Wednesday, April 28, 2010


How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Our Children


Meredith F. Small

Finished Reading: 04.2010

This book is the second part to Our Babies, Ourselves which covered the first year of human life. Kids picks up from age one, commenting on the next half dozen years, a period of serious development, learning and growing.

While American parents obsess about whether or not their child is in the right learning environment, whether she is maximizing her learning potential for her age, and whether or not she has the right toys which are needed to mold the intellect - most cultures simply let their children learn by observation and then give them something useful to do. While education is important, the author points out that our preoccupation with excessive education at an early age - preschool enrollment and constant chattering with our babies will not necessarily make them smarter. They will learn when their bodies are biologically ready to learn, and not before. Eventually children will speak and read, and the important thing is to encourage the joy of learning.

One chapter that I found to be particularly interesting was the one about gender differences, while the speculative chapters on the evolutionary history of, and reasons why we have a childhood I could have done without. Humans have a childhood while other animals do not, it is pointed out. Many animals are ready to run around on their own soon after birth while some are born helpless but grow quickly into mature adults before too long. This is interesting to note, but doesn't really help with making parenting decisions.

As far as gender goes, children don't know the biological difference between boys and girls for their first few years and so those pink dresses are not really reinforcing anything except their parents acquiescence to cultural norms. While pink dresses don't really hurt anything (except my sense of style), the author thinks our Western culture over does it a bit with established differences between adult male and female dress, hair, makeup and overall perception. Distinguishing gender is of course useful, as it makes it easier to know who to pursue when looking for a mate, but if we all wore brown and did our hair the same way, relationships could become awkward. Since children are not ready for all that, why force them into gender specific activities or to wear gender specific colors?

Similar to Our Babies Ourselves, this books shows we need to ask ourselves why we raise our children the way we do, and decide whether some of our parenting persuasions can be left behind in favor of a parenting style that is primarily beneficial for the child rather than simply a convenience for the parent. There is more than one way to raise a child.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy

Finished Reading: 04.2010

Tolstoy presents a wide landscape of characters and sets them divinely into these 870 pages. Anna Karenina along with the epic War and Peace reveals Tolstoy to be the master of describing regular people who do normal everyday things, simply living their lives and taking way too many pages to do it. We see both the grand ball at some magnificent estate where the young ladies are blushing for attention, ready to dance; as well as the open country and the farms where men hunt wild birds from the tall muddy grasses, surrounded by barking dogs.

Some characters are more at home in the elegant world of culture, and others feel most comfortable outdoors under the sun, although all find themselves adapting to new situations. The descriptions are rich and all personalities, thoughts, and intentions are finely related. Scenes are drawn with a finely sharpened pencil. We see the dew as it clings to the grass under a quickly rising sun, hear a distant herd of lowing cattle, and observe a clever observation - the "dilated nostrils" of a horse said to be "transparent as a bats wing." Along with the beautiful descriptions of nature, the interaction between characters is positively enjoyable.

While this book isn't really about anything in particular, that is, there is no particular quest or highly sought achievement, there are certainly prevalent themes. It is foremost a book about love, relationships, and marriage - quite broad, imprecise topics. The tales of various lovers are unfolded, and many of these associations cross paths. One relationship between timid admirers gathers momentum and blossoms, while another relationship between a weary pair fizzles out. Men are often looking around at the fine young women of society, and women wonder if they can trust any man, including their own husbands. Some couples have what it takes to make a successful marriage, and some do not. The scales are tipping in a precarious balance with the difference often being a little less forgiveness, communication or reconciliation than will keep a relationship steady.

Anna Arkadyevna Karenina is a troubled lover who at first is the very center of Russian society, calmly elegant as in the eye of the storm. She is torn between her husband (Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin) whom she does not love but with whom she shares a young son, and her lover (Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky) a younger man with whom she falls in love. Anna and Vronsky run away and are shunned by proper Russian society. Anna endures a painful change from respected woman above suspicion, talented in the consolation of other troubled women, to a disrespectful and selfish adulteress caught in a difficult tension between two men and the opposite sides of society they represent - official and outcast. Anna finds herself in a void, unable to receive love from either man, though they both claim her. Proper female virtue turns on its head for the whims of forbidden love and tragedy.

Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin is a quiet man who prefers to keep others at arms distance, wanting much but having no real direction or life goals. He is a nobleman farmer who goes to great trouble with the best way to farm his land because it is easier than talking to people at parties or looking for a wife. He is unlucky in love and lacks the determination to remedy his heartache, but thanks to a lucky though impulsive decision, he finds a wife and begins a family. Not really knowing anything about family life, he fumbles through and keeps his heart in the right place, trying to love his wife Kitty. He rises from the gloom of bachelorhood to the happiness of excited love, and though it isn't always easy Levin makes a good life for himself.

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The novel begins with this line and reveals the primary theme of the book as the increasing happiness of one family and the decreasing happiness of some others.  

The paths of these two central characters are on an inverse course throughout the book. As profiled above, Anna starts off as the center of Russian society, elegantly respected, a caring mother. Over time she becomes more and more self-centered, disrespected, and ceases to care for either of her children, one from each man. She is swindled by lust and crushed by her break from society. She becomes impulsive and confused, finding it difficult to make decisions and blames Vronsky and everyone else for her misfortunes. Anna is boldly defiant of any wrong on her part and does not seek answers beyond herself until the very end, choosing an unconventional method of conflict resolution.

Conversely, Levin begins detached and confused. He doesn't really know what he wants but after he marries Kitty he begins to find a comfortable place in proper society, participates in local politics, commerce and discussion; and gains a strong self-respect. He becomes a fuller person and even seeks  truth beyond himself, finding solace in religion. His struggle with God allows him to love other people and a significant difference in the Levin's relationship is that their attempts to communicate and understand one another draw them closer, whereas Anna and Vronsky lack the ability to communicate and thus push further apart in their own selfishness.

Besides this compelling pair of opposites (Anna and Levin) who barely meet face to face but share a common extended family and a segment of society, I enjoyed Tolstoy's use of character conversations to create an interesting  dialogue of the political and societal issues of late 19th Century Russia. The people of the day were interested in the best way to farm land, the importance of new farming machinery, the status of former serfs now working as low-wage laborers, the accepted status of an adulterous married woman, the importance of contributing to another man's foreign war, the favored styles of art, and even the best way to make jam - with water or without.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Our Babies, Ourselves

How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

Meredith F. Small

Finished Reading: 04.2010

This book reveals the obvious but disregarded fact that babies are brought up differently in the various cultures around the world. Care for human babies contrasts with that of any other animal, and American parents raise their children differently than African, Asian or European parents. Parents of our decade make different choices than the previous generation - and we all do things that make even our own peers wonder why we don't parent like they do. No one really seems to know what works best, but everyone has an opinion and these judgements are passed on from one generation to the next with small adjustments along the way.

Ethnopediatrics is the study of how human culture shapes parenting styles in various cultures and over time, and seeks to bring together the disassembled global information on good parenting. As an invention of Western culture ethnopediatrics admits that Western culture is not necessarily the best standard for raising a child, nor is there any other one way that works by default for all parents. All cultures are studied to evaluate whether or not a particular culture has something to offer our own. To study outside of one's own culture is always eye opening, but to look at the cultural values of parenting particularly reveals the possible cracks in our own culture. I think the author takes an objective anthropological view, and after presenting numerous facts, one must consider whether the norm of American culture is really unrivaled.

The author asks us to think about why we do what we do while raising children. Our American culture has developed norms that are followed without hesitation, but we don't consider the ramifications for our actions. Choices are made, for example, between breastfeeding or bottle use, the scheduling of sleep, and how to deal with excessive crying. Every culture in the world is different and every culture raises their children differently, but "...there are other, equally valid ways to grow up."

The way we raise our children reflects what is important to us. Generally, Americans want their children to fully experience childhood and not to worry about being an adult until they are old enough and ready enough, while independence and intelligence are highly valued. High levels of competitive learning are encouraged early on, and maintaining normal growth is a priority. We submit to the latest technology and the authority of pediatricians and scientists, assuming everything old needs to be made new and that change is never unhealthy. Other cultures value dependence and hard work from an early age. Children are expected to help the family get done what needs to be done, and idle time for play is seldom found among these children. There is no concept of normal and competition for intelligence among infants is ridiculous because survival is of primary importance.

While I'm not getting into the details of these difference for this post, it is clear from the book that there are significant differences, and I would encourage investigation. It is not simply the third-world countries that maintain such divergent parenting styles from Americans, but other industrialized nations (such as Japan and the European nations) seek different goals for their children's growth. The author maintains that American culture is veering the furthest away from what is biologically imperative for healthy infant development. While our society enjoys unparalleled technological advancement which makes our adult lives easier, faster, more accurate and more comfortable; all babies are born into our world as they always have been. Upon entering the world, if born into a highly technological, independence-accentuating culture, the baby is faced with incredible stress and a situation completely opposite what is naturally necessary for infant development.

For me, this is one of those books that really opened my eyes to something new. Usually when I read non-fiction, I feel I know a little bit about the subject before beginning. After reading, my knowledge has been widened or enhanced, but reading about parenting is a new frontier. I don't know the first thing about parenting, except the cultural norms that I overhear. I don't know how to change a diaper, and I rarely hold a baby. There are no small children in my family or among close friends, so the only place to learn is by reading books - the quintessential American parenting experience. In most cultures, children are everywhere, spending time with all ages of adults and it would be strange to make it to your late 20's without knowing the first thing about parenting! This book focuses on sleeping, crying and eating - the only things a newborn really knows how to do. Having read this book, I feel substantially enlightened on these basics.

But my enlightenment is not just that of a non-parent becoming a parent and picking up a few new skills to deal with children. This has been an enlightenment on what is not quite right with American parenting. American culture seems very strange when compared to the rest of the world, and I feel strange for always questioning my culture (not only in matters of parenting), but the more I study and learn about what is normal, the stranger it seems. Many of the choices parents make are purely cultural and have no biological or medical reasoning. Very often an un-American approach to parenting, though controversial, seems very intelligent and appropriate and is often best for the baby. A baby is not an accessory or a deficit in the life of a parent. A baby is a valued, wholly dependant asset.

Particularly disturbing is the trend of foreign relief workers instilling a Western style on parenting values for cultures that are vastly different from our own - simply because we think our way is the best and everyone in the world ought to be doing it. (The Crusades, anyone?) Bottle feeding, social taboos and other new exports are destroying the once-healthy mother-baby relationship and contributing to the upheaval of entire third-world nations. New diseases and higher birthrates and thus more deaths are the results of our interventions, though well-intended.

While I see many things that American parents are doing wrong, we are doing many things right and other cultures have their problems as well. But the ability to consider the merits of another culture and decide for yourself what is best for your baby, without blindly following your own cultural norms, is essential to an educated and proper upbringing of any child. I hope to never fall into a choice justified only by, "that's just what you do."