cultural anthropology

Copying Other Cultures: A Questionable Parenting Strategy

Photo: Rick Chapman/Corbis

Back when our children were infants, a local mom in my Brooklyn baby group was raving about her visit with a lactation consultant. Afterwards, she said she approached the whole thing differently because she started listening to her baby’s cues, and that she was breastfeeding easily, “just like I have seen women nursing in Mexico and India, relaxed, no problem.”

In the leafier sections of brownstone Brooklyn, the coffee shops of Seattle, the hipper confines of the District, and the bungalows of Silverlake, new moms are looking to other cultures for parenting cues. They want to send their babies on the path to Harvard, like “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua’s kid, so they’re grabbing from whatever foreign country might help them to do so (just like Chua’s doing with her brand new book). A friend of mine who is a mom of two in Portland, Oregon, says, “I hear a lot of, ‘Well, we have a family bed because that’s what they do in (insert culture-I-don’t-have-a-personal-tie-to here).’ I have heard similar justifications for extended breast-feeding, baby wearing, going diaper-free, and even avoiding cow’s milk.” Despite the enthusiasm for all things French when parenting older children, when it comes to babies, upper-middle-class white moms are justifying their parenting choices by citing how “native” or “less Western” cultures do it.  

Maybe they’re practicing “elimination communication” — a fancy term for eschewing diapers — because they “like the thought that they are rediscovering an ancient practice used in other cultures, though they tend to gloss over the fact that many of those cultures had never heard of Pampers,” as the New York Times put it. Or they’re telling you they’re co-sleeping because “in tribal times, you would have never made your baby cry all alone in a crib,” as one commenter named Anna wrote on Parenting’s web site. A friend of mine in D.C. has a yoga-obsessed pal who said she was baby-wearing because that’s what they did in ancient cultures. “She would be cooking with the baby in a Björn,” my friend told me. “And that was difficult and cumbersome, not to mention treacherous. But she wouldn’t put the fucking sleepy baby down, because the Mayans did it.”

If new moms are really bonkers, they are having an unattended “lotus birth,” which involves keeping the placenta attached to the baby until it falls off, because that’s what they do in Bali. (If you want extra-delayed cord clamping, there’s a Greenpoint-based doula who is trained in it.) Never mind the fact that lotus birth was actually invented by a Californian named Clair Lotus Day in the seventies, and is apparently based on the practices of chimpanzees.

There’s nothing wrong with most of these practices, per se, and there is even scientific justification for some of them, (except for lotus birthing, which is bananas). But there’s something unsettling about white women modeling their parenting after less privileged, nonwhite women without any real context for those choices. There is often a whiff of the “noble savage” to some of these trends, because undergirding them is the assumption that “native” women must be superior mothers because they are closer to the natural world. Let’s call it misappropriating cultural parenting trends.

This is not a new thing, according to Ann Hulbert, the author of Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children. Since at least the thirties, American moms have looked to less developed countries for parenting advice. In her book, Hulbert quotes a particularly delicious passage from Mary McCarthy’s The Group. The scene takes place in Central Park in 1939, but the same things happen in Prospect Park in 2013. In the novel, one Vassar grad, Norine, is shaming another Vassar grad, Priss, for being upset that her son isn’t going in the “toidey-seat.” The obsession with cleanliness is such an American thing, Norine scoffs, something “primitive” peoples would never worry about, and something Norine doesn’t worry about with her angel, Ichabod. (Her kid even has a dumb hipster name!)

Norine has read Margaret Mead, which is why she’s momsplaining to Priss. Anthropologist Mead did fieldwork in Samoa, and observed Samoan moms breast-feeding on demand. Mead’s pediatrician was Dr. Benjamin Spock, and through his mega bestseller, Baby and Child Care, Spock propagated the Samoan idea that breast-feeding on demand was best for American infants, too. (Before that, American doctors had advised women to feed their babies on a set schedule.)

The integration of feeding on demand into American parenting shows that it’s not the practices themselves that are necessarily problematic, it’s the citing of more “authentic” cultures as automatically more knowledgeable about babies. Dr. Robin Nelson, an assistant professor of biological anthropology at Skidmore, posits that new moms are looking to other cultures for parenting cues these days because they feel like what they’re doing doesn’t have any grounding in tradition. We see what our mothers and our grandmothers did as outmoded — and often they’re not in close enough proximity to us to impart parenting knowledge — but we don’t know where else to look for authenticity. So we cling to the idea that “brown people, frankly, in other places, know how to be close to nature,” Nelson says.

We’re also afraid of chemicals, which is not necessarily an unfounded fear. So it’s a fairly short mental leap from I won’t give my babies any kind of plastic bottle, because I’m worried about the effects of chemical plasticizers to I am going to breast-feed my baby forever and never allow her to touch anything man-made because that’s what they do in India.

But when you divorce baby-rearing practices from a larger cultural context, they become meaningless. Take co-sleeping, for example, which is popular in attachment parenting circles. Meta-reviews of the research show that absolutes in either direction — telling women they must always co-sleep, or that they must never co-sleep — don’t work when they don’t take family, social, and ethnic context into account.

There’s a way to integrate practices from other cultures without being a condescending jerk about it. Dr. Clarice Bell, a family-practice doctor in Atlanta who did an externship at a medical school in Nigeria, says she observed the women there chewing up food before giving it to their babies. Ten years later, when she had her own kids, “I instinctively did it with my kids.” She says she did it not because she thought Nigerians had a lock on good mothering, but because she had a medical practice and it was a time saver. It was much easier to chew the food than to blend it and clean the blender, especially when she had a toddler and a baby. “I didn’t do this because I’m culturally advanced,” Bell explains, “The people I’m around, they just thought I was strange.”

Bell proves that it’s not the parenting practices themselves that are suspect (lotus birth notwithstanding). It’s the ego and the condescension involved with telling citing “ancient” cultural techniques you’ve picked up as the pinnacle of good parenting. The next time someone tells me that I should have a family bed because that’s what the Mayans did, I am going to ask her if they are also going to bind their baby’s head between a pair of flat boards, because that’s another thing Mayans did to their children, as flat foreheads were considered a mark of beauty. Hopefully, this will get her to see how ridiculous it is to cherry-pick parts of other cultures without context. If not, at least it will be entertaining to see the look on her face.

Copying Other Cultures: A Bad Parenting Strategy