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"A pleasure to read . . . No doubt some details will be too enticing not to try, like recruiting the whole family for meal preparation and training young children to take responsibility for simple tasks. Ultimately, this absorbing assemblage of perspectives will help widen our own." —BookPage
"Throughout her carefully organized text, [Hopgood] shows enormous respect for everyone she speaks with and everything she learns... A best bet for new parents.”—Booklist starred review
"Hopgood’s text is a satisfying mix of research, observation, interview, and personal experience... Readers will laugh, marvel and muse over the many (frequently opposing) child-rearing methods that persist despite the growing globalization of parenthood.”—Publishers Weekly
The hour hand has long since crossed twelve midnight, and my toddler is tirando fuego—on fire—shaking her hips to a salsa song with a handsome Argentine almost twice her age.
Sofia's polka-dotted dress balloons into a mushroom cap as she spins in circles. Her ponytails are frazzled and crooked, and her heavy eyes remind me where her little body is supposed to be. Yet my baby is jubilant, ad-libbing, throwing in a wiggle here and a head shake there. Her dance partner, who is not quite two and a half years old, is stomping and shrieking encouragement. Sofia throws him a kiss.
We are breaking the rules again. The sleep routine we've cobbled together is toast, and I'm laughing and wilting inside. My child is so happy, winning her own Dancing with the Stars competition. I hate to be the foot that quashes her Christmas Eve joy, but I know all too well that her father and I will pay for this in the morning. I've tried to put her down a couple times, but she is not having it, not one bit, not with the music, the fireworks lighting up the Buenos Aires sky, and her doting audience. One part of me is feeling guilty for this whooping transgression that would set sleep experts' fingers a-wagging, but the other Argentine parents at the party, true porteños (Buenos Aires natives), don't even flinch at the fact that our children are up at this hour. This is a special night, Nochebuena, when all Argentines celebrate Christmas and families are expected to be together. Besides, late nights for children are no big deal. Go to almost any parrilla (a traditional Argentine meat grill) or pizzeria in Buenos Aires, especially on a weekend or summer night, and you'll spot kiddies of all ages out on the town.
This should feel normal to me now that we've lived in Argentina for four years. My husband and I tend to eat and sleep earlier than most Argentine families, but we frequently break the routine and let Sofia stay up and out, though not usually to this extreme. Yet I haven't completely shaken my hang-up, the sense I might be committing a grave parenting offense. In Buenos Aires sleep schedules don't get in the way of a good party. This idea once seemed crazy to me, a mom whose American friends go to great lengths to get their kids to bed, in their own bed, in their own room, before eight o'clock every night, but millions of Argentines have been raised this way. By following their lead, was I dooming my child to developmental, academic, and social failure, or were there lessons to be learned from more relaxed porteño moms and dads? As I watched my daughter shimmy across the living room, I needed some answers, fast.
When my husband and I moved to Argentina in 2004, we were married without kids and accustomed to staying up. In the States we spent plenty of weekend nights at bars until closing time, which usually meant 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. But Argentina kicked our butts. Friends would invite us for 9:00, 10:00, or 11:00 p.m. dinners, which entailed a picada (appetizer), a meal, a dessert, and then endless conversation. We would find ourselves falling asleep in our coffee at 3:00 a.m. Try as we might to soldier on, we'd often be the first to excuse ourselves and end up sleeping until noon the next day, blinded by the midday sun when we emerged from our bedroom. I was in awe: How do these people do it? They work in the morning and even have kids. Do they ever sleep?
These questions took on new urgency after we had our first child in Argentina, so I started asking around to local friends, moms and dads, pediatricians, and even cultural experts. Late nights, it turns out, are in this city's cultural genes. Many people who live in Buenos Aires are descendants of Spanish and/or Italian families who moved to Argentina in the 1800s and early 1900s. Those immigrants brought with them the habits of the southern Mediterranean, where people ate after the sweltering sun set and didn't worry much about letting the kids stay up.
In their new land, also plentiful in daylight hours, people kept close their nonna's pasta recipes, the traditional weekly family gathering, and the delayed dinner and bedtime hours. One historian that I spoke with, Dora Barrancos, head of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Gender Studies at the University of Buenos Aires, shared her theory that many immigrants were still single when they arrived, so they were able to paint the town at all hours, and these habits became a way of life.
For a while, the daily siesta helped regulate the sleep deficit. Then city residents rid themselves of that pesky little detail because business owners decided they wanted to use every hour they could to earn more money. Thus Buenos Aires evolved into a city of people who truly never seem to sleep, where restaurants owners don't unlock their doors until 8:00 p.m. and lines don't begin forming outside clubs until 2:00 a.m. It is a badge of honor, this lateness. The city's official website brags, "In Buenos Aires you eat at nighttime, after 10 and on into the morning hours. While in cities like Paris, New York and London restaurants are packed at 8:30, in Buenos Aires, that doesn't happen before 11 p.m."
We were out for a stroll one summer night at about ten o'clock and observed our neighborhood, Palermo, brimming with families. Most of the parrillas were only then filling with customers. The smell of steak wafted to the sidewalk where young Argentines, dressed in their clubbing clothes, sipped champagne and waited for a table. Nearby, plenty of mothers and fathers chitchatted, leaning against their strollers, in which their babies were wide awake and babbling. Other parents were holding toddlers who were laughing and pointing at other children who were just ambling in. Waiters set up high chairs, and more than a couple kids danced between tables. In any number of hot spots—even upscale places—I saw children, from a few weeks old, being cradled by grandparents, snoozing in their carriers, playing with pieces of bread on wooden tables.
These scenes were jolting when we first moved here. Once upon a time, when motherhood was further off, I wasn't so tolerant. I cast a stink eye now and then at parents whose misbehaving spawn disrupted my quiet meal. Then I had a child.
In Buenos Aires, the social lives of adults and children blend rather fluidly. Despite the fact that most middle-to upper-class parents have the kind of access to babysitters that many Americans can only dream of (child care is much cheaper), they don't hesitate to ditch the nanny and bring the kids along, especially if it's a family event. Most Argentines—even single and childless folks—don't seem to think of little ones as a drag in many group settings. On the contrary, they believe children add a certain lightness, humor, and even hope.
I ran this idea by Soledad Olaciregui, a Spanish teacher and the co-owner of a business that helps foreigners understand Argentine culture called Maneras Argentinas (loosely translated: Argentine Ways). She and her business partner had helped me out with a travel guide on the city of Buenos Aires that I put together for National Geographic Traveler. Olaciregui didn't have children when we first met, but by the time I was inquiring into bedtimes, she was the mother of a ten-month-old girl. She agreed with me that other cultures separate adult and kid time and space a lot more than hers does.
"It really surprised me that in England there are restaurants that display signs that say, 'Prohibited to enter with children,' " Olaciregui said. "There are places that let in dogs but not kids! I think in Argentina this would be unthinkable."
Sure, there are limits. During school nights, a lot of kids stick to a routine, though it tends to skew later than many Americans could ever accept. Kids don't go to late-night bars or dance clubs, and they usually don't attend speeches or formal events. But it's not uncommon to see a child tagging along with his parents at a rowdy soccer game or a big nighttime show. My friends tell me they saw five-year-old children weeping with joy alongside their parents at the first Rolling Stones concert ever in Buenos Aires in 1995. Some parents even bring their babies to the movies, cradling them with one hand while they reach for popcorn with the other.
Most at-home events—birthday parties, barbecues, and so on—welcome kids; it's rare to get a no-children-allowed request. (We've received invitations like that only from families in which at least one parent is not Argentine.) Weddings, which usually last from 8:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., almost always feature children.
"At our wedding, my niece Catalina, who was five, ate, danced, and had a blast the whole night," my friend Macarena Byrnes told me. "She only fell asleep—on two chairs pushed together—for about a half hour, and when she woke up she was very angry with everyone because we had let her sleep and she missed out on some of the fun."
Her son, Bauti, was born a week before Sofia, and we became close as our children grew up together. I'd always been madly envious of the sleep habits of her son: he went to bed by himself without fail by eight o'clock, slept through the night, and woke around eight the next morning. He took naps that could last from two to four hours. Bauti was a powerhouse, incredibly coordinated and strong, a nonstop ball of energy; he played hard and slept hard.
Although Bauti was a master at his routine, Byrnes didn't worry about breaking it on nights when he wasn't going to school in the morning.
"Everyone, from the day we are born, is used to going to bed late if necessary," she said. She's married to an American, so she knows how early life can be in the States. When she first visited her in-laws in Maryland, she was astounded that some Americans actually eat at 5:00 p.m., an hour at which most Argentines have just begun to sip their afternoon cup of tea.
That is not to say all Argentine parents keep their kids out late; some subscribe to an earlier routine. Still, most families I've met think spending quality time with relatives and friends is more important than getting their kid to bed at the same time, in the same place every night.
Juana Lugano, who likes to call herself my Argentine mother, often invites my family to join her own children and grandchildren for their almost weekly dinner at her apartment on the weekend. (It's where we have spent two of the last three Christmas Eves.) The dinners never get started before nine o'clock. More than once she's bumped the start time up to eight thirty to accommodate our American preference to eat and sleep earlier. (Her children hardly ever show up before nine.) Even she admits that the kids can become "terrors" if it gets too late.
"But it would be such a shame if the children did not share these moments with their family," she said.
Mateo Acosta is five years old and has dewy, brown Paul McCartney eyes, with lashes that extend for miles. From his mom he inherited his straight hair, from his dad, his love of yerba maté, and from his country, he got his daily routine.
Like many Argentine children, Mateo goes to bed late and wakes up late. When he was very young, his mother, Mariana Garcia (a reporter), and his father, Martin Acosta (a photographer), started their jobs at the largest newspaper in Argentina at around noon and stayed until at least eight or nine, while a nanny cared for their son.
As a toddler, Mateo would often wait until his parents got home to go to sleep, and then they ate, played, and read together. His parents never forced him straight into bed. Instead, they chose to linger, wanting this to be an intimate time when Mateo "could enjoy Mama and Papa," Garcia said. She often stayed with him—cribs in Argentina are often large enough to fit a small adult—until he fell asleep, usually around 10:00 p.m. or later.
"The truth is that we never had an overly rigorous method to teach him to sleep," Garcia said. She never had hang-ups about his nighttime waking or whether or not Mateo should be falling asleep in her arms. If he wanted to be in their bed, they let him. Their view was that it mattered less where everybody was sleeping, as long as everyone was getting a good night's sleep. That way, the whole family was happier.
Going out was simply part of the happiness equation. On evenings that were obviously meant for adults—Argentine parents do welcome those childless breaks, too—they would take turns babysitting or arrange for their son to stay with a nanny or his grandparents. But often he tagged along with his mom and dad. We got to know Mateo pretty well, at birthday parties, parrillas, and Korean and Chinese restaurants. He's come to our apartment for curry dinners, Halloween, and Chinese New Year parties. His parents would take turns entertaining him, or friends carried him around, tickled him and told him stories. He ate what the adults ate, from morcilla (blood sausage) to sushi. We all went to a party on my birthday when Mateo was about two, and he played with the breadsticks, olives, and dips on the coffee table most of the night. No one minded. My husband and I watched him evolve from a pudgy baby who fell asleep in his baby carrier while his parents sipped wine and talked politics, to the boy who watched Shrek 2 on my iMac and could describe in detail each character's peculiar traits.
"We tried to find an equilibrium between our own routines and Mateo's life," Garcia said when I told her how I was impressed with the fluidity in which she and Acosta seemed to integrate their son in their social lives.
"It is not easy," Acosta once warned me. They, like all parents, made sacrifices. They didn't go out when their son was tired or sick or when they themselves didn't have the energy to chase him around. They didn't see their single friends as much, and they couldn't go out on a whim. Mateo had some meltdowns; I've seen him throw tantrums in restaurant booths and throw chopsticks at his mom. But in Buenos Aires, even if a child has a fit in a public place, almost no one glares. In fact, fellow customers, waiters, or restaurant owners might come over and help. The payoff to this public suffering is that your child spends more time with you and your family, and you can continue to see your friends more than once in a while (which helps you stay sane).
"In general, it seems to me that parents go everywhere with their babies," said Garcia. "Later, there's a period of time (during toddler-hood) when the kids briefly turn into savages and you have to lay off for a while. But then they return to being domesticated, and you can start going out again."
Mateo had just turned five when I interviewed his mother, and she told me she adored going on "dates" with him. He sat properly, ate, and chatted about his day at school.
"I love it. It's just barbaro," she said, using a common Argentine term for "fabulous." Garcia and Acosta stuck to a 10:00 p.m. bedtime on weeknights once he started elementary school; tardiness is not taken as lightly as it is in preschool. Students and parents are held accountable when they show up even five minutes after start time. Still, during the weekend and summer vacation, Mateo's mom relaxes and allows him to stay up. "Yesterday, for example, we went to my mother's house and we left at midnight," Garcia said. "He went home and slept like a baby."
This is not to say that Mateo is a perfect sleeper. Garcia quipped, "Any parent who says their kid sleeps all night, every night, is lying." She simply expected her child to adapt to her schedule, just as she adapted to his.
That simple idea appealed to me, though it was easier said than done. Not getting enough or not even close to enough sleep, is one of the most vexing problems of parenthood. It takes a lot of experimenting to find the right balance for each child in each family. I was embracing the Argentine way to some extent but I still wondered if it was better for my social calendar than it was for my daughter's health.
Western sleep experts and parents have made their matter-of-fact preference more than clear: routines are key, and the earlier the better, for children and for parents. Little room is made for exceptions. A cultural norm has turned into a rule. Parents who admit to letting their child stay up often do it with a lot of explanations, apologies, and guilt.
Yet if you dig a little, you will find that many child development experts will admit there is nothing intrinsically wrong with setting later bedtimes, if children make up for it somewhere: sleeping in, taking naps, and so on.
Excerpted from How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by MEI-LING HOPGOOD Copyright © 2012 by Mei-Ling Hopgood. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 11, 2012
This was an excellent parenting book, not in the sense of telling you you were doing anything wrong, but moreso to tell you what others are doing. I learned alot of things but the most important thing I learned was to do what you think is right.
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Posted May 12, 2014
No, this is not a parenting guide. Anyone with an ounce of curiosity about other cultures will enjoy How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, and Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and Everywhere in Between) (Algonquin Books, 2012). Approaching with a hint of naïveté and a bit humor, journalist Mei-Ling Hopgood investigates the ways mothers and fathers around the world rear their children, and reports on her misadventures in actually trying to apply some of these ideas to her own daughter.
Before getting on the defense, note that Eskimos is not an apologetic for non-American parenting styles. Many of the practices discussed are so deeply embedded in the cultures referenced, that application in the United States doesn’t always make sense. No bedtimes in party city Buenos Aires might not translate well here, where children find security in structure and familiar schedules. Chinese hosts will be more understanding then American ones when your diaperless toddler makes a mess on their floor. And carrying your infant all day when lions are constantly about saves lives in Kenya, where there aren’t many paved surfaces for strollers anyway. However, Hopgood does encourage her readers to think outside the box and take away real lessons on how to improve upon current parenting norms.
Posted July 1, 2013
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Posted April 26, 2012
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Posted April 8, 2012
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