Think that all parents do essentially the same things with their infants, around the world? Think again. Studies have actually shown that parents around the world interact completely differently with their infants than typical American parents do. Not only that, but these parenting differences can affect the way that the infants eventually grow up.
Five month infants in different cultures are surprisingly similar to each other, after taking into account individual personality and genetic differences. Very young infants are born with the same instincts around the globe: the ability to nurse, the urge to cry when they need something, and the attraction to faces and voices. These instincts give infants the ability to survive and build social relationships with those around them.
But at around six to eight months, infants in different cultures become more and more different from each other, based on how their parents interact with them.
You may be surprised to learn how different non-American parents view their infants and interact with them. Here are some of the differences studies have found:
- American mothers are the most likely to give toys to their babies, but the least likely to talk to their babies about noises or sights in their environments.
- American parents are most likely to encourage independence in their children, even very early on in life. One example of this is that they give their infants plenty of motivation to explore their environments, even in the first six months of their lives.
- American parents are far less likely to co-sleep with their children than many indigenous cultures. Even American parents that keep their babies in a cradle by their bedside are likely to do so only for the first three months, and they are likely to “sleep train” their children during their first year of life. Patrice Miller, Professor of Cross-Cultural Human Development at Harvard University, explains that this is due to the American ideal of independence, which makes parents feel that infants need to know how to get along without their parents right by their side. This concept, however, is foreign to many other cultures who believe that parents should be near their infants at all times.
- Americans are more tolerant of their infants’ cries than those in many other cultures. Whereas parents in those cultures respond to their infants’ cries immediately, Americans tend to allow the crying to continue for longer. This may also be due to the American value of independence.
- Americans tend to verbalize with their infants more than parents in many other cultures (although there are some countries, such as Italy and Argentina, in which parents are even more verbal with their children). This doesn’t just mean that parents talk more to their children; it also means that parents encourage their children, even as relatively young infants, to talk or communicate in some way. In addition, older infants are encouraged to express their own preferences (“Which dress do you want to wear today, Sweetie? This one? Or this one?”). Not only that, explains Miller, but “to some extent, it seems as if respecting those preferences over the preferences and needs of the parents or the overall family is pretty high, when compared with other cultures.”
- American parents tend to encourage their infants’ motor development more often than parents in most other countries. In other words, they focus on helping their infant sit up, roll over, and crawl “on schedule” rather than simply allowing nature to take its course. (The Kipsigis in Africa actually do this to a more extreme degree, intentionally teaching their infants each step of locomotion – such as walking and crawling – in a very deliberate way.)
- American parents touch and hold their babies far less than parents in many other cultures, some of which hold their babies for the majority of the first year. American parents may instead place their babies into baby bouncers, walkers, exersaucers, jumpers, and swings, so that they won’t have to carry the baby around all day. Even when they are out and about, they usually use strollers rather than carriers (or their own arms) to carry their infants.
American parents may think that their methods of raising children are mainstream, but people from these other cultures would disagree. For example, African Gusii mothers reacted extremely negatively to videotapes of American mothers who took “too long” to respond to their infant’s cries. Mothers from other cultures may also find the over-verbalization of American parents laughable, since they have the attitude that young infants do not require that sort of socialization.
“Probably every parenting practice has both positive and negative consequences,” says Miller. “On the positive side, being more verbal and assertive, and being more independent, seems to make it possible for people to ‘strike out on their own’ in life. It may be what is associated with more creativity, with people being able and willing to start completely new businesses, and other such behaviors. On the other hand, it may lead to a kind of feeling of disconnection from other people, even within one’s own family…Finally, there are increasing amounts of data showing that the child rearing practices use can be stressful, and can lead in some individuals to…later psychopathology.
But what does this mean to you, as a parent? If there is one lesson that you take out of these studies, it should be that you should not second-guess your parenting practices. Realize that many of the parenting practices that are common in the Western world may be cultural or arbitrary, and may not work for you or your family. Even the way that you were raised is only one way in which it can be done. For example, some infants may need to be pushed a bit less towards independence, or may need to be held more than other American parents think is necessary. Knowing that thousands of other parents make different choices than their American counterparts can give you the strength to go against the tide when you feel it is necessary.
At the same time, Miller adds one caveat: You must take into account the other ways that your culture affects your parenting practices. For example, in many cultures in which infants are held all of the time, the culture is built in a way that makes this possible. These parents may live with extended family that is willing to pitch in to help often, and it may be culturally acceptable to bring their baby to functions that are expected to be baby-free in America.