The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Community News Network

April 10, 2013

Slate: How Americans parent

CHICAGO — New parenthood is a desperate search for certainty: When you start knowing nothing, you are desperate to know something. And when you finally figure that something out - how to get this creature to eat or sleep - that becomes the answer. Any parent this side of sanity clings to that certainty for dear life.

Sara Harkness, a professor of human development at the University of Connecticut, has spent decades compiling and analyzing the answers of parents in other cultures. They have a lot of answers, it turns out. And they are very certain about those answers. To read her work and the work of her colleague and husband, Charles Super, is to be disabused of a lot of certainties about child rearing. For the anxious, easily unsettled parent, it should be followed by a chaser of Brazelton and Karp, just to restore your world to its locked and upright position.

It's not a shock that child care varies across cultures, of course. But it is still hard to comprehend just how many ways there are of looking at a baby. I have been reading various ethnographic works on child rearing for years now, and yet, when I talked to Harkness last week, I started by asking her what child-rearing practices vary most among cultures. This is a worthless question. All child-rearing practices vary hugely among cultures. There's only a single shared characteristic, Harkness says: "Parents everywhere love their children and want the best for their children." (Even this is a controversial statement; some academics would argue otherwise.) Everything else, including the way in which they love their children and what the best might mean, is subject to variation.

I am not talking about National Geographic bare-breasted, hunter-gatherer pictorials. Those are the most memorable variations in child care, the sort we can see: Think of the live-in Mongolian livestock in Babies. What makes the work of Harkness so interesting is that it highlights the variations we are unable to see. Even when compared to other Western cultures, we Americans are a deeply strange people.

Every society has what it intuitively believes to be the right way to raise a child, what Harkness calls parental ethnotheories. (It is your mother-in-law, enlarged to the size of a country.) These are the choices we make without realizing that we're making choices. Not surprisingly, it is almost impossible to see your own parental ethnotheory: As I write in "Baby Meets World," when you're under water, you can't tell that you're wet.

But ethnotheories are distinct enough, at least to an outsider, that they are apparent in the smallest details. If you look just at the words parents use to describe their children, you can almost always predict where you are in the world. In other words, your most personal observations of your child are actually cultural constructions. In a study conducted by Harkness and her international colleagues, American parents talked about their children as intelligent and even as "cognitively advanced." (Also: rebellious.) Italian parents, though, very rarely praised their children for being intelligent. Instead, they were even-tempered and "simpatico." So although both the Americans and the Italians noted that their children asked lots of questions, they meant very different things by it: For the Americans, it was a sign of intelligence; for the Italians, it was a sign of socio-emotional competence. The observation was the same; the interpretation was radically different.

Every society interprets its children in its own way: The Dutch, for example, liked to talk about long attention spans and "regularity," or routine and rest. (In the Dutch mind, asking lots of questions is a negative attribute: It means the child is too dependent.) The Spanish talked about character and sociality, the Swedes about security and happiness. And the Americans talked a lot about intelligence. Intelligence is Americans' answer. In various studies, American parents are always seen trying to make the most of every moment - to give their children a developmental boost. From deep inside the belly of American parenthood, this is so obvious it isn't even an observation. It is only by looking at other societies that you can see just how anomalous such a focus is.

Looking back at her research, Harkness can trace the history of how we got this way. During interviews with middle-class Boston parents in the 1980s, she and her colleagues kept hearing about the importance of "special time" or "quality time": One-on-one time that stimulated the child and that revolved around his interests. Nearly every American parent mentioned it, she says. "It was this essential thing that all parents seemed to think they should do - and maybe they weren't doing enough of it."

This seems obviously reasonable. I would likely say "special time" with ironic quotation marks, but I still feel pretty much the same way those parents did. How else would a halfway-decent parent feel? But when Harkness talked to other halfway-decent parents in other cultures, even other seemingly very similar Western cultures, they were oblivious to this nagging feeling. Harkness recalls that "in the Netherlands, a father said, 'Well, on Saturday mornings, my wife sleeps late, I get up with the kids, and I take them to recycle the bottles and cans at the supermarket.' " That was their special, stimulating, child-directed time: recycling bottles and cans. Asked if an activity was developmentally meaningful, the Dutch parents would brush off the question as irrelevant or even nonsensical. Why think of every activity as having a developmental purpose?

What you notice reading these accounts is how much more intensive - how much more arousing - American parenting is. Harkness has characterized it as trying "to push stimulation to the maximum without going over the edge into dysregulation of basic state control." This is true even if you think you're different - that you're not like those other parents at the playground. Culture operates at a deeper level than any individual parenting choice. In a survey Harkness and her colleagues conducted of parents in Western cultures, the last question was, "What's the most important thing you can do for your child's development right now?" "The American parents almost to a person said, 'Stimulation - stimulation is what my child needs.' Interestingly, even the attachment parents, who were very adamant about being different in a lot of ways - they still gave the same answer." And all the parents meant a very particular sort of stimulation. The parents talked about themselves in almost curatorial terms: They'd create a setting for intellectual growth. It went almost without saying that the actual stimulation came from the toys.

But ask an Italian mother about stimulation and her thoughts immediately go to her husband: He comes home and makes the baby jump, she told the researchers. "He is the 'baby skier,' " she says, wonderfully. "The 'baby pilot.' " Meanwhile in Spain, everyone - experts, doctors, mothers - stressed the importance of a stimulating daily walk: You see the people in your neighborhood. Objects aren't stimulating. People are stimulating.

               

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was just published. His website is nicholasday.net. He is @nicksday on Twitter.

 

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Google acquires drone maker Titan Aerospace to spread Internet

    Google is adding drones to its fleets of robots and driverless cars.
    The Internet search company said it acquired Titan Aerospace, the maker of high-altitude, solar-powered satellites that provides customer access to data services around the world. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.

    April 14, 2014

  • watching-tv.jpg Cutting the cord on cable TV, and not missing it a bit

    Three years ago, Royse City Herald Banner reporter Chris McGathey and his family decided to ditch pay TV in favor of Netflix, Hulu Plus and other cheaper web-based services. It's a decision they haven't regretted.

    April 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • spt_baylor.jpg VIDEO: Angels hitting coach suffers bizarre leg injury

    LA Angels hitting coach Don Baylor suffered a broken leg while squatting to catch a ceremonial first pitch from former Angel Vladimir Guerrero on Opening Day.

    April 2, 2014 1 Photo

  • barbour021614.jpg Sibling says Dexter drama motivated sister's 'lie' of mass murder

    The older sister of Miranda Barbour, who claims she murdered more than 22 "bad people" over six years, says the story is a lie that stems from infatuation with the Showtime TV series about a Miami cop who leads a secret life as a serial killer.

    April 1, 2014 1 Photo 3 Stories

  • Fact Checker: 'Birth control' for something other than family planning?

    "When 99 percent of women used birth control in their lifetime and 60 percent use it for something other than family planning, it's outrageous and I think the Supreme Court will suggest that their case is ridiculous."

    March 31, 2014

  • dog-sunglasses.jpg Do animals have a sense of humor?

    Right now, in a high-security research lab at Northwestern University's Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics, scientists are tickling rats. Their goal? To develop a pharmaceutical-grade happiness pill. But their efforts might also produce some of the best evidence yet that humor isn't something experienced exclusively by human beings.

    March 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • touch.jpg Divorce is on the rise, and it's the baby boomers' fault

    A new paper from demographers at the University of Minnesota found that the age-standardized divorce rate has actually risen by an astonishing 40 percent since 1980.

    March 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • firefighters.jpg VIDEO: Firefighters sing song from 'Frozen' to calm girl stuck in elevator

    Firefighters in Reading, Mass., sing the Disney power ballad known by children everywhere -- "Let It Go" -- to calm a 4-year-old stuck in an elevator.

    March 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • muffin-brunch-food-breakfast.jpg Can what you eat affect your mental health?

    Jodi Corbitt had been battling depression for decades and by 2010 had resigned herself to taking antidepressant medication for the rest of her life. Then she decided to start a dietary experiment.

    March 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140325-AMX-BARISTA251.jpg Coffee's third wave? The Apple to Starbucks' Microsoft

    Do you remember when Starbucks was cool? It opened in Seattle in the 1970s as a local specialty roaster, a trendy alternative to the prevailing generic swill. But the price of conquest is cachet. What was once novel — the warm décor, the gentle music, the faux-Italian lingo — has become banal. Today's coffee snobs would rather snort Sanka than set foot inside a Starbucks

    March 25, 2014 2 Photos

Elections
Front page
Clinton Herald Photos


Browse, buy and submit pictures with our photo site.

Poll

Should the city of Clinton appeal the open records violation ruling that will cost taxpayers $40,600?

Yes
No
     View Results
AP Video
Olympics 2014
Featured Comment
Featured Ads
Blue Zones Project
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.