Global Baby Warming

Our Babies, Ourselves, by anthropologist Meredith F. Small, urges us to question some of the fundamental ways Americans raise their children.

By Constance Matthiessen
Published July 8, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In her new book, anthropologist Meredith F. Small tells us that taking a baby away from its mother immediately after birth -- routine practice in most American hospitals until relatively recently -- has a genesis more circuslike than scientific. It all began at the turn of the century with the invention of the incubator. Martin Cooney, who designed the new device for premature babies, took it on the road, exhibiting hundreds of incubated preemies at expositions in the United States and Europe. Cooney apparently had no trouble finding subjects to use in his shows, since at that time it was assumed that all premature babies would quickly perish. In fact, the new device worked to keep many of the babies alive, and they were returned to their parents when they reached five pounds. Cooney continued to exhibit babies up through the 1940 World's Fair; in the meantime his device was adopted for use in hospitals around the country for premature and full-term babies alike, because it was considered healthier for babies to be placed in incubators for observation than to remain with their mothers. In this way, a practice unknown in any other region of the world and unheard of throughout human history came to be adopted as standard procedure and supported by the authority of Western medicine for most of this century.

We hear many stories like this in Small's book, stories that remind us how culturally proscribed our ideas about babies and child rearing really are. In fact, "Our Babies, Ourselves" is so packed with compelling information about parenting practices around the globe that the reader may have trouble putting it down -- my own copy is scrawled with notes and stars and exclamation points. Small, an anthropologist, has a clear, deft writing voice; for an academic, she writes with unexpected energy and compassion. Unfortunately, these strengths are undermined in places by dated information and analytical gaps that seem inconsistent with her obvious commitment to her subject.

"Our Babies, Ourselves" is rooted in the new science of "ethnopediatrics," the study of parents and infants across cultures, and how child-rearing traditions reflect and reinforce core cultural values. This book is a reminder that the conventional wisdom we're bombarded with as parents -- from our pediatricians, our own parents or that nosy lady in the grocery store -- springs not from some central depository of Truth, but from an arbitrary set of cultural markers. Parents in other places live with an entirely different set of "truths." As Small writes, "Human infants are all biologically very similar in their needs. That is, they need food,
sleep, and emotional attachment. However, parents and cultures can unwittingly twist those needs to their own ends ... all parents want the best for their children -- but clearly cultures disagree about what exactly that 'best' might be."

Small begins the book with an examination of babyhood and how it has evolved from the days of our earliest ancestors. Here, she provides some great tidbits; for example, she answers the
question of whether other animals suffer pain in childbirth. (The answer is no, at least not like we do.) Having a baby is excruciating for humans basically because the infant brain is larger than that of other species, while the width of our hips is limited by the fact that, as a
species, we chose to walk upright.

Next, Small looks at parenting
practices in selected parts of the world. She tells us, for example,
that while contemporary American parents constantly talk to their
infants, believing that this stimulation promotes bonding and brain
development, African Gusii mothers, who are highly nurturing and would
never consider leaving an infant alone to cry, seldom talk to their
babies. They believe that kind of attention will lead to self-centeredness, a quality seen as a threat to their communitarian social structure.

In Japan, the needs of the group are considered more important than notions of
individual achievement; accordingly, parents there place far less value
on independence than do American parents. Instead, Japanese parents
emphasize the symbiotic relationship between parent and child, and Small says this is why many Japanese children sleep with their parents until they are in their teens. !Kung San parents in Botswana place great emphasis on physical development, encouraging their babies to sit up and walk at an early age, a practice adapted to the physical rigors of tribal life. As a result, !Kung San babies are generally more advanced in terms of motor skills than babies in other parts of the world.

Besides this type of comparative cultural data, which she presents free
of bias or judgment, Small provides independent confirmation of the
value of certain parenting practices -- including breast-feeding and
the "family bed." She takes a close look at recent research indicating
that infants sleep better when in physical contact with their mothers
and that rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) seem to be lower in
cultures where sleep-sharing is common practice. For American parents who
elect to breast-feed or have a family bed, solid analysis like this
should provide useful support.

My concern with Small's methodology is with the way she generalizes about child rearing in contemporary American society. Inexplicably, she bases her summary on research from the 1960s, thereby totally overlooking the revolution in parenting philosophies of the last 30 years. She tells us, for example, that most American babies have minimal physical contact, are fed on a schedule, spend most of their time alone (in cribs, playpens or plastic seats) and are "generally removed from the family social context."

I don't know of any parents who follow this parenting formula -- or of any child development experts who would recommend it. Small's analytical lapse here seems extraordinary --
are there no more-recent studies she could have considered? Why didn't she simply talk to some mothers at her local playground, or consult some contemporary child-rearing specialists? After reading this section, I had to wonder if Small's summary of parenting practices in other countries is similarly dated. If so, the problem may be that Small is a captive of her profession. By strictly limiting herself to anthropological studies of selected cultures, and failing to include, say, interviews with parents and parenting experts, or messages conveyed in popular culture, she restricts the currency, scope and texture of her parenting portraits.
This approach also overlooks nuances in our culturally diverse society, where many different parenting approaches now may be common.

Still, Small's underlying analysis of our dominant culture's general parenting goals
seems on target. As she says, the ideal American parenting product is a
"highly verbal, independent, emotional controlled, and self-reliant
child." It is true that as a society we seldom question the value of
independence, competition and individual achievement -- or consider
their downsides. So, while holding up this cultural mirror, Small reminds
us that these qualities aren't considered particularly valuable in many
other parts of the world. It just seems strange that she has overlooked
evidence that in recent decades many American parents -- as well as
numerous experts in the medical and child-development communities -- have
begun to moderate this cultural heritage, and to promote alternative
approaches to parenting.

This reader would have liked to know, at
certain points in the book, what Small herself thinks. Ever the
anthropologist, she is careful not to be prescriptive, and clearly
doesn't want to come off as one more busybody telling parents what to do.
She sees her role as one of showing us other ways of parenting, so we will be
reminded of our cultural conditioning and make up our own minds. I
admire her restraint, but at times her balanced presentation seemed to
limit questions, rather than foster them. She discusses, for instance,
the !Kung San tribe, which does not expect, or try to condition, babies
to sleep through the night, since adults rarely do so. Tribe members
often get up in the course of the night to eat or chat with others -- a
rhythm more compatible with the physical needs of a new baby. This sounds
nice but on reflection prompts basic questions: Do these people have
to get up in the morning and go to work? Our modern culture may have real
limits, but the fact is that most parents -- and perhaps babies -- have to
adapt themselves to some extent to these limits. In the case of the !Kung
San, she presents a provocative approach to parenting without providing
the relevant cultural context.

Despite these reservations, there is a lot here of value, particularly the notion that by becoming aware of our cultural heritage as parents, we can choose what aspects of it to accept and which to reject -- and we can elect to borrow ideas from other cultures as well. In the end, as Small reminds us, we all have to rely on "the parental instinct -- that is, common sense, which also evolved as a guide."

Constance Matthiessen

Constance Matthiessen is a writer living is San Francisco.

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