Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mom's Bookshelf - How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood

When it comes to parenting notions, most of us don't stray too far outside the realm of what we know to be true. We might do what our parents did, or actively try not to do what they did. We consult parenting books that receive high marks, check out websites, seek out the advice of other moms and dads for particularly thorny issues. But most of us don't look much beyond our cultural comfort zone when considering how to discipline our kiddos or what time we should be putting them to bed.

And then there's Mei-Ling Hopgood.

Hopgood and her husband were thrilled to add daughter Sofia to their family, while living abroad in Argentina. Pretty much everything the couple knew about kids they had learned through their own cornfed American upbringings. Essential gear? Strollers and pull-ups. Approved play? Mommy and me. Sleeping arrangements? Bedtime and crib for one.

But then Hopgood started noticing how Argentine parents treated bedtime - more of a suggestion than anything, with young kids present in restaurants and out and about far later than American children generally are. Digging deeper, Hopgood found the roots of this practice in the culture of her adopted homeland. What she found was less about sleep habits and more about what the Argentine approach to bedtime says about their attitude toward children as a whole. And far from negligent parenting (which is, let's be honest, what most of us might think here if we saw kids eating dinner at 10 p.m.), in Argentina it's considered an important part of family togetherness.

This led Mei-Ling Hopgood to begin exploring parenting practices around the globe, compiling her findings in the fascinating book How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting. Hopgood's research is incredibly insightful, as she digs into why Mayan children participate (happily!) in household chores and how French moms and dads get their children (willingly!) eating veggies. In each case that Hopgood examines, we learn a little something about the particular cultural norms that are transmitted from parent to child, and how those norms support the larger values and beliefs of that cultural system.

As an undergrad sociology/anthropology major, this stuff is right up my alley, and it really made me think about why we hold the beliefs we do about proper nutrition, playtime, and yes, even bedtime. Much of what we do is in all honesty pretty arbitrary, when it all comes down to it. And in fact it could just be that the Japanese are on to something when they let kids work out their own petty squabbles with -- shock of shocks! -- little or no adult intervention. Can you imagine??!

Though I'm not giving up our stroller just yet, I'll admit that Hopgood makes some pretty intriguing points here. And if nothing else, I'll feel a lot less guilty next time we stay up a little past bedtime.

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