Potty Training in Different Cultures

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A Chinese baby in of a pair of kaidangku. Photo courtesy of http://www.strangepersons.com

In some of my reading for my last post it was mentioned in passing how Chinese babies were traditionally potty trained pretty much from birth. From birth! I have often wondered how babies in cultures that don’t use nappies are kept clean and here was an account that briefly mentioned that babies cues were read early on and they were taken to the bathroom whenever they needed to go. So no nappies needed and no later toddler potty training conflicts, accidents, negotiations, just dry bottomed babies that turn into dry bottomed toddlers.

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Do You Rely on Grandparents for Childcare?

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Whilst around a quarter of grandparents in the UK provide regular childcare for their grandchildren, it is normally out of choice. Either because they’d like to help out and spend time with their grandchildren or because there is a special need, perhaps their child is a single parent and they feel duty bound to help out. In China this is a formalised tradition, ie it’s expected of grandparents. Continue reading

Is Breastfeeding Natural?

(This is me breastfeeding (it isn’t))

Of course it is but the whole question of what is natural can cause a lot of damage when discussing breastfeeding. I recently had a bit of a ‘debate’ on FB with a friend of a friend about breastfeeding. A modern phenomenon and not the best place for reasoned discussion, I succumbed nonetheless. The friend used the word ‘breastapo’ to describe breastfeeding advocates, which I took umbridge with but after stewing for the best part of a day I decided to look at things through an anthropologist’s eyes Continue reading

Bonding With Your Baby is a Luxury

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(Brazilian mother and child)

Sometimes I wonder whether I love my children too much. The intensity of feeling can be overwhelming but then I reassure myself that this is natural. This is part of my biological, prehistoric nature to bond with and adore my children. To sacrifice myself for them. There is nothing a mother wouldn’t do for her child. Or so the story goes. But this is our story, the story of mothers in the West at this particular point in history. Having just a few adored children and investing heavily in each one is a very particular phenomenon and relatively new to us in the West (although nomadic peoples for example have tended this way for much longer).

Nancy Scheper Hughes worked with and studied mother infant bonding in a particularly impoverished region of North Eastern Brazil in the 60’s and then again in the 80’s. She was struck not only by the very high child mortality rates there but also by the indifference that the mothers showed to the passing of their babies. Continue reading

How good are you at teaching your child?

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(Flower Miao woman teaching tapestry weaving in Nawel Village, Zhuchang, Longlin, China)

Some people are natural teachers and when they have their own children, explaining why the sky is blue or what multiplication means comes easily, I unfortunately am not one of those people. When I spend time with my children we do things together, like cooking, playing or doing some craft or I’ll generally be around while they play however, unlike my partner I’m not that good at sitting down and teaching maths or how to play music for example.

I used to go to university with Jamie Tehrani and he’s now a professor at Durham University. He wrote a fascinating paper with archaeologist Felix Riede on how traditional skills are taught and passed on, also known as cultural transmission. According to Tehrani much of early human history of learning has assumed that humans learnt by observing and copying rather than any formal teaching. But it looks like this might have been wrong. Continue reading

Giving Gifts Isn’t Nice

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We have a whole set of taboos around gift giving in the West. You would never ask what a gift you’ve received cost the person giving it, and refusing a gift is unthinkable outside of very precise circumstances like those of conflict of interest or laws prohibiting gift giving to certain people (politicians for example). Nor would the person giving a gift ever express any expectation of receiving one in return. Nonetheless we all estimate what a gift might have cost and usually try to give an equivalent back.

Equivalence is very important for those who share a similar status, ie not parents and children but cousins, lovers, friends for example, and is clearly expressed at Christmas with the practise of Secret Santa giving; budgets are set to avoid anyone spending too much or too little. One person spending much more or less than the other, regardless of what they might be able to afford, creates feelings of discomfort and even bad feeling, perhaps even more so if you receive what you consider an over generous gift. Why? Continue reading

Does Your Baby Actually Want You to be Tired?

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So in a small departure, this week’s post takes a look at a theory from evolutionary biology not anthropology. This is not my specialism so apologies for any over-simplification but I thought it was so interesting it was worth writing about.

Mother and baby: a relationship in harmony or in conflict?

Most people in the West have pretty incoherent and conflicting beliefs around the relationship between mothers and their babies. On the one hand having a baby is seen as the most natural thing in the world, mothers and babies are seen as working in harmony, each biologically programmed to work together for the best possible outcome. On the other hand, birth is incredibly dangerous, babies are exhausting and are occasionally described as ‘manipulative’ for wanting more milk or crying a lot. Harmony on the one side and conflict on the other. Evolutionary biologist David Haig, addresses the subject of infant sleep with the intention of illuminating just how little harmony there often is. Continue reading

When Was the Last Time You Had a Good Night’s Sleep?

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Interrupted sleep is the most common complaint of new parents in the UK. Tiredness, fatigue, exhaustion, all the synonyms come into play when describing what for many is the hardest part of being a parent, especially when the children are still very young. Everything I’ve read indicates that we have unrealistic expectations of how well and long babies should sleep but also how well and long adults should sleep too. There’s such a lot of fascinating research on sleep that I’m going to write this in a few parts.

There is a school of thought that says that babies and toddlers who don’t sleep through the night shouldn’t be expected to. If we look at sleep practises around the world, bed sharing and breastfeeding during the night are so common that putting babies in their own room to sleep all night can seem rather bizarre. Are we really the only culture that doesn’t sleep with their babies? Would it be better if we did? Should babies be sleeping through by six months or a year? Continue reading

Why Boys and Girls Don’t Play Together

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Gendered toys and toy shop displays regularly make appearances in articles and social media chat and whilst some parents resist princess parties and buying guns for boys it is pretty much accepted that on the whole boys prefer playing with boys and girls prefer playing with girls. This has been backed up by quite a bit of child psychology, some neuroscience and even primatology. Frustratingly this has not been discussed in a wider cross cultural context very much at all. The BBC rebroadcast the Horizon documentary Is Your Brain Male or Female last week and the programme didn’t think to include different cultures when discussing nature/ nurture. How can we discuss ‘nurture’ as a generic thing when the way we bring up our children varies so much across the world?

I think one of the reasons for this is that in most societies men and women are still very unequal, so it starts to look like a universal that boys and girls tend to play differently. When you compare farmers in Mexico, with Japanese village life for example, their children playing doesn’t look that different. This is why hunter-gatherers (or foragers) have so often featured in anthropological research, because they are some of the most equal societies on earth and they often prove the exception to the rule. Continue reading

Why Attachment Parenting Is So Hard

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(!Kung grandmother and child)

There’s an unspoken belief that the hunter gatherer way of life is an early, more ‘natural’ form of human society. Attachment parenting has placed a great deal of emphasis on the positive examples set by contemporary hunter gatherer parenting with a sometimes explicit implication that we are being more ‘natural’ by following the advice that they give. Many of the ideas have now become mainstream and benefited from further scientific studies to back them up. Skin on skin contact after birth, breastfeeding on demand, empathetic discipline rather than fear based discipline etc. However, controversies over crying it out, baby wearing and co-sleeping have also made it a source of tension and confusion amongst many parents.

So who are these hunter gatherers that seem to have it all sorted with their loved, attached babies and children? Well, in the case of attachment/natural/gentle parenting much of the advice all stems from research on just one group in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia: the !Kung. These guys have been studied by anthropologists, psychologists and other researchers since at least the 1950’s. They’re so used to researchers they now accept that they must just be extremely interesting people!

Today I just want to focus on one paper that studies infant crying amongst the !Kung. Crying it out is mega controversial and differences of opinion can break friendships but what I want to highlight is whilst the !Kung do seem to set a wonderful example of parenting, at least to my eye, it is also extremely hard for us to replicate.

The !Kung are believed to have one of the closest mother-infant relationships ever studied. On average !Kung infants are never left to cry for any significant time, one minute being the absolute maximum and only with new borns who cry more anyway. However, the mother alone only responds to the infant for less than half of the time. The rest of the time she is either helped by someone else in the community, or someone else responds instead. On top of this it is extremely rare for a mother to be alone with her infant. This makes me cry a bit on the inside. The hours I’ve spent alone with my babies, at home, in the park, down the shops. Even when I’ve been with friends or other parents if the baby cries or needs something it’s me who responds. Imagine having that much help and support?

So all the attachment parenting gurus are telling us that not only do we need to be the best mother we can be but we also need to be all the other people in the community. !Kung mums are not expected to do this alone so why are we? It’s no wonder so many of us get depressed.

Being open to new ideas from other cultures can only be positive but to neglect the context in which these ideas are found is telling only half of the story. I for one love how the !Kung raise their children but I live in a big Western city far away from my family, I’d love more company and more support but in the absence of that I can only do my best.

This is mostly derived from the article by Melvin Konner called Who Responds To Crying

If you want to know more about the !Kung this is a classic paper by James Woodburn