I’ve been reading Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent, a fascinating book that explores anthropological perspectives on baby-rearing.
In comparing American and Western baby-rearing with other cultures, what’s striking is that Americans raise babies with independence as their primary goal, whereas more traditional cultures tend to emphasize social integration.
Because we start with entirely different goals at the outset, the baby-rearing process looks entirely different.
American parents, for the most part, begin their children in separate beds, whether co-sleepers, bassinets, or cribs. They focus on milestones that help the child to become less dependent upon their parents, such as sleeping through the night.
In American society, a “good baby” is one who requires little soothing from his/her parents, who cries little and needs comparatively little attention. A “problem child,” on the other hand, is one who infringes upon the independence of its parents by requiring more than its fair share of attention and coddling. American parents are taught to respond more slowly to their children so as to teach their children to become more independent.
On the other hand, Japan, an industrialized country like the US, has citizens who value collectivity over independence. Japanese babies sleep between their parents as a symbolic act in which the baby is seen as a river lying between two riverbeds.
Rather than viewing babies as having the ability and desire to manipulate their parents, Japanese parents see babies as pure and good, and meet their needs quickly and with little fuss. Japanese babies, as a result, are happier and cry less than their American counterparts.
If we look through the lens of science at the effects of early parenting on behavior, we learn that children who were in close physical contact with their parents more, and whose cries received quick responses, become more empathetic and caring individuals. In contrast, those babies who received less attention early on became more aggressive individuals.
Assuming most American parents would prefer to have empathetic children, maybe it’s time we question the relative value of independence as a parenting goal.
Rather than wishing our children to view themselves as an isolated individual with sole responsibility for themselves, perhaps we may consider shifting to a model of interdependence, in which each child is part of a collective, and shares in responsibility for their friends and family members.
What kind of world would we create if our fellow adults were kinder and more compassionate?