Books about Children and Parenting

Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children by Meredith Small Anchor Books 2001


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 adulthood.


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 provides."

        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.



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