Children and Parenting
Kids: How Biology and
Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children by Meredith Small Anchor
Meredith F. Small, a Cornell
anthropologist, picks up where she left of in her study of how different
cultures raise their babies in her book, Our Babies, Ourselves, with a
similar process examining how different cultures raise young children.
In this book, Meredith Small the parent has a stronger voice; a
welcome voice that invites the reader into a process of understanding
their own parenting by looking at what parents around the world are doing.
Much of what we accept as only "natural" in raising children are
anything but considering what is done in the rest of the world.
"Milestones" are also culturally defined.
For instance, one milestone centers on the child feeling safe away
from his or her parents (getting over separation anxiety).
This milestone doesn't even have a meaning in most cultures as
children are never far away fronm their parents.
Indeed, much of what we do as we raise our children, a theme of her
previous book as well, is in defiance of biology, of what babies and young
children were biologically designed to have happen to them as they grew to
In fact, in parenting as
in all human behaviors, the dictates of biology are often ignored, denied,
or overridden for all sorts of social or cultural reasons.
The way we bring up children, in fact, often reflects nmore about
our soical history and our folkways and our traditions than what babies
and children might need and expect.
She offers her book as a
different kind of parenting book noting that the recent flood or parenting
books from a host of experts has scant scientific evidence (see ) and that
all those books are from "experts" within a partcular culture
and therefore reflect this cultures values.
Pediatricians accept the same cultural maxims as do the rest of us.
By examining other cultures, the author encourages, parents can
discover what beliefs they have about raising children are merely cultural
and which are their own. They
can also explore what things held to be good for children in this culture
are good in a larger, more universal sense.
Her exploration is fascinating
and challenging. Schooling, for instance, the very idea that strangers or
nonfamily adults should watch and instruct children is an unacceptable
idea to most of the world's parents.
"American kids also differ from other cultures in that they
are institutionalized early." Family, especially older siblings, are
the people who take care of the children all day with adults always close
at hand. Ms. Small
weaves her own experience as a parent with a young daughter through the
discussions of parenting in other cultures.
Both day care and preschool trouble her.
There are few parallels either in history or other cultures.
What will come of these two experiments? Noting that all institutions have agendas she states,
"We have to live with the socialization process that the institution
How children learn is
different as well. Pointing
to a body of research showing that language skills cannot be accelerated,
the author discusses the Kaluli people wherein mothers do not discuss
things with their uncomphrehending babies as we do in the West but talk
for their child as they speak to others at the level of the person the
mother is talking to. Kaluli babies are not invited into a dyad, or conversation
between mother and child,. They learn to speak by listening as somebody
speaks for them. The way
American mothers interact with their children, says the author, is a key
to understanding what is important to Americans.
American mothers chat
endlessly with their babies, for example, unconsciously giving the message
that the baby is an individual and worthy of such attention.
Gusii mothers of western Kenya feel that such verbal attention
produces an adult that will be self-centered and selfish and not fit into
the family system.
This focus we have on the
individual appears often in the book as it stands in contrast to the more
community and family-cenered practices in the rest of the world. Indeed,
according to the author, intelligence itself, as percieved in other
cultures, has a lot to do with the individual's self-control and social
behavior. Other cultures
appear more child-centered than our own.
In many ways we live in
an antichild culture. I
recognize it because when we travel to other countries, more
child-friendly places, the difference is amazing. In countries where the birth rate is higher, there are simply
more children around. They
play in the road, they accompany their parents everywhere, and no one
seems to make a fuss that
children are about. They are
part of life, part of what adults do--have and raise children. But in
Western culture, children are the oddities.
Ms. Small justly states that
her book is not a "How To" parenting book.
It is, just as she implies, something better. By
looking at other cultures we come to understand other ideas and other
priorities and by so doing better understand and inform our own parenting.