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OUR BABIES, OURSELVES PART 2: The Differences Between Us

by Sarah on January 19th, 2011

Something that I have struggled with quite a bit, as a first-time Mom, is comparing myself to other Moms. I think it’s quite a natural thing for us to do because we’re worried about how the decisions we make will affect our kids. This worry, though, has been reduced hugely for me, because of Our Babies, Ourselves. It goes into extensive detail about how and why parents different – according to biology and culture. Today, I’d like to share some of these differences in baby-raising with you.

!Kung San of the Kalahari

These women often give birth in the bush alone – a sign of strength and achievement. Babies are never left at home, even though there is always someone to babysit. They are permanently on their mothers, in a sling. The feed whenever they choose, which is known as “continuous feeding”. More than 90% of their crying during their first 9 months lasts for less than thirty seconds – they’re fed whenever they cry. !Kung San children are usually weaned between four and five, which is when their Mom falls pregnant again.Their parents focus on teaching them motor skills, and never leave them in a lying position. It is important that they’re physically adept from early on. Once they are weaned, they spend most of their days in their village being looked after by a group of multi-aged children.

The Ache of Paraguay

This tribe of people live in the forests in South America, and have remained as hunters and gatherers until very recently. Women give birth publicly, and babies with obvious disabilities or breech births, are buried. A designated male cuts the cord, showing his special relationship with the child. Any man who has had sex with the mother (they are a very promiscuous society) becomes a secondary father. The mother sleeps sitting up with the baby in her lap, hunched over to protect them from danger. Babies are also carried in slings and can suckle as they please. Only at three, do they begin to spend time apart from their mothers. Once the baby is weaned, physical separation is forced (often harshly) – it is important for the child to be physically independent when it is older because the tribe is always on the move.

The Gusii of East Africa

Gusii women give birth almost every two years. Only 50% of children born alive reach maturity, so the parents’ main goal is to keep their baby healthy and protected. These babies are also only carried. Nursing is the best way to keep the baby content. These babies are never left alone. Once a little older, a child nurse looks after the baby. Gusii mothers do not kiss and cuddle their babies, and do not interact verbally – they believe this creates a self-centred child. It is also very important for these parents to raise obedient children, who will become productive members of the family. Once they have been weaned, at about two years,  they’re expected to contribute to the household. These kids are seen as economic assets, costing little or nothing to raise.

The Japanese

“This culture has achieved modern economic success not with a philosophy of personal ambition and individual achievement, but with a sense of collectivity”. The Japanese view babies as a pure spirit, good by design, and in need of being included into the maternal self. They sleep between their parents, to symbolise their position, a river connecting two banks. Mothers are encouraged to be responsive and gentle, and to communicate often with their babies. It is important for the baby to become a connected social being. Japanese mothers expect early mastery of skills like self-control and courtesy, as opposed to Western moms who expect verbal assertiveness and social skills, like sharing. Japanese moms see infant and child dependency as a sign of a healthy bond between the mother and baby that will create emotional security.

Americans (Westerners)

The research about Western parents is based on white, middle-class Americans. There are, of course, sub-cultures within America, and the western world, but the findings make their point. The main goal of Western culture is independence. Children must become self-reliant. Parental privacy is an important part of family life, parents feeling solely responsible for raising their children, taking advice only if needed. Children are expected to learn, instead of work, because one day they will need to find their own job and leave home. Parents see them almost as cost, rather than an asset (pay for school, universtiy etc, without them working for the extended family’s welfare, as in traditional cultures). Westerners believe children have a special set of talents that the parents need to unfold, and that ultimately the child can become either a success or failure. Western babies generally sleep in their own cots, in their own rooms, and spend the majority of their awake time in prams, seats, or lying on their backs. Babies are expected to cry a lot, and it isn’t necessary to respond to all of the crying episodes. Control over the baby is a big issue, with response to crying, feeding and sleeping being ways to control them. Many parents feel that social time is stressful for the baby (they feel they become over-stimulated) and so need alone time to recover. Scheduled feeding and sleeping routines usually remove babies from the family context, having different meal and bed times.

Isn’t it interesting to read about different types of parenting styles? The above, are only  five, out of hundreds. Which are right and which are wrong? NONE. Because there are such huge differences between cultures, and even between sub-cultures, it really doesn’t make sense to compare ourselves to others, or fret about about why we’re making the decisions we are. We’ve all been affected by our surroundings, our upbringings, and that’s why we make the decisions we make.

Perhaps a worthwhile exercise would be to sit down and write about the sort of parent you hope to be, and what is important in child-raising to you. Your cultural beliefs will affect what is on your list. If you come across different parenting styles, or if you start to judge, you’ve got something to go back to, to check that you’re on track, with yourself, and not others.

(The above information about different cultures has been taken from Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith F. Small, Chapter Three: Other Parents, Other Ways)

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