Robert and Sarah Levine are a husband and wife team of anthropologist-researchers who have spent their lives studying parenting practices across four continents for nearly 50 years. Their new book, written for parents rather than for fellow academics, is provocatively entitled, Do Parents Matter? The book synthesizes decades of research on child rearing practices all over the world. Each chapter covers a topic related to childcare and the expectations of children’s learning and development from a variety of perspectives. The Levines challenge the common understandings of the needs and expectations related to parenting practices that they claim are rooted in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic) psychology.
The authors present examples of parenting practices and developmental outcomes in distant parts of the world that seem to contradict common understandings of children’s needs as we understand them in the Western world. The book is full of interesting stories of what the Levines saw in Africa and in North and South America among other locations as well as observations from other researchers in Europe, India, China, Japan, the Pacific Islands and other places. Although reading it reminded me at times of textbook reading, I remained interested in discovering the myriad of approaches to sleep, feeding, caring and disciplining of young children across many different cultures.
The book’s subtitle, “Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Sibling Don’t Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax” offers a clue to the Levine’s core message to readers. In every culture, young children are conditioned to conform to parental standards that are based on cultural and generational specific expectations, norms and ideals.
Parents, the Levines assert, are children’s sponsors into the social world. Parents all over the world prioritize their children’s training, as they are gatekeepers of the influences they allow for their children as they control their environment. Challenging a popular view of parenting today in North America, the Levines claim that parents do not create or influence a child’s development, but rather shape it. “…Mothers… provide cultural-specific pathways for their infants…” (p. 103)
In Western culture, where education is highly valued, children are raised to play and participate in conversations, while in other cultures children are raised to obey, work and contribute to the community. What is regarded as precocious behavior in one setting, may be discouraged in another and therefore we see stark differences in behaviors of children across cultures. Some children are conditioned to acquire compliance and respect, while others may participate in family life by performing chores. American youngsters, the Levines write, are considered precocious in their verbal ability, a skill that is highly valued in American culture.
Considering the differences in both priorities and practices in child rearing across the world, the question arises: is there a better, or best way to raise children? In their book, the Levines make no such claim. They do, however, identify a trend among American parents towards what they call Intensive Parenting. “American middle-class parent, compared with parents elsewhere, feel burdened and anxious, not only about their children but about the effectiveness of their parenting.” (p. 182). These unnecessary burdens include worry about infant sleep, presenting too much choice to toddlers and wishing to befriend their young children, performing tasks on the behalf of school-age children that they are capable of doing themselves, and “concerted cultivation” through supplementary educational activities.
We can and should learn from other perspectives and ways of raising children. In comparing our goals and practices with others, we may recognize previously unexplored assumptions and biases. The Levines encourage us as parents to relax, to identify our own goals within our cultural context and then to exhibit consistent practices while we release some of the burdens associated with raising perfect children.