Meredith Small - Our Babies OurselvesI use the Meredith Small article on “Our Babies, Ourselves” reprinted in Applying Anthropology: An Introductory Reader as a follow-up to Body Ritual among the Nacirema. For a modifiable PowerPoint presentation, click Meredith Small: Our Babies, Ourselves.

The article is a very short version of Meredith Small’s book by the same name, Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. Small has also recently begun blogging, at

The most obvious first lesson, which follows naturally from Horace Miner’s Nacirema article, is about how many different ways there are to raise children. Everyone is a little bit ethnocentric about babies. The Gusii mothers are appalled at our babycare behavior, just as we might wonder about their baby-raising. As Jared Diamond recently asks, What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Certainly one lesson is about closeness and quick attention to crying. Diamond concludes, “the prompt responses of hunter-gatherer parents to infants crying do not consistently lead to children who end up conspicuously lacking in autonomy and self-reliance and other virtues.” Diamond in fact lauds what he glimpses as a greater autonomy and self-reliance.

Alex Golub recommends Meredith Small as a favorable alternative to Jared Diamond on these matters. I agree. One reason I prefer Meredith Small is that she also highlights variation within industrialized countries–one of her featured examples is from Dutch parenting, revealing that the differences are not limited to far-away others.

The part of Meredith Small I really want to emphasize is in her discussion of humans born as “neurologically unfinished” (2012:218). The idea here is to introduce culture, history, and learned behavior as essential in the development process, crucially present during the natural wiring up of the brain. This is essentially a first approximation of understanding what anthropologists mean by holism and biocultural understandings. I segue to a passage from the introductory textbook:

Most anthropologists reject explanations of human behavior that force them to choose either biology or culture as the unique cause. Instead, they emphasize that human beings are biocultural organisms. . . .
Human biology makes culture possible; human culture makes human biological survival possible. (Anthropology: What Does It Mean to Be Human? 2012:6-7)

It’s an attempt to gently introduce the ideas of Anthropology and Human Nature–that there is no such thing as a human nature outside of particular histories and circumstances. That there is not–as at least some people want–a universal prescription or universal baseline of babycare. I also sometimes use this as a way of introducing what Franz Boas found in the immigrant head form studies–and as the comment stream for Jonathan Marks’ Diamonds and Clubs reveals, these issues are still very much alive.

What I perhaps could have pointed out, especially since we will soon be reading the article version of Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, is that what does seem to be a universally true baseline is that humans are cooperative breeders: infant care is always social, always intensely close. Nevertheless, what falters are attempts to delineate universal or baseline techniques.

My one quibble with Meredith Small’s article is that it sometimes glosses as cultural difference what might actually be issues of power and choices made under difficult circumstances. This is a lesson indelibly impressed from any reading of Nancy Scheper-Hughes Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, when parents leave infants with young siblings not out of choice or culture, but because that is what they must do to survive.

This emerges in the passages Meredith Small uses by Edward Z. Tronick:

I know I have helped residents broaden their views when their lectures on good mothering are replaced by such comments as ‘What a gorgeous baby! I can’t imagine how you manage both work and three others at home! (2012:218)

Indeed, let us all spare our lectures and good mother sermonizing. However, how is this woman managing work and three at home? Is older-sibling care really what she would choose? Is that culture? Or is it power and inequality? Put differently, when Jared Diamond shows us a picture of a “Pume Indian baby playing with a large sharp knife” is this really (as he labels it) “traditional child autonomy”? Or is it a lack of resources to provide toys and supervision?

Most potently, the lesson here is not what we can learn from distant others, but rather about how politically-charged and impossible it has been to get parental-leave policies and childcare in the U.S.

Childcare–who gets it, and at what quality–is incredibly political. In the wake of President Obama’s State of the Union proposals for universal pre-school, columnist Gail Collins traces the story back to the 1970s and former vice president Walter Mondale:

In 1971, when he was a senator, Mondale led the Congressional drive to make quality preschool education available to every family in the United States that wanted it. Everybody. The federal government would set standards and provide backup services like meals and medical and dental checkups. Tuition would depend on the family’s ability to pay.

And it passed! Then Richard Nixon vetoed it, claiming Congress was proposing “communal approaches to child rearing.” Now, 42 years later, working parents of every economic level scramble madly to find quality programs for their preschoolers, while the waiting lines for poor families looking for subsidized programs stretch on into infinity.

In other words, the bill was blocked for precisely recommending what anthropologists like Meredith Small and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy say is most necessary and species-appropriate for raising children: communal approaches to child rearing.

People, think about this for a minute. We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We’re near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are.

Would it be different if all the children born over the last 40 years had been given access to top-quality early education–programs that not only kept them safe while their parents worked, but gave them the language and reasoning skills that wealthy families pass on as a matter of course?

We’ll never know.

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  • Discuss White Privilege

    Especially in the contemporary moment, it is hard to pass universal childcare in a country which really does not see all children–regardless of race/color and class (and in the US class is often a proxy for race)–as equally human and equally valuable. Some children are seen as valuable and fully human, and others are not. In such an environment, it will be hard to re-order childcare policies.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Discuss, indeed these issues of who really is included in the human family loom large in such discussions. This is something Katha Pollitt has written about, how people in the U.S. seem to resist anything resembling a universal benefit, even if it benefits themselves, because it might go to “those people.”

      That said, I do find interesting that a universal preschool proposal passed Congress in 1972. Might this have changed the contemporary landscape? Or would it have become another program that sounds universal in principle but is hardly universal in practice?

      •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

        Note: This comment is from @Discuss with apologies for technical difficulties:

        Yes, Pollit is right. This is the continuing legacy of the slavery and genocide/racialized dispossession on which the US is founded, despite oft-heard claims that ‘we’ are post-racial now that we have elected and re-elected Obama as President. Unfortunately, his election does not mean that people’s views are not still motivated by dysconcious racism and implicit bias toward ‘those people’, who Americans–anthropologists not exempted–all too often don’t truly see as truly ‘like me/us’ such that we have support for universal social safety net programs, from childcare to health care. And we should include gun control in this conversation, painfully honest as it is to acknowledge, given that Sandy Hook made a gun control conversation possible in a way it wasn’t before not only because of the age of the child victims, but also because of their race/class and the fact that the shooting took place in small-town predominantly-white upper-middle-class America–ground zero for the normative ‘us’ against which ‘those people’ are always in contrast, in opposition and seen as deviating/deviant from, and seen as less human than.

        Yes, it is remarkable that universal childcare passed in the early seventies,
        but this was also a political moment in which schools were being forcibly
        desegregated by the federal government’ abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court, and affirmative action was actively implemented. A lot has changed since then, especially via backlashes rooted in discoursesof ‘taking the country back’ from ‘those people’.

  •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

    Hi Professor Small! Thank you so much for your visit and comment.

    Here’s a link to Meredith Small’s latest blog-post, The Culture of Safer Births and for updates you can *like* the Our Babies, Ourselves page on Facebook!

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  • Helga Vierich

    I am actually less and less impressed with Jared Diamond – why is his book getting so much attention when Mel Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood, which makes far better points with far more data to back them up, almost completely ignored?

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Helga, I find myself in danger of thinking the same way and being very dismissive. However, I will say that I recently assigned his Worst Mistake article, and despite the still-inexcusable plagiarism of Richard B. Lee, it was something that at least shook up the usual preconceptions, even 25+years later.

      • Helga Vierich

        Diamond presents the whole “mistake” as a decision. It does not do justice to what we know now about the effects on the wild cereals of centuries of human gathering activities, nor of the demographic trap into which these same cereal dependent humans had gradually fallen. They did not make a mistake so much as undergo a cultural adaptation, to save their children from starvation. The shortening of the birth spacing interval alone is not even given a passing mention.