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Babies and Childhood

December 21, 2012

Babies-2010-movie-picsMiriam says: I recently watched a documentary entitled “Babies”. This 2010 French documentary, directed by Thomas Balmes, follows four human babies through their first year, from birth to their first birthday. One baby is from San Francisco, one is from Japan, one is from Mongolia, and one is from Namibia. Two of the babies are urban (San Fran and Japan) and two of the babies are rural (Mongolia and Namibia). The film chronicles the ways in which the babies develop, as well as the parenting techniques employed by each parent, and by extension, culture.

I quickly found myself examining my own ideas about how a child should be raised, and pitting my perceptions against what I was seeing in the film. I will now present a list of what I see as the main strengths of each baby’s situation. (DISCLAIMER: I recognize that these observations of mine are based on a very very small amount of information about each baby, let alone about that baby’s culture. Back to the list-making!)

1. San Fransisco- This baby’s father was very connected with his little girl. He sang to her, played with her, read her books. Of all the babies, the father appeared most present here, and it was heartwarming to see him interacting with such enthusiasm with his daughter.

2. Japan- This baby developed very fine motor skills from a remarkably young age! The parents stressed lots of activities that would build these skills, and the little girl was often with lots of other mothers and children working on the same activities. I would not have guessed that at such a young age, she would have accomplished some of the puzzles that she was able to complete.

3. Mongolia- This baby had a keen sense of adventure, and was very willing to try new things. It appeared that this baby was allowed to explore, largely uninterrupted by his mother. There were some adorable scenes of the young boy interacting with the livestock close to his home, with absolutely no traces of fear. I feel like this baby will be good at setting his own limits.

4. Namibia- I’m not going to lie… this was my favorite baby! She had a wonderful mother who gave her lots of attention, while simultaneously instructing her from a very young age. She also had a large number of siblings, all of whom took on the responsibility of caring for her and modeling good behavior for her. This little girl was sitting up before the other babies, was crawling first, standing first, walking first, dancing first!

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this examination of child-rearing around the world. My first instinct was to imagine what parenting techniques I would add or subtract from my own culture. But this was replaced with a different thought. All four of the parents in this film were obviously very good at raising healthy, happy babies, and all four loved their babies deeply. And these parents were able to raise their babies the way they did according to the situation that surrounded them. I feel like that is the universal strength of all four babies: the parents were all offering the best that their cultures had to offer.

Faun says:

What ‘childhood’ means, and how young people are raised, treated, and defined, varies historically and culturally. Miriam’s discussion about different childrearing practices made me think of a famous study by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (a Critical Medical Anthropologist at Berkeley) called ‘Death Without Weeping’. In an ethnography from the 80s in Brazil, she uncovers how infants are treated not as humans, but as ‘little angels’ born wanting to die because of the extremely high infant mortality rate.

“Part of learning how to mother in the Alto do Cruzeiro is learning when to let go of a child who shows that it “wants” to die or that it has no “knack” or no “taste” for life. Another part is learning when it is safe to let oneself love a child. Frequent child death remains a powerful shaper of maternal thinking and practice.”

Both culture and economics have played a role in defining age categories across both time and space. One open-access chapter by David Newman and Rebecca Smith describes how the evolution of childhood in Western nations has been tied to both mortality and modes of production for centuries.

“The social value of children was also affected by major economic transformations in society. The shift from a predominantly agricultural economy to an industrialized one in the 19th century revolutionized cultural conceptions. On the farm, families were bound together by economic necessity rather than emotions. Children were a crucial source of labour in the family economy, and they were a source of financial support in old age. Consequently, the birth of a child was hailed as the arrival of a future laborer who would contribute to the financial security of the family.”

It’s interesting and important to think about this for several reasons:

1- As Miriam pointed out, we can totally think about sharing good ideas cross-culturally. ‘Bubble-parenting’ is not the best route, as we have recently been discovering.

2- There are several pieces of international legislation that assume a certain definition of childhood. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the more famous ones- and while it’s a very important document, with some great things to say, it’s also important to discuss and think about variations in what it will mean from country to country. For example: The right to play would be a marvelous thing if the UN could guarantee the economic security of every family. Since they can’t, how does that right apply to families who need their children to work in the home, on a farm, or elsewhere? Doesn’t subsistence come first? To what extent is the right applied? The fuzzy language in the Convention is also problematic.

3- Structural violence, yo. Instead of condemning families/communities whose children are working, not going to school, or dying, perhaps we should take a look at some of the international socioeconomic factors that help create these situations. The Scheper-Hughes study is definitely worth a read.

Links to cited things:

Happy holidays to everbody, see you in the New Year!

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