reads books to babies weeks after being in the womb, buys toys that supposedly increase spatial reasoning and tactile development and special Einstein brain-stimulating DVDs. These things all seem normal to me. U.S. culture tends to place a high value on intelligence and independence. We want our babies to be able to talk at 10 months, walk at one year and read shortly thereafter.

Right now phrases like co-sleeping and babywearing are very trendy among U.S. moms, with whole books and blogs devoted to these very philosophies. But in Guatemala, these philosophies aren’t trendy; they are just the way things have always been. Like many developing countries around the world, Guatemalans have intuitively done what now is becoming popular in the U.S. In many Guatemalan homes, where there is a lack of literal space and resources, sleeping in the bed with mom and dad is the safest, cleanest and warmest spot in the house. And carrying your baby in a sling is often the only option for women who need both hands free to work. It keeps the baby content, close to mom, and able to breastfeed at a moment’s notice—things I hear are essentials for most newborns.

My point is not that one culture raises kids better than others, but perhaps we have more to learn from one another than realize.

Me, My Husband and a Third Culture

My husband and I get to practice this daily. He is Guatemalan and in many ways was raised quite differently than I was.  He was carried on his mom’s back for months in a brightly woven sling and can’t ever remember having kid’s books at his house. He remembers climbing trees and playing with an old tire swing, and he probably had coffee with sugar in it before he went to kindergarten. I grew up in California with a car seat, crib, and lots of tummy time. My mom decorated my room with polka-dotted wallpaper and I spent hours watching Reading Rainbow and visiting the local library. I remember drinking nothing but milk from plastic sippy cups.

Must See: How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad’s language is limited

And you know what? We both turned out fine. Happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults.

Maybe that’s the whole point in cross-cultural parenting: both ways work.

In a few short months, my husband and I are about to embark on this whole new journey of parenting. We have talked about the little things. Is getting our newborn daughter’s ears pierced important to you? Do you want her to sleep with us or in a crib? Does she always have to wear a hat? Those things usually have simple yes or no answers. The harder questions are the ones we haven’t asked yet. The ones we will learn as we go. The ones, she may in fact ask us. Because the thing in cross-cultural parenting is that she will grow up differently than how each of us did. Sometimes I hear these types of families and kids are called Third Culture Kids. I’m not one for labels, but this one kind of fits.

I am convinced that cross-cultural parenting like so many other valuable parts of life is about compromising, flexibility, and being willing to go against the norm. Maybe cross-cultural parenting is about marrying the best parts of my U.S. culture with the best parts of my husband’s Guatemalan culture and passing them on to our daughter, with the hopes of forming something new, a third culture.


  1. I loved that you chose to write about this and with such clarity! I strongly believe that every cultural practice has a reasoning and justification. One is not superior than the other, they are just different. My mother-in-law used to carry coffee in a thermos to my husband for his recess in kindergarten while my parents chose not to offer it to me as a kid. Both of us are from India and we’ve both turned out OK 🙂 I’m sure you and your husband will be great parents, now that you’ve identified that you get to choose the best of both your worlds for your child 🙂 Congratulations and good luck!

  2. Love this article! Finally someone who says: “we have our way and their have their ways, and both of these ways work”. Thank you!

  3. I think it’s a cool concept this idea of a third culture, but in my Colombian-American household we’ve taken a kind of different approach to our dueling cultural backgrounds. We just explain to our son that when we’re in Bogota we do things one way because that works there, in the US we do them another and if he wants he can choose either at home, or even look to other world cultures for ways of being that suit him and his values (which try to influence pretty heavily lol).

  4. Great column. I live in Senegal. I got tired of a sore back using the “ergonomic” baby bjorn and decided to tie my baby on my back like the Senegalese do. What a difference! I can finally stand up straight with my chest open. There’s a reason people have been doing this forever!

  5. Great essay, Michelle. You’re wise to have discussed some of these culturally-biased preferences BEFORE your child arrived. In my case, I was so excited about being pregnant that I never considered some of the issues my husband and I would later face. Even today, with our kids are at elementary school age, we still have to negotiate our different cultures, sometimes opting for one or the other, depending on the situation and where we are at the time. Like Casey, when we’re in Turkey, we often say, “Well, that’s how it’s done here so while we’re visiting grandma, we’re going to follow Turkish style”. I’ve learned to be more comfortable with the more hands-on displays of affection in Turkey but it definitely took some getting used to. 🙂

  6. Amen sister! I’ve learned more about how bizarre some of the things Americans do can seem to others living in another culture than the other way around. It’s amazing how something initially strange can become your new normal. I’m just so impressed you realized this all BEFORE the baby was born! And I loved Nicholas Day’s book too. Should be required reading for new moms Really helps to realize the extent of parenting and that we all turn out OK despite it all.


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