Review: A World of Babies

I stumbled across A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies one day while browsing Amazon.com and was instantly curious. This book, edited by Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb, presents fictional parenting manuals for seven different cultures across the globe, written by anthropologists, psychologists, and historians, based on their studies of, research on, and interviews with the societies. Books along this vein appeal to me (I recommend How Do Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm? and Our Babies, Ourselves) both because I’m hungry to know more about the world outside my own and because I work with parents from many different cultural backgrounds and I strive to be open to the idea that different ways of doing things are not wrong ways of doing things. It has been my experience that when a baby arrives on the scene, so too do grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles from all corners of the globe, ready to assist and advise the new parents on childrearing. More than a few times I have had the honor of giving a tour of my program to not just the parents, but their parents as well, who speak no English. I quickly learn who is really asking the questions and judging my responses on so much more than what I’m saying. I made fast friends with one Chinese grandma. Although we did not speak the same language, we spoke volumes when she held her nine-month-old grandson out to me, inviting me to hold him.

The cultures presented in this book include the Puritans (yes, those Puritans!), the Beng of West Africa, the Balinese, Turkish village life, the Aboriginal Warlpiri tribe of Australia, the Fulani of West Africa, and the Ifaluk of Micronesia. Each one is fascinating! Each chapter, or “manual” offers insight not only to how the culture cares for its babies, but as to their lives in general. For example, the type of work the parents engage in, their marriage traditions, and how they deal with illness and death. The book is classified as a textbook but reads like a novel. The chapters are well-defined, making it easy to engage with each culture individually, and the overall tone is one of warmth and humor, making it approachable and memorably human. In the reading of it, I learned a lot of details about the cultures, but the overriding message was to open my mind to how much babies are universally loved.

There is a temptation, when you read a work like this, to compare and contrast with your own culture or experience. I actively tried to avoid doing so. That is not to say that there is not value in this kind of analysis, but my goal was to simply see each culture for itself. Too often, I think, our own biases and judgments creep into the way of seeing things just as they are. I didn’t want to compare the Beng tradition of keeping the child, “strapped to someone’s back as much as possible,” to my own Pikler-influenced philosophy towards freedom of movement because that’s not fair or relevant to their lifestyle and the practices that have helped them to succeed in their way.

What I most enjoyed was reading about how each child becomes a valued member of the wider community. It was in these descriptions that I felt there were true lessons to be learned. These quotes reflect a fraction of what I found:

“You will probably talk to your baby from the first day of life in this world. […] And you know how important it is to say hello to almost everyone in the village every morning and evening to show that we are all part of the community.” – From, Luring Your Child Into This Life, A Beng Path for Infant Care

“If you have to put your child down to do some work, another person — your husband, a sibling, child caretaker, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or neighbor — should hold the child. Everyone loves to hold a baby.” – From, Gift From the Gods: A Balinese Guide to Early Child Rearing

Ifaluk Child “You should not bring your baby along to work with you, but be sure that you do not leave the baby alone. No one, especially not a baby, should be left alone, for they would feel lonely and sad. Your baby will most likely be taken care of by one or more adults or an older child, perhaps a sibling of the baby, or even someone who is not a relative.” – From, Never Leave Your Little One Alone: Raising an Ifaluk Child

I recommend this book to readers with varied interests: anthropology, parenting, child development, education, ecology, history, geography, and to those generally curious about the world. I think you’ll find it an eye-opening treat.

If you’ve read a book along a similar vein and would like to share a recommendation or review, please leave a comment below or contact me (Jenn) via email at likewetcement at gmail.com.

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