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The week before I gave birth to my first child, I watched a
documentary called “Babies,” directed by Thomas Balmès. The documentary follows four babies from birth to
one year. They span the globe—Japan, Nambia, Mongolia and California. And each
baby is alike in their needs but completely unique in how they are raised. I
watched with surprise as the baby from Mongolia, Bayar, happily walked between
the legs of cattle. I laughed when Mari in Japan looked around at all of her
toys and sobbed. And, betraying my cultural narrow-mindedness, I was a bit
horrified when Ponijao, the boy in Nambia, pooped on his mom’s leg and she
casually wiped it off with a leaf. It makes sense. There were no diapers. Just
hold the baby over the ground and poop.
My husband had a different reaction. “Maybe we could do
that,” he said. “It would save a lot of money.”
Needless to say, we didn’t let our baby poop on the floor.
But ultimately, the show was encouraging because no matter if they were tied to
a tent pole while their parents worked or attended a really touchy-feely music
class where the parents sang and the babies tried to run away, the babies were
all right. They were all bright, happy kids with loving and kind parents.
In the New York Times, Michael Erard writes that the
best parenting book he ever read was an anthropology textbook titled “The
Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings,” written by David F. Lancy.
Far more than offer advice on getting his baby to sleep through the night, or
the proper way to introduce foods, the book reassured Erard and his wife that
all these things we parents worry about? They are just cultural constructs.
Sleeping through the night? Co-sleeping? Music classes?
Books? Rattles? These are all just the creation of a society that views
children as precious commodities. Our society. Other places don’t see children
that way. Erard writes, “Children in
Fiji, for example, are not allowed to address adults, or even make eye contact
with them. In Gapun, an isolated village in Papua New Guinea, children are
encouraged to hit dogs and chickens, and to raise knives at siblings. At 8 or 9
years old, boys among the Touareg, a nomadic people in North Africa, get a baby
camel to care for.”
But in the end? All of these children are all right.
We are always doing something wrong. ... And somehow, through this slog of back and forth, parents have to make their way.
It’s a refreshing perspective in a culture that worries and
frets over whether baby leggings are made from organic cotton or if the
macaroni we are giving them is filled with too many preservatives. I’ve had
people email me to criticize me for giving my children baby food and other
people write to tell me that I am cruel for feeding them the food I eat.
It seems that almost daily there is a news story that is
telling parents that they aren’t doing enough to protect their children from
the dangers of the world—nitrates, BPA, falling TVs, iPads—and inevitably we
are always doing something wrong. When my daughter was little, I was forbidden
to feed her strawberries before she was a year old. When my son was born, my
doctor recommended trying strawberries with him at 10 months.
And somehow, through this slog of back and forth, parents
have to make their way. More recently,
I’ve been trying to make parenting decisions not out of fear, but out of a
place of strength. I’ve been letting my daughter play in the backyard alone. I
stopped trying to barricade my baby from the stairs and just let him figure out
how to get up and down himself. I remind myself that I was raised one of eight; my parents couldn’t helicopter because it just wasn’t physically possible. And
I loved that freedom, it’s what I’d rather give to my children than fear. So, I
remember little Bayar and the cows and remind myself that they will be all right.
I remember facing shock from a friend when I fed my 12-month-old daughter some sushi. “Is that OK for a baby?” she asked. I shrugged. I
hadn’t even thought about it. “I guess, babies in Japan have to eat something
and they are OK.” From then on, that’s been my overriding mantra. When I feel
guilt for not getting on the floor and playing princess or hiding in the
kitchen while my 3-year-old demands I carry her up the stairs because her
legs have been “hexed by a witch,” I figure, somewhere, there is a culture
where parents don’t do these things, and their kids are OK. Mine will be, too.