As an older millennial, summer camp, sports leagues and a part-time job in high school color my memories of growing up American, and they are also coloring the way I view child-rearing in Spain. I am mother to a two-year-old who can scroll though my phone and am expecting my second little boy this summer, so I fully expect to be plunged back into the strange world of teetering between two cultures when it comes to the Spanish way of life and raising children in Spain as an American.
The differences between parenting in Spain and parenting in the US are stark, and it begins with the fact that Spaniards tend to begin their families later. When I got married right as I turned 30, many of my friends back home were already parents or expecting; I was the first of my group of American girlfriends in Spain to have a baby, and many of my Spanish friends aren’t even in serious relationships, let alone thinking about starting families.
But the differences don’t end there! The Spanish way of life and habits of Spanish parents continue to surprise many expat parents abroad.
Spanish way of life: Ear piercing
Most Spanish families pierce baby girls’ ears while they are a few weeks old or even at the hospital. This is most due to the fact that the baby will not remember the pain, but also allows the abuelas in your neighborhood to coo over a newborn without asking the gender.
Your baby in Spain must be weighed at the same time every week
As my son grew, I became obsessed with knowing how much weight he had gained each week. It became a fun guessing game with my mother-in-law, who would take the bus to my home every Wednesday to weight him at the nearby pharmacy. “Remember,” she said after a doctor’s appointment, “that you should always bring him into the pharmacy at the same time on the same day of the week and in the same clothing. That way, you get the most accurate reading.”
Imagine the horror when Enrique pooped shortly before the 5:30 pm weigh in and soiled his clothes!
Perfume and perfect outfits
Babies in Spain wear perfume and outfits that clasp, snap and buckle, a stark contrast to how babies in the US dress. I opted for buying newborn clothes that were soft, durable and well-priced. Most of the time, he was in a zip-up pajamas in the cooler months and onesies that snapped at the crotch in the summer; the beautiful pieces sewn and embroidered for him, which I saved for special occasions and outings.
Thankfully, all of the baby perfumes were re-gifted as soon as we discovered Enrique has sensitive skin and is prone to dermatitis. A baby who pooped himself still smells like poop, even masked by a thick veil of Tous perfume for newborns.
Breastfeeding, solid foods, and when kids eat
I breastfed Enrique exclusively until he was four months old, something I felt pressured to do. It was time-consuming and he had reflux, but on the flipside I could do it anywhere without scrambling to find a microwave or shelling out money for formula. We moved on to cereal at four months and solids at six.
In the US, children typically begin with vegetables and then fruit, whereas in Spain it’s the other way around (Enrique’s first foods were apple and banana, but mine were carrots and peas)
My son loves child-friendly favorites like fish sticks and ice cream, but he eats liver patties, garbanzos and is capable of finishing a jar of olives (probably from all of the banderillas I ate while pregnant!). His favorite foods are fish and yogurt, which I was never given as a kid.
Bedtime is also part of the Spanish way of life
Spanish children seem to go to bed extremely late. My friends gasp when I tell them that my bedtime was 7:30 p.m. when I was a kid, after which I could read until 8pm but that lights out was to be adhered to – no matter how light it was in the summer
In casually mentioning that my kiddo is usually in bed by 9pm, I am met with bewildered looks. But when does he eat?! Around 7:30 or 8pm, right after his bath. Don’t you lay with him until he falls asleep? Nope. He was not a good crib sleeper, but he is pretty good about going down at night.
My biggest thing is that my son’s designated naptime at daycare is from 1-3 pm, which is when we’d ideally like to be outside on cooler days or taking friends up on plans for meals. I am moderately strict on the weekends with both naptimes and bedtimes, even when there are some tears. We also let him sleep late on the weekends. There is nothing better than me waking up on my own at 8am and having a cup of coffee and mindlessly scrolling through Facebook.
This, of course, goes out the window when he’s with his grandparents, who only put him to bed when he’s falling over.
Having the TV on all the time
Spanish households seem to have the TV on at every moment of the day, and my kiddo asks for Pocoyo the moment he’s lucid in the morning. I find it insane that he knows how to scroll and switch videos on YouTube and recognizes a cartoon by its jingle.
Family roles and relying on grandparents more
When I was a child, we lived five hours away from both sets of grandparents, so my earliest memories of being at home are with my mother. When she comes, 100% of her energy is focused on my son, and he knows Grandma speaks English. And when we’re in Sevilla, we can often have a night away with friends since the abuelos are practically counting down to our next trip the second we’ve boarded a train!
Grandparents are very involved in Spain, particularly because both parents tend to work. It’s common to see grandparents pushing strollers, at the pediatrician and hanging out at the park, particularly outside of major urban areas. Some of my friends’ children do not even go to daycare but spend all day with their abuelos. I am thankful that we can afford childcare, as it is teaching my son independence and manners, which my mother taught us at home in a pre-Netflix world.
The abuelos almost force feed him chocolate and homemade pudding and allow the TV to babysit when they’re around. Still, I appreciate the closeness they’ve developed with Enrique and their desire to be involved or let this frazzled mom go have a haircut in relative peace.
Advice for being an expat parent abroad
Spain for kids is a great country, but being a parent is a hard job, no matter how you slice it. It takes patience, humbling and some commiserating. Add to that cultural and often linguistic barriers, and you’ll find that the highs are extremely high, and the lows can feel crushing.
I often ask other expat parents in Spain for their advice and ideas for exploiting the fact that my children will grow up as not only bilingual but bi-cultural - and likely without noticing the difference between the two. It can be a juggle but ultimately I feel that the most important is to keep my children happy and their basic necessities met.