Why Boys and Girls Don’t Play Together

lego-ad-boy-and-girl

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

kung-grandmother-and-baby

(!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

What Shouldn’t You Eat When Pregnant?

baby-sushi

No raw egg yolks, no unpasteurised cheese, no sushi etc etc. Are women everywhere given restrictive diets? Basically the answer is yes but what is restricted varies hugely. In parts of Thailand papaya salad, pickled food, spicy hot food, coffee, tea and shellfish are all to be avoided. In parts of Madagascar peanuts, bananas and milk are taboo. Masaii women have traditionally followed a near starvation diet for the last months of pregnancy with very little meat intake and induced vomiting. The intention is to reduce the size of the baby and allow for a safer birth. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, the neonatal mortality rate is particularly high.

Amongst the Huoarani in Ecuador, pregnant mothers don’t eat fish or most types of meat towards the end of their pregnancy too but what is really interesting is that expectant dads don’t either. Expectant couples see themselves as ‘one flesh’ so it’s vital that fathers participate to ensure their child’s good health. Laura Rival writes about how she observed one occasion when a pregnant mother was prescribed vitamins by a visiting doctor and she shared these with her partner too. It’s interesting to see how both parents are encouraged to take care of themselves, not just the mother, and that the father’s body is part of pregnancy too.

I really wanted to eat poached eggs so took the salmonella risk seeing as it seemed extremely unlikely and also drank small amounts of alcohol as the NHS at the time said that was permitted and did the same with my second even though they’d changed their advice by then. I would think that most mothers don’t always stick to all the rules however, it’s well documented that French women do avoid unpasteurised cheese even if Japanese women do eat sushi, so I would err on the side of caution and follow NHS guidelines as much as possible.

Laura Rival article on the Huoarani

Madagascar Health research (not anthropology)

Madagascar pregnancy and gender article – Rita Astuti

Fun article in the Guardian with loads of anecdotal stories in the comments