“There are Many Right Ways to Raise Children”

Is there one “right” way to raise children? How are children raised in different countries of the world such as Côte d’Ivoire, Israel, or Somalia? A recently published second edition of the book “World of Babies” by Alma Gottlieb and Judy DeLoache explores these questions. In the interview with the Jacobs Foundation the two researchers talk about how the book was created, what challenges they encountered and what implications the book has in todays’ world, where the fear of the Other is ever-present.

What fascinates you about your research generally? About the book you have published?

Judy: To me, the most fascinating thing about this work that we have done is how there are SO many different ways of thinking about children, believing what children are like, what is good for them, and what is bad for them. There are lots of different ways to raise children, but most of them promote the welfare of the children. And children themselves develop to have different sorts of personalities and temperaments in different kinds of societies.

Alma: For me, the other thing that is exciting is the format of the book. We have created a new genre that did not exist: using the model of a how-to-guide — in this case, the genre of child-raising guides — to gently poke fun at the genre itself. That is, each of the chapters in the book is written as an imagined guide for raising children. Child-rearing guides always have the underlying assumption that the advice they contain is the one right way to raise children. But what we find around the world is that there are so many different models of child-rearing. Creating these fictional guides has a certain ironic undertone to it that makes it fun to read and has drawn a very wide audience to the book.

Judy: In other words, the book has research-based information that is delivered in a completely non-academic style — and, readers of the first edition have told us, that is delightful to read. While enjoying the reading experience, readers learn a great deal of reliable information about cultural practices around the world, and the many different ways that people think about babies and treat them.

Did you or the other authors face any challenges creating this book?

Judy: I think the big challenge for some of our authors was to write in the style we wanted them to. For some, we did some pretty heavy editing. Others came in pretty much the way we wanted them. But in the end, they all had the same kind of tone and this unique sort of perspective.

Alma: In the first edition, most of our authors were then graduate students. For them, a challenge was to write authoritatively about societies in which they had not done much (or any) first-hand research–they were mostly drawing on other scholars’ research. In the second edition, all of the scholars who are contributing chapters are full-time, practicing, professional scholars who have done very extensive research in the societies they are writing about – often, for several years; two of our authors are actually natives of the societies they are writing about (a Somali-American, and an Israeli).

Do you have a story which touched you whilst you were collecting your data?

Alma: For me, what was striking about investigating infant care among the Beng people in Ivory Coast was that children are seen as the reincarnation of an ancestor. This has huge implications for how everyone relates to infants and toddlers. For example, people are constantly carrying babies, and it’s rare to hear a baby cry for very long in these villages. As soon as a baby cries, she or he is picked up and, if the mother is around, breast-fed immediately. There is no fixed breast-feeding schedule–the schedule is, whenever the baby cries. If the mother is not nearby, then a baby just sucks on the breast of any available woman, using the breast as a pacifier.

Observing all this had a big effect on my own parenting practices. I got into the subject of infant research when I became a mother myself. My first child was very colicky, crying all the time, and I had no idea what to do. I sought advice from all my friends, as well as from pediatricians and nurses. Nothing worked. Finally I asked myself, What would a Beng mother do? I remembered that babies were carried around constantly. So I tucked my son into a front-pack and tightened up the straps. The MINUTE he was in there, he stopped crying. I took a little walk around the block, and he remained totally quiet. I kept walking. As soon as I took him out at home, he started crying again. So my husband and I carried him around a lot, and as long as he was in the front-pack, he was happy. But when my son was one year old, I herniated my disc from carrying him so much and had to have surgery. So I discovered firsthand that this lifestyle is demanding! Ideally, you have a lot of people to engage in it, if you want to avoid your own health issues. In Africa, it’s typically the whole village that helps to carry the baby for short periods all day long, not just the mother. I never heard of a herniated disc in these villages!

Do you see any practical implications for the Westernized world?

Alma: For urban populations in Europe and the US it always sounds amazing to imagine what it would be like if we had a more collectively oriented child-rearing style. But the truth is it doesn’t easily fit most of our lifestyles. When both our children were young, my husband and I were living a thousand miles away from our family. Unlike Beng mothers, I didn’t have nieces, sisters, aunts, and cousins to help carry our children. It would be wonderful if we had a more communal approach to child-rearing, but in practical terms, it’s hard for those of us who arrange our lives in nuclear families. Implementing a different baby-carrying regimen really means implementing a different family structure and residential pattern, and creating a sense of community such that a much larger group of people than a mother sees itself as responsible for the well-being of each child.

Coming back to your book and the research you have done, how do you think you could help parents better understand their children?

Judy: I think the most important thing parents can gain from our book is that you do not have to be so uptight and worry about every little thing you do with your baby. Because there are all these different ways that babies are treated around the world and they do just fine, as long as they are loved and taken care of. But there is no single set of things you need to do.

Alma: For instance, in the US, co-sleeping is really demonized. In New York City, subways now have little banners in the trains warning, “Don’t co-sleep”. And yet, there are many, many American parents who co-sleep. They feel guilty, and they hide it, because they are publicly condemned. One implication of our book is flexibility – a classic lesson of cultural relativity. If co-sleeping isn’t right for you, fine, don’t do it. But don’t claim that it’s going to kill the baby, if it’s done in a safe way—with no loose blankets and pillows in the bed, and with parents who are not drunk or chemically impaired.

How might your research results help strengthen children and youth in the future?

Judy: One result could be that parents who read our book and take it to heart may feel less anxious and more open to trying whatever works. As long as I love my baby, take care of their needs, then little details are not really that important.

Alma: Another result, we hope, will be that the book helps to promote tolerance regarding different child-rearing practices. This is important with the new influx of refugees into Europe, who are bringing with them a variety of family structures. The “far right” is rising, on the basis of fear of immigration, which is ultimately fear of the Other, and fear of another way of living and thinking. We would like to think that our book will help promote tolerance for difference — an understanding that when families arrange their lives in “different” ways, they do so for cogent reasons, and it works for them. Teaching people to ask, “Why?” before condemning “other” parenting practices would be an important lesson our readers could learn from the book.