Press-Republican

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April 13, 2013

Slate: How Americans parent

CHICAGO — New parenthood is a desperate search for certainty: When you start knowing nothing, you are desperate to know something. And when you finally figure that something out - how to get this creature to eat or sleep - that becomes the answer. Any parent this side of sanity clings to that certainty for dear life.

Sara Harkness, a professor of human development at the University of Connecticut, has spent decades compiling and analyzing the answers of parents in other cultures. They have a lot of answers, it turns out. And they are very certain about those answers. To read her work and the work of her colleague and husband, Charles Super, is to be disabused of a lot of certainties about child rearing. For the anxious, easily unsettled parent, it should be followed by a chaser of Brazelton and Karp, just to restore your world to its locked and upright position.

It's not a shock that child care varies across cultures, of course. But it is still hard to comprehend just how many ways there are of looking at a baby. I have been reading various ethnographic works on child rearing for years now, and yet, when I talked to Harkness last week, I started by asking her what child-rearing practices vary most among cultures. This is a worthless question. All child-rearing practices vary hugely among cultures. There's only a single shared characteristic, Harkness says: "Parents everywhere love their children and want the best for their children." (Even this is a controversial statement; some academics would argue otherwise.) Everything else, including the way in which they love their children and what the best might mean, is subject to variation.

I am not talking about National Geographic bare-breasted, hunter-gatherer pictorials. Those are the most memorable variations in child care, the sort we can see: Think of the live-in Mongolian livestock in Babies. What makes the work of Harkness so interesting is that it highlights the variations we are unable to see. Even when compared to other Western cultures, we Americans are a deeply strange people.

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