Parenting Culture

In Intro to Anthro 2022, we previously talked about how the Idea of Culture. For this class, we discussed parenting and enculturation, reading the article version of “Our Babies, Ourselves” by Meredith Small (1997). For the book version, see Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent.

Next up: Five Things You Need to Know About Culture.

Parenting Culture: Transcript

The big point here is that parenting is shaped by our society or our culture or what we are taught to do. That can be quite different from place to place.

One might think that biologically we respond to infants all in the same way. There is something about when you get attuned to the cry of a child; it’s very difficult to train someone to ignore a child crying. Sometimes when we’re trying to get people to come out of hostage situations or to get them to come out, we blast loud child cries because it’s a super-difficult thing to hear. However, you can be trained to hear, and your parenting is shaped by your society. . . .

When the Gusii mothers were shown videos of how American or US women were doing their parenting and letting them cry it out thing LeVine says the mothers were “appalled.” They concluded they were “clearly incompetent mothers” (in Small, 1), and they were doing it wrong.

Now, when someone looks at another society and says, “aha, they’re wrong, they’re being incompetent,” what is that called? Ethnocentrism. The Gusii give us an example of ethnocentrism. They believe that their way is the right way to do things, and that the other ways are bad or incompetent. Ethnocentrism is a concept that Muckle, González, and Camp consider (p.200). [Ethnocentrism] is an important concept. We all need to be, perhaps just to survive, we need to be somewhat ethnocentric. You can’t be questioning yourself every time you do something that is culturally influenced. But ethnocentrism becomes a problem if you let that ethnocentrism spill over into thinking that someone is bad or less than human.

There’s another good example that I like here by Harkness and Super about the Dutch parenting and their three R’s. Rest, Regularity, and Cleanliness, but in that language they all start with R. They get to have three R’s for those. One of the things I like about this is that although the Dutch may seem far away, they are not quite as distant. We can see it in so-called Western or European societies, as well as people who are seen as more culturally distant.

The other thing that’s interesting about the Dutch example is it seems to translate biologically into their children sleeping more than American infants, which is something that I tried. I tried the three R’s. I tried as hard as possible to get them to sleep more, but it’s partially based on what you can do in your society. They go on to say that Dutch society, the way it’s structured you can do these things because you can walk to get to get your groceries and the whole society is structured around these principles. We talked about how what we think about the world influences how we try to structure it and make it and is reflected or reinforced in our material culture. [For an earlier take on sleeping, see Slumber’s Unexplored Landscape.]

One of the main points of this article is against having an ethnocentric attitude towards something that people get really worked up about, which is childcare and how you raise your children. This is one of the areas that people will sometimes scream at each other about on the street if you’re doing something wrong or perceived to be wrong.

So, the article is against that ethnocentric attitude and toward more what we call “cultural relativism.” I want to pause here and say that cultural relativism is how we try to understand other people and understand what they’re doing from within its own context. It doesn’t necessarily mean we approve of everything people are doing. It only means that we’re trying to use it as a tool for understanding why people are making their decisions. We want to be very careful: culture is learned. It’s learned patterns of behavior. When we approach the learned patterns of behavior of others, we want to be careful not to prematurely judge them. Again, that doesn’t mean we want to accept everything that other people do because they could be right, and we could be incompetent parents here.

There’s a number of different examples here of people trying to go beyond ethnocentric approaches to childcare, what some people call ethnopediatrics, which is trying to take cultural values and cultural ideas into account as we raise our children. There are some major issues that parents face. There’s the idea of when you should pay attention and be hands-on and hold the infants and pay attention to the crying versus the idea that they should be on a schedule of holding and if they’re not then they should have to cry it out and deal with it themselves, which is something that Ronald Barr talks about. In the Small article there’s the whole issue of feeding (Dettwyler in Small, 5). When should infants be weaned and put onto solid foods? How long should they breastfeed? This is one of the things that people in our society get very concerned about whenever breasts and infants are shown. Dettwyler here makes an argument that we should be waiting probably much longer than any of us would want to wait to wean, but it’s an important point that she’s making that we’ve really in most cases condensed this more than what seems to be the norm among other primates.

Then, sleep and how much sleep you get. McKenna here makes the case for co-sleeping. The official pediatric advice is that you should not be doing this. You should have your baby in a crib face-up to sleep or else they might experience sudden infant death syndrome. McKenna claims that it’s the other way around, that infants especially learn how to breathe and regulate their hearts by sleeping next to the parent. If this is done properly, it should prevent sudden infant death syndrome. If you’re parenting, investigate all of these things.

A lot more people do end up co-sleeping and doing different things in our society than perhaps this idea that in other societies they do only one thing. There’s quite a lot of variation within our own society. The infant has this strange breathing, it is not even a pattern at first. If you put the infant close to you, it can coordinate its breathing and its heartbeat with your own. That’s a special thing. Maybe don’t sleep with it, but you can do that a lot.

Of course, one of the main points here is that the way we rear our children expresses or inculcates values. . . . From Muckle, González, and Camp, we get the models of dependence training and independence training (203-204). We believe that by doing these things–the scheduling, the cry it out, the weaning early, and making them sleep in their own beds–that we’re creating independence among our children. . . .

“Dependence training is the set of child-rearing practices that supports the family unit over the individual. In societies with dependence training, children learn the importance of compliance to the family group. . . . Independence training refers to the set of child-rearing practices that foster a child’s sense of individuality” (203-204).

When I reviewed the last edition of the textbook, I told them to throw these terms out. I didn’t like them at all, because these terms are value laden. Who wants to say that I’m practicing “dependence training” or I’m raising a “dependent” person? The one sentence that I think they did change–I said it doesn’t make our kids more independent, look at how dependent they are! Children are with us much longer than in so-called traditional societies. We take care of them for so long. In fact, they said that here: “These methods of child-rearing do not necessarily produce more independent children, as the name may suggest” (204). Darn right they don’t. They’re so dependent.

I’ve never been fond of these terms and I’m not particularly convinced that different societies have or don’t have these. I think this is a continuum . . . of values, which are probably present in every society, but in our textbook it’s more as if each society has one. My own terms for this would be that dependence training is people who say you need to pay attention to your social environment first, because that’s what you depend on, your family and the people around you. That is who you should prioritize. There are societies that certainly emphasize to their children that you “share or else.” You need to be part of this social unit, or else you’re going to be in trouble.

Whereas there are people in our society who don’t teach a child to be social and teach a child to basically “look after you” and “I’m going to do what I’m going to do.” I’m not sure that makes you independent from society. In fact, it doesn’t, but it does inculcate the idea that somehow you have absolute freedom to pursue whatever you want to do. I’m going to do what I want to do. I think this is an interesting framework and idea, as long as you look at it perhaps more as a continuum and realize that these tendencies exist in every society.

My terms “social first” and “me first” are also value-laden, because I’m obviously disliking the “independence training.” But I think that calling something “dependence training” is a bit value-laden as well. . . .

The other thing I like about Small’s article is how it tells us about how culture gets under our skin and becomes biological. That it feels so natural to us. It comes to us before we even know it, as we’re being raised. Some people have said that we are biocultural creatures we need to have culture to make our biology work correctly. This is like “holism” or being “integrated” as an element of culture.

One reasons I like this is because Small points out (p.4) that when the human infant is born–partly because of our bipedalism and the way the hips have to be designed in order to have big-brained infants and still be able to walk upright–when the infant’s brain comes out it still has a lot of development to do. It still has a lot of growth. In fact, much of the growth that happens in an infant’s brain happens outside of the womb. You have these very dependent creatures that come out: they’re not able to walk, they’re not able to talk, they can’t feed themselves, they’re a mess. They’re not even breathing [rhythmically]. Their heart rates become coordinated to whoever is picking them up and carrying them around and dancing with them and singing to them. We have all of the brain neurons and things going on in our heads: our brains and bodies are developing at a time that we are being carried around or put in cribs, during a very important time of intense nurture, when we’re being told who we belong to and who our relatives are and who you should call [kin-terms] and how you should do things.

What this questions is the idea that there’s a dichotomy, a divide between nature and nurture or nature and the [social] environment. Anthropology questions that divide, because this is all happening at once. Some people have called it the “naturenurtural” [Fuentes] or they try to make new words for it because it’s one continuous process. You can’t say, “aha, we found what’s human nature.” We can’t separate that or strip it away from culture or society. As we talked about with Agustín Fuentes on human nature, you can’t define a human nature apart from the life-histories and the nurture elements. What we see is that–just like we saw with “the paleo diet”–there’s not one way. It’s not like hunter-gatherers figured out how to raise kids and we should all be doing that.

There’s not one natural way to raise kids. There are all kinds of different ways that people have developed in diverse historical-cultural circumstances and environments. Bringing back a word from our biological unit and our archaeological unit, environments that are “niche constructed”: that have changed the conditions of selection. We grow up lying in cribs or sitting in chairs or being held or being on our mother’s backs. These are things that influence the way our biology and brain develops. It makes it seem that our culture, what we learn, is completely natural to us. It feels like it’s the only way you should do things. When you’re confronted with a different way, it feels like “how can that be? Clearly incompetent mothering going on over there,” when someone is doing something different from what you’re doing.

I like this article both for its illustration of what we mean by ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, and how culture gets under our skin.


In Intro to Anthro 2022, we previously talked about how the Idea of Culture. For this class, we discussed parenting and enculturation, reading the article version of “Our Babies, Ourselves” by Meredith Small (1997). For the book version, see Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent.

Next up: Five Things You Need to Know About Culture.


Notes: For a previous write-up of Small’s article see Childcare, Culture, Power.


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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