A little bird hatches from a bright yellow egg. Swiveling his head in every direction, his mother is nowhere to be found. “Where is my mother?” he exclaims in his high squeaky baby bird voice. There is no answer. He decides to go find out for himself. Encountering a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a car, a boat, a plane, and an environmentally symbolic dump truck referred to as a “snort,” this baby bird determined who was not his mother. The ending is happy, filled with the joyous tweeting of a mother who has found her child. She explains to him that he is a bird, and that she is his mother. Taking in the first 100 or so pages of Meredith Small’s fascinating book “Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent,” the pages of P.D. Eastman’s children’s story “Are You My Mother” kept coming to mind. This tale of the universal mother-child connection (which in this case, spans species) was a classic of my childhood. After post-dinner baths, I loved to curl up under fluffy comforter covers with one of my parents and beg to have it read over and over.
Just as each of the species Eastman’s little bird encounters has its own conceptions of what it means to be a mother, Meredith Small poignantly describes the different mothering and parenting styles of several unique cultures–from the independence-oriented United States to the more collective societies of African tribal life and the selfless centered upbringing of children in Japan. Embracing the idea of cultural relativism, Small writes with the knowledge that every human group has its own unique cultural complexity (especially when it comes to raising children.) Embracing an almost Spockian perspective, she teaches us that there is no one “right” way to parent. In traditional, transitional, and industrial societies, values and practices demonstrated in child rearing are constantly changing. Every society is in flux, and the changes in the way children are raised in a society is a great way to measure this change. Furthermore, if you want to change the way a society functions, or a community interacts, the most logical place to begin is with the children. As I read about the Paraguay tribe of people called the Ache where an entire village literally raises each child, the East African Gusii children who grow up clinging to their mothers breasts–protected from the evil eye and never directly verbally addressed, Japanese babies who are taught early the value of self-control, and U.S. babies who grow up largely devoid of chores but filled with pressure for “success,” I thought about what it would look like to combine these diverse perspectives of what it means to “correctly” parent in the raising of one child. What if we took the time to research child rearing across cultures (beginning with the reading of this book,) and made an effort to raise our children with select pieces from several of them? What if we made the choice to become our experts? Could we create a sort of global community? Could we start to learn about our own culture by interpreting the culture of others? To me, this seems like an ideal way to raise a child.
I have been socialized to strive to be an individual, and yet, the constant contact between mother and child that occurs in countries like Paraguay and Africa seems natural to me. I like the idea of children who are allowed to eat when they are hungry, do not follow schedules, and see the world from the same vantage point as their parents. However, if I were to walk around bare breasted with a baby strapped across my chest in the Midwestern U.S., I’m pretty sure I could be arrested.
I love that almost every mother presented with her newborn baby touches it in the same way–moving from tiny fingers to open palms to fleshy stomach. No matter what culture we belong to, Meredith Small reminds us that we are all human. We all connect with the bundles of joy that hold so much possibility. We need to learn to think beyond the trends–to analyze all of our choices in parenting, why we make them, and what this says about us.
I am reminded of the movie “Babies.” Like Small’s book, this documentary follows the lives of several babies from very different cultures as they move through their first 365 days of life. There are no words. Each of these children started out as a blank slate, and we see them molded by their parents, societies and culture before our eyes. Sure, this movie is an excuse to appreciate the universal cuteness that comes with an infant’s smile, but it also offers a learning experience–a chance to recognize the beauty of an aging child that cuts across cultural lines. This is what we are offered with “Our Babies, Ourselves” as well. It is the beginning of a chance to embrace a more holistic perspective. In the way we raise our children, we can change the world by helping to shape the way they will see and interpret it someday.