As a new mom (the first time around) I devoured countless parenting books (memoirs, novels, how-to’s, articles, etc) because 1) I love to read, and 2) there is something so magical about connecting with people through written words – I couldn’t wait to connect with other parents in the joy of having our first child! Of course I’m drawn to stories of mother/daughter relationships (factual & fictional) but I also love the occasional “professional” opinion. I’m the type of person who “researches” something to death before I attempt it myself (i.e. gardening, lesson planning, child-birth). The night I went into labor with my first I was up at 2a.m. rocking in my rocking chair reading The Bradley Way for last minute tips. 😉
I heard about the book How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm (by: Mei-Ling Hopgood) from an awesome blog I discovered a few months ago – Science of Mom – written by a former research-scientist-turned-stay-at-home-mom. Her posts are always very interesting and include extensive research & references (very impressive as the mom of a toddler). After reading her review I happened to go to the library and there it was on the “new release” shelf! 🙂
First of all, I should mention, for all the “parenting” books I’ve read in the last two years, my least favorites are those that claim to have the be-all-end-all solution/strategy/etc for raising & loving your child. I just do not believe that such a book is possible to write. Every child, parent, and family is uniquely different and we need to lose our expectations of what the “perfect” family or child looks like – unless of course we want to live our lives in a constant state of stress (Am I doing it right?) & guilt (I’m not doing it right!!). I’m afraid so many women already do!
With that said, this book was refreshing & enlightening. Hopgood devotes each chapter to a different “aspect” of parenting (potty training, socializing your toddler, bedtime) and describes similarities & differences across cultures. Hopgood, herself, was adopted from Taiwan, raised in Detroit, and had her first child in Buenos Aires! Some of my favorite topics/chapters were:
- How Buenos Aires Children go to Bed Late – I’ve had people look down their nose at me for having a set bedtime for my toddler (don’t let your child run your life), but I value the evening quiet time with my husband…this chapter helped me wrap my mind around flexibility when it comes to my kids’ sleep schedules.
- How the French Teach their Children to Love Healthy Food – it is amazing to think about how other kids around the world eat (most countries do not have “kids menus”) this chapter challenged me in a lot of ways, but mostly to let N at least TRY everything we have for dinner.
- How Tibetans Cherish Pregnancy – this was such a good chapter for me to read on the tail end of “the first trimester from hell”…sometimes I get into the mode of when will this be over? and I forget how short this season is and how blessed I am to be growing & cherishing this little life inside of me.
- How the Japanese Let their Children Fight – sheds light on the spectrum of hands on/off parenting.
The biggest theme of the book is that parents make the choices they do for their children based on values – and each society/culture/family has different values! It doesn’t make one style or strategy inherently better than the other…in fact, it’s most important to ask “what is best for my child in OUR culture/family,” not just “what is best universally.” I may gasp thinking about a mother in Kenya allowing her small children (under 5) to play together, unsupervised…but she might think the same of me putting my 2-year old down screaming & crying for a nap all by herself in the middle of the afternoon (most people in the world sleep in shared spaces for their entire adults lives, and especially when they are infants/toddlers). The value of codependence & cooperation is more important at a young age in some cultures than our values of independence & self-sufficiency in the United States. Another obvious difference is the amount of “technology” that American parents take for granted. So many places in the world just don’t have access to the “necessities” we do or it would be absurd to even try and utilize some of them (strollers! most “mass marketed” toys, educational DVDs, diaper genies, etc). How many of the decisions we make/items we purchase as parents in the States are simply because “it’s just what you do.”
She also has a great blend of anecdotal stories and scientific research. You never feel bogged down in statistics or quoted research, just encouraged that there are professional opinions out there to be learned and understood. One of the quotes in the intro that hooked me is from Meredith Small, an anthropologist:
The parental practices we follow in the West are merely cultural constructions that have little to do with what is “natural” for babies. Our cultural rules are, in fact, designed to mold a certain kind of citizen…the cultural milieu, then, is a powerful and barely studied force that molds how we parent.
This book gave me such a feeling of freedom & in a lot of ways inspired me to look at parenting as more of an adventure than as a set course with specific milestones and expectations.
Another thing I thought Hopgood did an excellent job of was condemning the universal “judgment” that parents feel towards other parents who don’t child-rear the same way they do (across cultures or across the street!). I have already encountered this negativity more than once in my daughter’s two short years of life – “You put her to bed when??? You feed her what? You’re using cloth diapers…good luck with that.” – and I am constantly vigilant of purging these feelings of pride & criticism in my own heart. There is not one perfect way & I sure as hell have a lot to learn! I think this quote from the conclusion of the book sums it up well:
Despite vast differences…moms, dads, and caregivers in most societies share a common desire: to raise children who can thrive in the reality in which they live. While no culture can claim to be the best at any one given aspect, each has its own gems of wisdom to add to the discussion… This idea should empower and encourage us as our families grow.