In 1930, the American anthropologist Margaret Mead published a study of how people in Papua New Guinea raised their children. The world is one giant laboratory and human development one grand experiment, she reasoned. So why not compare parenting across cultures?
“The way in which each human infant is transformed into the finished adult, into the complicated individual version of his city and his century[,] is one of the most fascinating studies open to the curious minded,” Mead wrote. “[W]e have been prodigal and blind in our use of these priceless records,” but the curious-minded could change that, by seeking to “read the answers written down in the ways of life of different peoples.” In other words: All over the world, parents are trying to figure out how to parent—and they have been for millennia. Their practices and theories might offer valuable lessons.
Nearly 90 years later, Robert LeVine, an anthropologist and emeritus professor of education and human development at Harvard University, and his wife Sarah, a former research fellow at Harvard, have read the answers provided by parents around the world, and they’ve attempted to make sense of them. They’ve found those answers in the fieldwork they conducted over the past 50 years in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, and in other studies by academics, journalists, pediatricians, and developmental psychologists. And their new book poses one concise question: Do parents matter?
Their response: Parents don’t matter as much as many parents think they do. For me—a father of a toddler—this discovery was at once deflating and reassuring. The book’s thesis can invite a kind of parental nihilism: I could read Goodnight Moon to him every night, or I could not. Does any of it really matter? But it also invites parents to be more relaxed.
Parenting is more art than science, the LeVines suggest. And the variety of that artistry reveals the many paths you can take to, as Mead would put it, help a human infant become a finished adult. The point of their global survey isn’t to pass judgment on, say, Japanese parents sharing a bed with their kids or Mexican parents leaving young children home alone. Instead, the LeVines want to encourage parents to be more skeptical and open-minded when experts tell them they absolutely positively scientifically shouldn’t “co-sleep” with their infants or leave their teenager to babysit her younger siblings, lest these practices have negative and irreversible consequences.
“We see parents as their children’s sponsors in a social world with multiple influences, setting priorities for the training of young children and selecting the environments that will shape their children’s development rather than influencing that development themselves,” the LeVines write.
The LeVines largely rely on anecdotes and observations rather than datasets and experimental studies, the latter of which are in short supply because of a lack of research funding, they say. Their investigation inherently involves generalizations about what people in a given society “do” or “believe.” But their book nevertheless represents a worldly challenge to rethink parenting as we experience it locally.
“Parents in every culture at a given moment think they’re doing the optimal thing for their kids,” Robert LeVine told me. “But their concept of what is optimal is extremely different from another culture and even from another generation in their own culture.”
I recently spoke with the LeVines about how Indian parents toilet-train (the process can begin as early as one month after the baby is born), how Japanese teachers model empathy to preschoolers (it involves vegetables!), and how couples who co-sleep manage to have sex (“blah, blah, blah”). An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
Uri Friedman: What do you make of the parenting-advice industry in the United States?
Sarah LeVine: It freaks [parents] out.
Friedman: Can you elaborate?
Robert LeVine: We hope that by emphasizing the resilience of kids and demonstrating it, however anecdotally, in different cultures, we can get American parents to see that resilience is a powerful force in child development, and that kids might well turn out alright even if you don’t micromanage every aspect of their development.
Friedman: How did your fieldwork inform your own theory of parenting? You’re also grandparents now. How about your theory of grandparenting? Do you sit in the living room with your kids and talk about how Inuit hunters in the Canadian Arctic handle toddlers? [Note: Here’s how Inuit hunters in the Canadian Arctic handle toddlers.]
Sarah: No, we didn’t do that. We actually took them to the field. They lived in Africa with us when they were little children, and they lived in Mexico when they were pre-teens. We were of the persuasion, all those years ago, that children should unfold like flowers. We were very interested to see what they’d become—maybe our children [would] be completely different from us. One of them is actually an engineer, a computer engineer. We’re hopeless with computers! We can hardly change a light bulb.
The point being: We didn’t talk to them about our research at the time that we were doing it. And now that they’re parents themselves, we’re very careful not to talk about it because we can upset them very easily.
Robert: They’re touchy.
Sarah: We have a comparative research project because one [of our kids] is raising a child in America, and the other is raising a child in Germany. Americans have this notion that giving children choices empowers them—that, at a very early age, it gives the child trust in his or her own judgment. And that this is what we need in America because we want to have high self-esteem in our children so that they will barrel through life and overcome hurdles. This makes for an entitled child, I have to say. Or it tends to.
[In Germany and other European countries like France, the philosophy is] parents know better. They don’t necessarily know best. But they know better—that they’re responsible for raising their children. And as parents they have to fulfill that responsibility rather than handing it over to the child, because the child rarely is in a position to have good judgment.
Friedman: Is there a risk in studying parenting cross-culturally, or really any human phenomenon, of seeing all the negatives in the society you know best and only positives in the society you’re briefly observing?
Robert: We saw plenty of flaws in other cultures. For example, in many parts of Africa, they used force-feeding of kids, where the kids had to essentially inhale a supplementary food as babies, [an] extremely scary phenomenon. I watched it one time. We have loads of examples [in the book] of people who are doing things that are not to be recommended.
Sarah: Anthropologists are supposed to be relativistic. You’re supposed to see whatever you see and not pass judgment. However, when I started doing fieldwork, I had been trained as a psychiatric social worker and a child therapist at the University of Chicago. I saw things, in our first fieldwork together, that truly horrified me. What I saw was completely contrary to what I had been trained to believe was optimal. It’s now almost 50 years ago, looking back. Perhaps writing this book produced the capstone of digesting what I’d seen. It took a very long time for me to see the true benefits—not of everything, but there were benefits to the overall process that it took me a long time to perceive.
Friedman: Can you give an example?
Sarah: The first place [where] we worked together was in northern Nigeria, in a Muslim community, and the women were in seclusion. The first baby that I observed was a little child—I can’t remember how many months old. The mother was, I think, 15, and it was her first child. We were in a compound. These people live in large, extended families. [The mother] was breastfeeding, and she paid absolutely no attention to the child. [The child] was sitting on her grandmother’s lap. Every so often the child would cry, and the child would be carried by grannie to the mother, and the mother would take the child without looking at it and nurse it. And then when she thought the child had had enough, she handed it back to her own mother, to the grannie, and that was that.
I’d been told about the distance that is placed between a mother and a child in that particular culture. But reading about it is different from seeing it. And I was absolutely shocked. I thought: I’d been working with schizophrenic children, or autistic children, and so on, and the [since-discredited] theory in those days was that these American children who were autistic—their mothers had done that to them. I thought: This is perilous what’s going on with this little child.
I observed a lot more children, and it was the same in every case: that the young mother did not look at the child and did not talk to the child. And yet all around me people were perfectly fine. They were warm, they were humorous, they were engaged. They were not autistic! [I came to] understand that these little children got their socialization and the affection that they needed to grow psychologically from other people. It didn’t have to come from the mother.
Years later, when we worked in Mexico—in the countryside, parents weren’t using birth control, or only intermittently, and had five or six or seven children—the thing that was absolutely astonishing to me was how well these children got along. The mothers would be off working and the fathers would be off working, and they would leave the children in the compound. The way these children resolved their differences [was] extraordinary. They never fought. The parents—I would think: How can they leave? The eldest [child] might be 13 or 14, which is quite old, but then there was always a toddler. Each one of them, apparently, accepted responsibility for certain of the younger ones. They were very nurturing. They learned something very important at an early age, which was to take responsibility for other people.
Robert: We know what the tradeoffs look like. We know that there’s a downside to everything. Parents in every culture at a given moment think they’re doing the optimal thing for their kids. But their concept of what is optimal is extremely different from another culture and even from another generation in their own culture.
Friedman: So then, to the question you pose on the cover of your book, do parents matter?
Robert: We want people to start thinking that parents matter in a different way—that parents are sponsors of their children’s development, but not that everything you do becomes part of that child’s psychology. We think there are crucial things you do to sponsor kids’ development. If you want to promote, for example, their speaking [at an early age], as Americans tend to, you can do that. But there are a lot of other things where we’re skeptical about the influence of parents. If you look at the world as a whole at the moment, more than 90 percent of the children in the world are being raised in non-Western places. That includes Japan, which is a large, modern country. They do things differently and they have different concepts of what’s optimal in development.
Friedman: In the book, you describe showing Gusii women in Kenya a video of an American mother putting a diaper on a crying baby, and the Gusii women being really distressed by that. It seems like what you’re arguing, in relaying that anecdote, is that the reaction of the Gusii women wasn’t about the practice being a right or wrong way to care for an infant, but about different goals and social contexts. Am I interpreting that correctly?
Robert: Well, they thought that what the American mother did on the film was the wrong way. She put the baby on the changing table and left it there for what we [Americans] would regard as just a few seconds. But the baby is wiggling and crying, and [the Gusii women] had a visceral reaction to it, which was: “This mother doesn’t know how to deal with the baby.” Because what they do—in those days they didn’t use diapers; they used towels—when they changed whatever to clean up the baby, they always kept body contact with that baby.
Sarah: What we saw in the Gusii mothers’ response is that their goal was to produce a placid child—a child that, when it began to walk and when it began to talk, would be easy to manage. And the way you produce a placid child who’s easy to manage is that you respond immediately to any sign of discomfiture on the part of the child.
Friedman: But the American mother has a different goal, right? She’s not necessarily trying to produce a placid child.
Friedman: You also make a distinction between Western societies that tend to emphasize “face-to-face” interactions [consisting of smiling, talking, making faces, etc. at a distance] between parents and their infant children, and many African societies that tend to prioritize “skin-to-skin” interactions [consisting of breastfeeding and body contact] between the two.
Robert: There isn’t any American mother who doesn’t want to excite her child—to get the child engaged in a face-to-face sequence in which the child gets increasingly excited. And the Gusii way of doing things is to avoid excitement. We actually put them into face-to-face situations. When the child starts getting excited, the mother turns away, because she doesn’t want the eye contact. She doesn’t want anything that will excite that baby because the baby is supposed to be calm at all times.
Heidi Keller, the German psychologist, refers to [choosing skin-to-skin over face-to-face] as “interdependence” as opposed to “independence” as a goal. In general, if you go outside of the Western world, you will find that interdependence is the goal of psychological development rather than independence, which we Westerners emphasize to a huge degree, starting in infancy.
Friedman: Co-sleeping is becoming more popular in America, but pediatricians have also warned about risks to a child’s safety. You note that Japan offers a case study for why these concerns are exaggerated. Why?
Robert: Japan has both less infant mortality and less SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] than the United States by a good deal. [In Japan], we’re dealing with a large society, modern, and a large number of middle-class people who are sleeping with their kids all the time. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics is still dragging their heels about co-sleeping. They never take account of the cross-cultural evidence.
Friedman: What do you make of the common American practice of putting the baby in a separate room at night?
Robert: One thing you can be sure of is that the baby’s going to cry, and the baby is not next to the mother, or even near the mother. So I will argue that that is an extremely cumbersome situation that could be alleviated by having the baby in bed. But we’re aware that many Americans believe in what [the anthropologist] Rick Shweder calls the “sacred couple.” Sarah, in looking at families in different places and asking them about that—
Sarah: Sexual love.
Robert: They say, well, it’s possible to have sex even when the baby is most of the time sleeping with the mother. You take the baby out, and blah, blah, blah. They have a scenario that most middle-class Americans would think was incredibly cumbersome.
Sarah: I think it reflects the value that’s placed on romance in the United States. In most places in the world, even today, family life is more important than the relationship between the parents. The raising of children—that’s the point of being married in the first place. And, of course, that’s not the case in northern Europe or here [in the United States]: You marry for your own satisfaction. And if you want children, that’s fine. But the purpose of marriage is changing rather swiftly here, particularly among middle-class people.
One reads, endlessly, columns in the newspaper about how parents of young children, even though the children are sleeping in another room, they still don’t seem to have sex very often.
Robert: And they don’t get any sleep. For a long time.
Friedman: I’m mystified by what you found about toilet-training: That in the U.S. in the mid-20th century, parents started toilet-training their kids a lot earlier than they do now. And that in places like China and India, it happens at a really early age.
Robert: We’re not the ones who’ve done these crucial studies, but they show that in India and even one part of Africa, the mothers or grandmothers make a hissing sound when they want the baby to relieve themselves. They get the baby conditioned to that, so that most of the time, they don’t have accidents. We’re not selling that technique, but it certainly is believed in many parts of the world.
Sarah: And it can be done. I was not raised by my mother. I was raised by a nanny in England, which was the custom in those days. And I was always told, “By the time you were five months, you were toilet-trained.” Well that’s what the nanny did all the time—she hissed or whatever she did. It was her job to get me to pee when she wanted me to.
Forty years ago, even, when our children were born, Pampers were something that you used if you traveled. Otherwise people had cloth diapers, which of course were a bore. Pampers now have become so absolutely, extraordinarily wonderful that girls generally stop using diapers when they’re about three. But boys are going on until they’re four.
If you’re focused on promoting the child’s self-esteem and independence and autonomy and ability to make good choices, then from earliest infancy you’re asking, “Would you like to do this? Would you like to do that?” And then when it comes to toilet-training, you’re trying to say, “You have to tell me when you want to pee.” If the child doesn’t, then there’s disappointment. It promotes a tremendous amount of turbulence and temper tantrums. Parents hate that, and the child hates it too. And everybody puts it off as long as possible. Nowadays toilet-training is much more difficult than it was in the past because the child has, already, a very strong sense of what it wants and what it doesn’t want.
Friedman: But the Indian approach, in a different way, seems like a really cumbersome process. It can begin as early as a month old, but then sometimes it can last until the child is two and a half, maybe even three. That seems like a lot of time to be worried about them going to the bathroom everywhere.
Robert: That’s because in India they also want the child to clean himself with water. They don’t use toilet paper. That’s why it takes such a long time. We’re not selling India as the cross-culturally optimal version of toilet-training.
Sarah: The equivalent would be: We [Americans] teach a child how to cross-country ski, but [in India] they want Olympic skiers.
Friedman: Is there one particularly brilliant parenting technique you came across in the course of your research?
Sarah: In South Asia—I’ve worked a lot in Nepal, and also in India—I’m very impressed by two particular parenting behaviors. One is that parents are very physically affectionate. Fathers as well as mothers, and close relatives are too. And that is combined with totally clear expectations on the part of the parents: You know, “I love you—and this is what we expect of you.”
Robert: I have a student who worked in Japan, Joe Tobin, and he discovered amazing things about how to instill empathy in very young children, which he calls “the sabishii pedagogy.” Sabishii means “pity,” essentially. The kids are eating their lunch in a preschool, and the teacher suddenly says in a very loud voice, “Nobody has eaten their carrots. You’ve taken care of Mr. Lettuce, but think of the poor Mr. Carrots. Don’t you feel sorry for them?” They have all these routine ways of getting little kids to think about feeling sorry for others.
It’s not something you would ever imagine a culture would set as a goal—empathy in early childhood. But they’ve done it. And maybe we can learn from it.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.