Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

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by Meredith Small

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New parents are faced with innumerable decisions to make regarding the best way to care for their baby, and, naturally, they often turn for guidance to friends and family members who have already raised children. But as scientists are discovering, much of the trusted advice that has been passed down through generations needs to be carefully reexamined.



New parents are faced with innumerable decisions to make regarding the best way to care for their baby, and, naturally, they often turn for guidance to friends and family members who have already raised children. But as scientists are discovering, much of the trusted advice that has been passed down through generations needs to be carefully reexamined.

A thought-provoking combination of practical parenting information and scientific analysis, Our Babies, Ourselves is the first book to explore why we raise our children the way we do--and to suggest that we reconsider our culture's traditional views on parenting.

In this ground-breaking book, anthropologist Meredith Small reveals her remarkable findings in the new science of ethnopediatrics. Professor Small joins pediatricians, child-development researchers, and anthropologists across the country who are studying to what extent the way we parent our infants is based on biological needs and to what extent it is based on culture--and how sometimes what is culturally dictated may not be what's best for babies.

Should an infant be encouraged to sleep alone? Is breast-feeding better than bottle-feeding, or is that just a myth of the nineties? How much time should pass before a mother picks up her crying infant? And how important is it really to a baby's development to talk and sing to him or her?

These are but a few of the important questions Small addresses, and the answers not only are surprising but may even change the way we raise our children.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this thoroughly researched and well-referenced book, anthropology professor Small (What's Love Got To Do with It, LJ 9/15/95) explores ethnopediatrics, an interdisciplinary science that combines anthropology, pediatrics, and child development research in order to examine how child-rearing styles across cultures affect the health and survival of infants. Small describes the different parenting styles of several cultures, including (but not limited to) the nomadic Ache tribe of Paraguay, the agrarian !Kung San society of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, and the American industrialized society. In discussing these societies, she illustrates that although there are numerous ways to care for babies, some cultural norms of care are actually at odds with the way infants have evolved. Thus, parents should expect "trade-offs" when they act in opposition to how babies are designed. Small speculates that the custom of mothers in industrialized nations to wean early or not to breastfeed at all may be responsible for the higher incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, more medical problems and fatalities, and more crying than is commonly noted in babies of more agrarian societies. She urges parents to recognize that although their native culture does have an impact on their parenting, they can adopt aspects of child rearing from other cultures, if they choose. Highly recommended for all anthropology and child development collections and appropriate for general audiences as well.--Ximena Chrisagis, Wright State Univ Libs., Dayton, OH
Small (anthropology, Cornell U.) examines how biology and culture combine to shape the ways we raise our children. While all babies have basically the same biological needs (sleep, food, emotional attachment), Small finds that these needs are being fulfilled in often dramatically different ways from culture to culture. For a general audience. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
A look at the not-so-new idea that how babies eat, sleep, and cry is determined by the culture into which they are bornþincluding a subtext that the ever-evolving parenting mode in the US may still not be all that baby-friendly. Small (Anthropology/Cornell; What's Love Got to Do With It?, 1995) is an expert on primate behavior and a convert to the infant science of ethnopediatrics, which brings together medical, developmental, and social science researchers to study babies not as unformed adults but as beings in their own right. To start off, Small reviews the evolutionary data, exploring why human infants have such a long period of dependency and how the intimate bond is created that primes adults to nurture their offspring over such a long period. The child-rearing practices of the African !Kung San and Gusii and the South American Ache groups, modern Japanese, and contemporary Americans are compared. The range is wideþthe San mothers, for instance, are inseparable from their babies, carrying and nursing them "on demand" until they are four or five years old. Americans separate from their babies immediately, installing them in a separate bed or room, even before mother and child leave the hospital. These varied styles reflect the varied goals of the adult culture, the San emphasizing cooperation, the US individuality. Chapters are also devoted to crying, breast feeding, and sleepþincluding speculation that babies who sleep with a parent may be less at risk for SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Small clearly approves frequent, if not continuous, bodily contact between child and parent, but emphasizes that successful parenting is a series of trade-offs. What worksin one culture may fail in another. No breakthrough research here, but neatly packaged information that elicits new respect for babies and their ability to survive and thrive, whether in the Kalahari or in Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

Several years ago, The American Museum of Natural History in New York City sponsored a special exhibit of human ancestors. Their goal was to bring to the public a four-million-year record of original human fossils. These fossils are usually locked in museum vaults in Africa, Asia, and Europe, privy only to the eyes of qualified scientists. But that spring, the average person was going to have an opportunity to see their ancestors, not in the flesh but in the bone. For me, an anthropologist, this was a dream come true to see the actual fossils that I had spent so many years studying and teaching about. I drove to New York the first weekend it opened, excited as a teenager on a first date. I had seen photographs of all of these fossils and played with plaster casts of many. And now I was going to see what Louis Leakey, Don Johanson, and others had seen when they reached down and scooped one of our ancient ancestors out of the dirt.

I walked up the main steps of the museum, passed under the banner announcing the exhibit, and entered. It was dark, and quiet, with only a few people milling about. The ambiance suited me--it echoed my own sense of anticipated reverence. Before me, the first exhibit was a tall glass case lit from above. Inside was a child's face, set high at adult eye level so that our gazes met. There was no flesh on this skull, no eyes, no mouth, just the empty face of a child with a set of battered teeth. I froze, sucked in my breath, and stared.

This was the "Taung Baby," a two-million-year-old Australopithecus africanus, discovered in 1925 and once thought to be the missing link between humans and apes. Long ago, when this little kid died, he or she somehow ended up in a limestone quarry where the bone tissue leaked away and was replaced by stone. Two million years later, quarry workers chucked this hunk of rock into a box of possible fossils that they routinely passed on to Raymond Dart, a British anatomist working at a South African university. Dart used his wife's knitting needles to pick away at the stone until the small face appeared. Dart was used to finding baboon fossils in his shipment, but this was no monkey, the brain was too big and the face was too flat. It was, Dart was convinced, the first evidence of the ape-human split. We know now that Taung and its relatives were a kind of human that walked upright but still had small brains, and that they were possible ancestors of our species, Homo sapiens.  A child, then, led the way to understanding our past.

And here was that same face that Raymond Dart had looked at sixty years before.The face is gray stone, dished in from forehead to mouth, but with a flat nose. The eyes, were they in their sockets, would stare straight ahead. The right side of the inner skull is filled with a geode, sparkling crystals that give Taung a jewel-like glow. And that is appropriate. This skull, and the stone impression of this child's brain that Dart also found, are as precious as diamonds to those who are trying to figure out the human path of evolution. Staring at that skull, I was struck by the fact that this ancient child was somebody's baby long ago. Perhaps she was sick, or maybe he was accident-prone, or perhaps this baby was some predator's dinner. Standing there, I could picture him or her long ago, smiling, laughing, and reaching out to grab a mother's breast. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

From a biological point of view, the Taung child represents a specific stage of development for Australopithecines, our ancestors that lived from four to two million years ago. Paleontologists tend to concentrate on adults of any species because adulthood is the mature end product; but fossilized babies and children also give clues to anatomy and physiology, to rates of development and growth. Children are not just miniature versions of adults. There are sound evolutionary reasons why infants and children look and behave the way they do; childhood is a specifically evolved stage in the life course. The Taung child emphasizes the fact that we are not born as adults but go through a lengthy period of growth and change. In this child, and all children, are some of the most important secrets of our anatomy and behavior. There are reasons why mice are born blind and human babies cannot hold their heads up. Natural selection has opted for fawns to stand on their own soon after birth, for human infants to smile automatically, and for baby chimpanzees to cling to their mothers' fur. And all of this makes some sort of natural biological sense. The pattern of birth, infancy, and childhood in any species follows a particular course that eventually outlines adult biology and behavior.

The Human Infant Design

In the summer of 1990, on a trip to Africa, I had the opportunity to hold a wild baby chimpanzee. Its mother, and all its relatives, had been killed by a poacher. The poacher was caught before the infant was shipped off to some European zoo, and for now he was housed at a hotel where the sympathetic manager had made it a policy to take in abandoned animals. Cradling the infant ape in my arms was uncanny: she felt just like a small child, only hairier. She squirmed a bit, looked at me with frightened brown eyes, and cooed softly, lips pouting out. After a few anxious minutes, she stretched her long arms over my shoulder toward the woman who usually cared for her, reaching for the only mother she now had.

That chimpanzee felt so much like a human child for a good reason--about 98 percent of our genetic material is identical to that of chimpanzees. We are, in fact, more closely related to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas. I state this fact to underscore a point: Human babies, and human adults for that matter, are animals. We are primates, a kind of mammal, and our babies are animal babies. Although humans like to think of themselves as unique, we share much of our physiology and behavior with others of our kind, with other primates. For example, the shape of our head follows a continuum with other primates that shows a reduced snout and an enlarged brain case with a full forehead and forward-facing eyes. Our teeth are primate teeth, rather than dog teeth or alligator teeth. Our eyes see the way monkeys' eyes see, with color vision and good depth perception to facilitate swinging through the trees. And our flexible hands--the hands that can pick ripe fruit off a tree, type these words or tie a shoe, hold a flower or build a model plane--distinguish us, and all primates, from other mammals that have paws. Our whole upper skeleton reflects an even closer relationship to other primates, apes in particular. Using a human anatomy book, one can dissect a chimpanzee or a gorilla and find everything in the right place. We have the upper bodies of long-armed apes. The only difference, in a broad anatomical sense, is the fact that the human pelvis, legs, and feet have been adapted to upright walking. So much of our physiology is simply that of an upright-walking primate. The point is that human babies, like all babies, are animals of a certain species, born with certain physical and mental abilities and lacking some others. As this book will show, much of the animal context of human babies and children can be understood best through the lens of biological evolution. Taking this tack, one cannot think about babies as early unformed organisms or shadows of the adults they are to become. They are instead simply what they have been designed to be.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Meredith F. Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University and the author of Female Choices: Sexual Behavior of Female Primates (Cornell University Press) and What's Love Got to Do With It? (Anchor Books).

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I recently became a new mom, and was looking for information on babies that was NOT written by a pediatrician. Our Babies, Ourselves (no relation to Our Bodies, Ourselves) is written by an anthropologist, who provides more of a worldwide view that just an Americanized view. This book made me feel at ease about how I am beginning to raise my child, and that "right and wrong" ways of childrearing don't exist in much of the world. The research and information on biology and medicine are phenomenal and very intriguing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book. Meredith Smalls gives us a fascinating anthropological view of parenting. I first read this book when my oldest child was an infant and I was struggling with listening to all the well-meaning advice of friends an relatives.This book validated all my natural parenting instincts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a facinating look at how parents make choices.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago