New parenthood is a search for certainty: When you start out 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.
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. To read her work and that of her colleague and husband, Charles Super, is to be disabused of a lot of certainties.
Child-rearing practices vary hugely among cultures, with only a single shared characteristic, Harkness says: “Parents everywhere love their children and want the best for their children.”
If you look just at the words parents use to describe their children, you can almost always predict where you are in the world. In a study conducted by Harkness and her international colleagues, American parents talked about their children as intelligent and even as “cognitively advanced.” (Also: rebellious.)
Italian parents, in contrast, rarely praised their children for being intelligent. Instead, they were even-tempered and “simpatico.” The Dutch, for their part, liked to talk about long attention spans and “regularity,” or routine and rest. The Spanish talked about character and sociality, the Swedes about security and happiness.
Intelligence is Americans’ answer. In various studies, American parents are always seen trying to make the most of every moment — to give their children a developmental boost. It is only by looking at other societies that you can see just how anomalous such a focus is.
During interviews with middle-class Boston parents in the 1980s, Harkness and her colleagues kept hearing about the importance of “special time” or “quality time”: One-on-one time that stimulated the child and revolved around his interests. “It was this essential thing that all [American] parents seemed to think they should do — and maybe they weren’t doing enough of it.”
But when Harkness talked to parents in other cultures, even other seemingly very similar Western cultures, they were oblivious to this nagging feeling. She recalls that “in the Netherlands, a father said, ‘Well, on Saturday mornings, my wife sleeps late, I get up with the kids, and I take them to recycle the bottles and cans at the supermarket.’ ” Asked if an activity was developmentally meaningful, the Dutch parent would brush off the question as irrelevant. Why think of every activity as having a developmental purpose?
In a survey Harkness and her colleagues conducted of parents in Western cultures, the last question was: “What’s the most important thing you can do for your child’s development right now?”
“The American parents almost to a person said, ‘Stimulation — stimulation is what my child needs,’ ” Harkness said. It went almost without saying that the actual stimulation came from the toys.
But ask an Italian mother about stimulation and her thoughts immediately go to her husband: He comes home and makes the baby jump, she told the researchers. “He is the ‘baby skier,’ ” she says. “The ‘baby pilot.’ ” Meanwhile in Spain, everyone stressed the importance of a stimulating daily walk: You see the people in your neighborhood. Objects aren’t stimulating. People are.
Says Harkness: “The U.S.’s almost obsession with cognitive development in the early years overlooks so much else.”