Amy Chua’s 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother caused quite a stir. Apparently it was also prophetic: one year later, U.S. readers have a new crop of books about how everyone else raises their kids. Everyone except Americans, that is: the Chinese, the French, the Argentineans, the Tibetans, the Polynesians… and so on.
The verdict? Let’s just say that in the Parental Olympics, the U.S. appears to be losing, and losing big.
Over the past year, the media has reported how the Chinese are raising children capable of crushing American students on standardized math tests. (When the parent in question is Amy Chua, one of those kids also turns out to be a concert pianist.) More recently, journalist Pamela Druckerman has filled us in on the superiority of French motherhood in Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting: a certain Gallic savoir faire seems to produce tots who eat everything and behave perfectly while their mothers take frequent smoking breaks. Later this month, we’ll be treated to a slightly different explanation about French maternal superiority, courtesy of Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Add to that the book I just finished reading, Mei-Ling Hopgood’s How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and everywhere in between), and even the most confident mama might begin to question herself.
As Allison Kimmich pointed out last month, these books “highlight our cultural obsession with motherhood, or the failings of American mothers.”
Even so, I confess to being fascinated by these books. I don’t know if that’s because deep down I’m insecure about my own mothering (and if I am, perhaps that’s as a result of all these books…?) or because I’ve always loved travel and the distance one gains from another cultural perspective. I welcome glimpses into other ways of doing things, particularly when it comes to parenting and family. I often wonder whether the “intensive parenting” practiced by many U.S. middle- and upper-middle class parents (mostly mothers) actually benefits kids—not to mention whether it places far more burdens on mothers and primary caregivers. (“Perfect madness” was how Judith Warner described it.) Other cultural perspectives can shed light on how we’ve constructed particular ideals of motherhood and family, and maybe even how we can change them.
Hopgood is the least judgmental of all of these writers. In fact, she goes to lengths not to judge (which can also be a problem if you forever wallow in cultural relativism, an oft-discussed topic in my Women’s Studies classes). Her book is a journalistic account of how other groups of people around the world approach various parenting practices: how the Chinese potty train early, how the Japanese let their children fight, how Polynesians play without their parents, and so on.
For example, did you know that Chinese toddlers are frequently potty trained by eighteen months, if not twelve? Or that Argentine children and their families regularly stay up until the wee hours of the night? How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm is full of tidbits like this.
If you’re interested in more detailed anthropological accounts of familial practices in other parts of the world, you should head straight to Hopgood’s bibliography, which contains some great sources. Or, if you’re more interested in a feminist critique of contemporary motherhood in industrialized nations, you should wait to read Badinter’s The Conflict. But if you don’t mind a breezy tour of what parenting looks like globally, mixed with Hopgood’s own personal reflections about her life as a transplanted Asian American new mom living in Buenos Aires, you should pick up her book.
Hopgood’s slightly more serious intention emerges in the final chapter. She’d like us to open up to other approaches to parenting, embrace a little more cosmopolitanism when it comes to family life, and let go of some of our judgment:
It’s unhealthy to enclose ourselves in parental parochialism, ruled by the plaintive, guilty insistence that there is a single, best way to raise children. We may or may not adopt what another family in another culture or place does, but we can take comfort in knowing that there really is more than one good way to get a baby to sleep, transport her from place to place, and feed her.
Kids are “amazingly adaptive and resilient creatures,” she writes. And there are “many ways to be a good parent in the world.”
One could certainly unpack “parent” to develop a more nuanced examination of how various cultural practices are gendered—or in some cases, how they might undo heteronormative, Western ideals of mothering and fathering. (Aka pygmy fathers turn out to be pretty interesting in this regard.) Come to think of it, Hopgood’s case studies might make some great material for my Women’s Studies students.
In the meantime, her book suggests some of the wide variations within the global landscape of parenting—as well as how parenting practices have morphed over time and continue to change today, from the U.S. to Argentina to China. And that raises an interesting question: if ideas about parenting are traveling across borders, like so many other things, is this global exchange altering how we think about what it means to parent?