Helicopter Mums and Weird Parents

woman in helicopter
This is a woman in a helicopter.

There was some research published this week, and reported in loads of newspapers all over the world, stating that helicopter parenting may negatively affect children’s emotional well-being and behaviour. This immediately made me feel a bit smug because whilst I’m pretty dedicated to my kids I definitely don’t hover over them wherever they go and other parents have commented on my laissez faire attitude, so it must be true. But this is exactly the kind of report that motivated me to start this blog. Why the anxiety? And can this report really be true? There are a couple of things that stand out for me about this study. One, that it reveals the unusual and WEIRD habits of Western parents. Two that it’s a perfect example of why I’m sceptical of psychological research in general.

Joe Henrich and his colleagues at Columbia university coined the term WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) to describe the societies that psychologists study. Myself and most of you reading this fit into this category. David Lancy the anthropologist is pretty clear that as parents we are very WEIRD compared to other cultures across the world. We are obsessed with our kids in a way that is unprecedented. For example all our national and religious festivals are now pretty much focused around spending money on our kids.

So what I take from this helicopter parenting report and the subsequent press articles is not that helicopter parenting is a symptom of being WEIRD, which it probably is but what’s more interesting and potentially more weird is how much these articles are shared and pored over. We might not all helicopter parent our children but we probably do helicopter parent ourselves!

The second most interesting thing from my perspective is the study itself. The psychologists conducting the research invited mothers and children into their lab and observed them for a total of six minutes. SIX MINUTES! In that time they decided that if she helped her child complete the tasks then she was an ‘over controlling’ parent. Anthropologists spend around a year and a half with the people they study before they feel they can make any serious conclusions and yet psychologists are quite happy to make generalisations about the whole of humanity based on these kinds of clinical experiments. I don’t want to bash psychology, I’ve been helped by therapists myself, but I do think it’s really important to acknowledge the serious limitations of much of the research that is done which I think this micro six minute study is a perfect example of.

Joe Henrich who I mentioned above, caused a huge stir some years ago when he published his paper revealing that the vast majority of psychological research is done in the US or Northern Europe. Mostly the US, and mostly with not only WEIRD participants but with psychology undergrads. So when famous studies are cited about the human capacity for generosity or altruism, they didn’t study humans, they studied psychology undergrads. Young people with very little life experience from privileged backgrounds and an interest in psychology. This isn’t representative and doesn’t actually tell us about all humans at all.

As parents we’re often reading about how whatever we’re doing is probably bad for our children. We’re even given lists of developmental milestones to measure our children against which let’s face it, more significantly we use to measure ourselves against. What I’m discovering is that a lot of the research used to inform us is based on a very narrow strip of humanity that may or may not apply to our own circumstances. Jamaican children walk sooner than ours, wealthier US kids talk sooner than their poor neighbours, very young Bofi children are more responsible than ours. Why the variation? Because you don’t get a human without culture, you can’t get them in a neutral lab and conduct a neutral experiment, there is no such thing. It is what being human is and any study that says we are damaging our children based on observing our interactions for six minutes should be seriously questioned.

How can we get our teenagers to spend less time on-line?

cara delavigne on phone
Cara Delavigne (when she was a teen) on the phone

Most of us grew up without the internet, as we’ve become parents how we use it and how our children use it is laden with anxiety, we don’t have the antecedents to show us the way and there have been a series of moral panics associated with the internet and especially with how teenagers and children behave and appear on-line.

My children are still small but it’s definitely something I’ve worried about for them now and into the future. Do they have too much screen time? Is this film bad for them? Are games better than passive watching? Should I post pictures of them on social media? Will I be able to stop them posting revealing photos on social media? Will all that porn totally ruin their nascent sexuality and exploration? Continue reading

Pregnancy in Palestine – why boys are preferred and dates are delicious.

cute muslim baby

(Cute Muslim baby! Don’t research images with the word Palestine in them btw, it’s most upsetting)

A friend of mine who doesn’t plan on having children has often described me as ‘taking one for the team’. She doesn’t want kids and nor do most of our shared friends so she’s glad I have done my bit. In Palestine this is taken to another level entirely. Having children isn’t just a matter of personal choice but a duty to the whole community. This is both part of a longer tradition of emphasising community over individualism but also it has a great deal to do with politics in the region. Palestinians feel it is their duty to have as many (ideally male) children as possible as a way of asserting themselves in the region and protecting their future.

Getting asked ‘Is there anything on the way?’ therefore, is part of the newly weds daily conversation almost straight after marriage and most women get pregnant within the first year of marriage. In the research I read the women described it as a way of stopping the constant questioning almost more than anything else!

Continue reading

Co-Sleep If You Want To (to the tune of the B52’s)

Just a quick one to highlight an article in the New Scientist on co-sleeping. Helen Ball is quoted quite a bit and the research she sent me formed the basis of my post on sleep. 

This article explains why co-sleeping has been advised against by doctors in the UK and the US primarily. It points out that there has never been any definitive association between co-sleeping and SIDS but how nonetheless this became gospel. The only clear cut risks are for co-sleeping on sofas or after drinking and/or smoking.  Otherwise it’s up for debate with some people recommending it.

I wanted to co-sleep more but found the only way I could relax enough to actually sleep was if my partner wasn’t also in the bed which we did do for a while, poor guy was on the sofa bed but in the end I had to chuck her out. I now end up getting into her single bed with her at about 4.30am every day when she wakes up for some milk.

Here’s the article: Lullaby and Goodnight

NS baby sleeping

(Sleep well: Sandra Seckinger/Westend61/plainpicture)

Fat Vaginas and Hot Springs – being pregnant in Japan

 

japanese pregnant women

(Slightly condescending image of pregnant Japanese women; it was this or stock shots, sorry)

Do Japanese women eat sushi? The quick answer to that is yes, they do. The longer answer is that as a developed nation with modern medicine and the kind of modern economically privileged lifestyle we are familiar with the fact that pregnant women are not told to avoid raw fish is one of a number of recommendations that makes it clear how medicine along with all human endeavour is culturally mediated and some recommendations have more to do with culture and tradition than medical science. And that medical science is inextricably tied up with culture so it’s hard to separate the two anyway.

For example, here in the UK and across much of the West pregnant women are advised not to overheat. When I was pregnant with my first child we decided to go on a big holiday before all the fun was extinguished from our lives (as we feared). We went to California, hired a camper van and went on an amazing road trip. When we stumbled across some natural hot springs my excitement was ruined by the recommendation that pregnant women were not allowed. Signs around the springs stated: Continue reading

Potty Training in Different Cultures

1512-chinese-baby-crotchless-pants-kaidangku

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.

Continue reading

Do You Rely on Grandparents for Childcare?

ChineseGrandfatherRaisingGrandchildren-56afb08a3df78cf772c77eec

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

brazilian-mother-and-baby

(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?

chinese-weaving-teacher

(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