There have been a couple of books about parenting in other cultures recently that I just haven’t wanted to read. Just from the descriptions, I could tell both that the basic premise is “Americans are parenting wrong” (as if an entire nation could possibly all parent the same way) and that what they were advocating was a return to strict authoritarian parenting, which I am not interested in. This book, on the other hand, sent out a siren call.
How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood.
Hopgood is a southeast Michigan journalist who moved to Buenos Aires with her husband, also a journalist, and had her first child there. She started noticing that the Argentinean parents were breaking some of the hard and fast American parenting rules about giving children early and consistent bedtimes. She investigated further, talking to American sleep experts and her Argentinean friends and pediatrician, looking at sleep in other cultures as well. The Argentineans keep their children up late because everything happens late in Argentina – nine p.m. is typical dinner time. They say that it’s important for children to be with their families, and of course, a society that stays up so late also doesn’t get started as early in the morning as ours. The book has eleven chapters, each looking at different parenting practices and how they are treated in different cultures. Each has a primary focus on American vs. one other main culture, but other cultures are drawn in, too. She looks not only at the practices but the values that inspire them, looking at how other practices might and might not fit with typical American values, finally discussing what she took away to try with her own daughter. The sleep chapter, for example, brings in how the Western/American practice of insisting that children sleep in their own beds in their own room is quite rare globally. Americans want their children to become independent as soon as possible, and encouraging independent sleep is one way of doing that. Other cultures value togetherness more, and find the idea of leaving children and especially babies to sleep alone horrifying. Her chapters cover cultures and issues like the Chinese and early potty training, Kenyans and babywearing (aka going without strollers), the French and healthy eating, Mayans and working children, Lebanese Americans and keeping family close, Asian school success, Japanese letting children fight, Tibetans valuing pregnancy and (me forgetting the cultures) independent play & socialization by peer group, and super-involved fathers. For each issue, she looks at what she might I liked that there was a balance of attachment-parenting style issues like the babywearing and sleep schedules and things like keeping extended family close or the Japanese tolerance of children fighting that aren’t attachment parenting issues per say and that I haven’t seen discussed as often.
My shoulder hurts just thinking about her tale of trying an airport with a toddler and a ring sling, rather than any kind of two-shoulder carrier meant for older children, and I wished that she had found a Babywearing International person to consult on finding a better carrier for the purpose. However, I have finally learned, I think, how it is that babywearing cultures can keep babywearing so much longer than most Americans can manage: we are, collectively wimps. We start giving up on one-shoulder carries at about 15 pounds (this from my own wonderful babywearing advisor) and most people would consider a typical two year old too heavy to wear regularly. I know I find my thirty-pounder just too heavy. But the Kenyan mother she quotes, with a child a pound heavier, is used to carrying 50 and 60 pound sacks of grain; she considers him so light that she wouldn’t want to waste her money on a bulky stroller. I had mixed feelings about Hopgood’s conclusions from the French and eating chapter, too; she came to the conclusion that the solution is to expose children to real adult food earlier rather than later, to make time and space for eating and take it seriously – and to insist on children trying at least two bites of everything. I agree with everything except the last, based on the research of my favorite nutritionist Ellyn Satter, who advises the parents selecting the food, place and time and letting the children pick entirely how much and of what is on the table. On the topic of Asian school success, I was interested and gratified to read that it isn’t all a result of the Tiger Mother-style pushing whether or not kids are interested. Yes, there’s an element of “your success or failure reflects on the Family Honor” that doesn’t sit too well with American culture – but there’s also the aspect of Asians being convinced that success is mostly a matter of hard work, whereas American tend to believe that success comes from innate talent. The value of focusing on the effort rather than just the end result is something that has come up over and over in my research, from Montessori theories to Nuture Shock. It’s especially valuable for my family, as my son needs to know that the dyslexic label isn’t an excuse for failure but a guide to focusing his effort. And, quite curiously, I’d never heard about Japanese letting kids fight until quite recently, when I had two separate Japanese-American families talking about it. M., born in Japan but in the U.S. since high school, was shocked when she took her toddler to a Japanese play group. “They didn’t stop the children from hitting each other!” she said. K., an American who had her first child in Japan confirmed. “The schools are so strict – they just wait for the kids to start school and let them discipline them,” she said, adding that her child had a hard time attending both Japanese and American preschools, one where fighting wasn’t allowed and one where it was. But Hopgood, talking with educational experts, gives a different reason for allowing conflict: children need to learn that their behavior can upset people, and they’ll learn about real reactions best if they get to experience the real reaction. I don’t think I’d be rushing to send my child off to Japanese preschool myself with that philosophy, but at least it makes a little more sense.
The whole book is driven by curiosity and the message that there are millions of good ways to parent rather than judgment or a sense of parenting failure. I found it fascinating reading that’s light enough to be compelling and backed up with enough research (sources given!) to be legitimate.