How do you raise a child? Ask any mother, and she’ll offer a long list of things you should do–and shouldn’t do. Not only will three mothers share three different recommendations; as anthropologists, we now know that different communities may follow drastically different approaches to childcare.
A mother in the US certainly receives much parenting advice that contradicts that received by a mother in, say, China or Denmark. In the all-new edition of A World of Babies, we explore these perspectives for these and other societies around the world.
Partly it’s a matter of values (which are typically shaped by religious systems combined with biographical experiences). Partly it’s a matter of money (which is in good part determined by systems of power, both local and global). Partly it’s a matter of access (which may be determined by military factors, technological knowhow, maternity leave policies, healthcare resources, and ecological constraints). And partly it’s a matter of everything else we anthropologists know makes a difference when it comes to human experience.
For example, a hot topic of debate in the US concerns where babies should sleep. In most of the world, and probably for most of human history, babies have slept with either their mothers or both parents. Yet in contemporary America, parents are advised by both health and government professionals to have their baby sleep in a crib. The reasons are multiple. Health care staff typically cite the risk of crushing an infant in sleep (although research by biological anthropologist James McKenna affirms the value of protecting babies against SIDS, when co-sleeping is done safely). For their parts, many American parents feel shy about having sex with a baby nearby; they may also feel committed to encouraging that most American of values—independence–early on. By contrast, beyond the US, co-sleeping is considered an integral part of a child’s social development in the family; it also makes nighttime nursing easier. Growing awareness of these conflicting perceptions may leave American families increasingly unsure of the “right thing to do”—or, simply, indifferent to “other” ways of raising babies.
Meanwhile, innumerable other concerns may occupy a parent’s mind…starting with the task of welcoming a new child into this life. Whether explicitly or implicitly, community guidelines usually suggest locally appropriate etiquette. Among the Beng of Côte d’Ivoire, mothers try hard to lure their infants back into this life from wrugbe, the place where Beng souls are said to live after death until rebirth. Advised by elders and diviners, parents make the transition from wrugbe to this life easier for the baby by continually offering breastmilk, an older body for either holding or carrying the child all day long, and plenty of direct conversation, singing, and dancing—all, to convince the little one that life in this world of poverty is somehow as pleasurable as it was in their previous existence.
Elsewhere, parents face other challenges. Somali parents in the US, for example—like immigrant parents everywhere–must welcome a child into a new place, with a new language and new cultural norms. But in addition to bridging historical and cultural gaps, Somali–American parents must also prepare their children to face racism and Islamophobia; for reasons not yet fully understood, Somali children also experience skyrocketing diagnoses of childhood autism.
So…where can new parents turn for help in making complicated daily decisions? Across human history, most have consulted their own parents or grandparents, and friends and neighbors. More recently, literate parents have read manuals written by pediatric experts. And nowadays, many parents consult the Internet.
The latest edition of A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Eight Societies (co-edited by Alma Gottlieb and Judy DeLoache, and released this past January by Cambridge University Press) borrows the advice genre by offering ethnographically imagined childcare guides for eight societies undergoing rapid social change—including four communities currently or recently living in warzones (including Palestine and Israel) and three communities of immigrant mothers (including Somali-Americans and Guinean-Portuguese). These case studies provide insight into the harrowing, complex decisions that parents and educators alike make on a daily basis. For mothers living in more stable societies, imagining what’s involved in making decisions about child-rearing in the face of daily violence is nearly unfathomable. Offering an ethnographic glimpse into these challenging contexts further affirms the need to advocate for those affected by violence, while understanding the complicated background of parenting in regions of political unrest. As American families celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, we remind readers of the enormous challenges that many mothers in other places face simply to keep their children alive and healthy.
Meanwhile, from A World of Babies to mothers around the world: we wish you ways to find joy with your children, whatever your situation.
Submitted by Alma Gottlieb, Visiting Scholar in Anthropology, Brown University Professor Emerita of Anthropology, Gender and Women’s Studies, and African Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Note: To learn more about A World of Babies, and the challenges and joys facing the world’s mothers and children, “Like” the Facebook page for the book here, where you’ll find daily updates: https://www.facebook.com/WOBBook/