How much do parents matter?

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After decades of research, two top anthropologists say parents have far less influence than we think

Parents these days are bombarded with advice on what they should and shouldn’t do to raise healthy and well-adjusted children. One wrong step, parents worry, could mean a beloved child turning into a hapless adult with a raft of emotional problems. Mothers and fathers are constantly made to feel that they are falling short, and it becomes a time of anxiety.

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To the rescue of beleaguered parents come the Harvard anthropologists Robert and Sarah LeVine, a married couple with two children and three grandchildren, who have conducted a groundbreaking study of how families work. Their new book, based on almost 50 years of their own research and that of other anthropologists, is called Do Parents Matter? The answer to that question is yes, parents do matter, but not as much as we think.

“Parents are always being told by experts that if they don’t do everything right, they’re risking putting their kids through all kinds of trauma, but that grossly underestimates the resilience of children,” Robert adds.

Sarah, 76, who is British, was brought up in a manor house in Northampton, and she and her brother were raised by a nanny she knew as “Nursie”. Her father was a commodore in the Royal Navy and her mother did not work. “We had very little to do with our parents, which I think is true of a lot of people of my background and my generation,” she says. “I think I’ve turned out pretty fine.”

The couple have spent their working lives looking at parenting practices across the globe. Children can be happy in avariety of conditions, “not just the effort-intensive, cautious environments so many British and American parents drive themselves crazy trying to create”, they say in the book.

In other societies, parenting practices that western mothers and fathers might regard as neglectful or even cruel result in happy, healthy adults, they point out.

For instance, many western working mothers feel guilty about leaving their children in nurseries or with childminders and, because of the belief in the nuclear household, think the burden of childcare should fall on mothers and fathers. Yet communal childcare is the norm in other parts of the world.

Among African populations such as the Hausa, based primarily in northern Nigeria, mothers hold and breastfeed each other’s infants, and babies become attached to several women living in the same household or near by. In west Africa and the Pacific islands, toddlers are routinely sent away by their mothers after weaning and taken care of by their grandmothers and other women.

“We’re very critical of attachment theory — this notion that you have to attach to your mother. The rest of the world denies that,” Robert, 84, says, laughing. “If you look to India, for example, you have joint families. Yes, there’s a mother there but there’s a whole bunch of other women helping to raise these children.”

In west Africa and the Pacific islands, toddlers are routinely sent away by their mothers after weaning

The LeVines present other stark differences in parenting techniques. In societies throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific and Latin America, babies sleep in a bed with their parents. The standard arrangement in western households is that babies sleep separately from their parents in a cot or in a room of their own. Co-sleeping is regarded as dangerous (it is thought to increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome [Sids] whereby a baby can suffocate, most commonly in their sleep) and separate sleeping encourages a child’s independence. The arrangement is exhausting for everyone, the LeVines say, because parents are too far away to respond rapidly to a baby’s cry.

“Sleeping with a baby is only taboo in America and western Europe but in the rest of the world mothers sleep with their babies,” Robert says. “In Japan they continue to sleep, not only with their babies, but with young children up to the age of ten.” Japan has one of the lowest rates of Sids in the world, he adds.

In the UK and America, parents engage toddlers in discussions about what food they would like to eat or what clothes they would like to wear. The Kipsigis people of Kenya teach their youngsters to follow commands without talking back, the first step in learning obedience and respect.

While western parents have a tendency to cosset toddlers and try to shield them from the nasty parts of life, in other parts of the world parents believe children’s development can be helped by these things. The authors relate the story of a three-year-old Inuit girl living in the Canadian Arctic. Jean Briggs, an anthropologist, found that although the girl was loved and well taken care of by her parents, they constantly challenged the child with extreme, adult questions such as: “Why don’t you die so I can have your nice new shirt?”

“They say things to small children that we would never dream of saying and Briggs’s interpretation of that is that it’s an Inuit parenting strategy to get children to realise that life is uncertain and capricious, and they will have to work through a lot of conundrums,” Robert says. He laughs, adding: “Of course, we’re not suggesting anyone does this. It’s in the book to show that there is a huge variety of ways parents teach children about moral relationships.”

Japanese parents sleep with their children up to the age of ten

Typically, modern western parents do not give children much responsibility, believing that early childhood should be devoted to play. In Africa and Latin America, children aged five or six are given real responsibilities such as the care of a baby or herding sheep or goats. In the Pacific islands, three-year-olds are given scaled-down machetes and at five they are expected to carry heavy loads of firewood.

While western parents regard sibling fights as an inevitable part of family life, it is not tolerated in other cultures. “In Latin America, for example, where there is virtually no social or government support, the only people you can rely on are your siblings,” Sarah says.

The LeVines’ message is that parents should not put so many demands on themselves because children usually turn out fine. They’ve identified two parental behaviours that they think are essential for raising well-adjusted children. “The first is that physical affection is extremely important, either from a parent or people such as an aunt or a sibling,” Sarah says.

“The other important thing is that parents should have confidence in the fact they are the grown-ups and although they may not know the best ways of doing things, they know better than a small child.”

The influence of parenting on child development has been grossly exaggerated and underestimates the resilience of children, according to the anthropologists. “Our hope is that it will be possible to learn from other cultures and reduce parental burdens to a more sensible level,” Sarah adds.

If they could go back, what would they do differently? “I think we would definitely consider co-sleeping with our children,” Robert says. “And we would be more physically affectionate, as we are now to our grandchildren.” 
Do Parents Matter?
 by Robert A LeVine and Sarah LeVine will be published in the UK next year (Souvenir Press)

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