The Confab: Parenting Gone Global

Monday, February 13, 2012

I’m ever interested in what mothers and fathers of the world have to say about how they do what they do. We already know the why part of the equation: it’s all about them babies. We all want raise balanced, kind, engaging human beings who others simply enjoy being around.

So when I read about a new book by author and freelance journalist (now associate professor of journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University) Mei-Ling Hopgood called How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting, you know I was alll over it.

Born in Taiwan and raised in metro Detroit with the parents who adopted her and her two Korean brothers, Mei-Ling knows diversity. She has lived in St. Louis, DC, Hawaii and most recently (before a big move two weeks ago) Buenos Aires for seven years. Both of Mei-Ling’s daughters, Sofia and Violet, were born in Argentina.

In the middle of her international moving madness, she was gracious enough to chat with me about, well, how Eskimos keep those wee ones warm … and a few other burning questions.

Photo by Eric Eason

Q: What made you write this book?

Mei-Ling Hopgood: I became a mom living abroad, which opens your eyes to different ways of thinking and parenting. Argentines had a pretty laid-back view of bedtimes, never used baby food out of a jar and treated pregnant women like queens. Argentine men had a much more comfortable and close proximate relationship with babies. It all made me reflect on my own background and the places I’d traveled to.

Q: What was the big lesson for you after researching and writing the book? Was there a particular country that proved the most surprising eye-opener for you?

MLH: The biggest overarching lesson was that while there are universals in good parenting — providing enough food, sleep, love etc. — there are many ways in the world to be a good parent. We need not deem anyone “superior” rather we can learn from each other on the dos and don’ts of parenting.

There were tons of big and small surprises for me, but one of the most important was that children could be effective teachers of children, and that they could be trusted with some pretty big responsibilities. (Little ones in cultures such as the Mayans in Mexico expect their kids to participate in the care of siblings, cousins, etc., from very young, and are also expected to work.)

Q: Has this book changed how you parent?  

MLH: Yes, in many ways. For example, I potty trained my first daughter pretty early compared to most parents I know and plan to do the same with the next child. Also,  I am more open to letting the kids break routines for family social occassions and have no qualms about them falling asleep in social settings (though with two, I greatly value routines).

Plus, I try not to intervene as much in kid skirmishes, or at least not as quickly, and see how they will play out.

Q: After talking to parents and experts from around the globe, is it fair to say that American parents may be a tad too fearful and anxious (maybe even neurotic!) regarding parenthood and issues around parenting? A case of being almost cautious to a fault?

MLH: I think that is true. I think we often treat our children as if they’ll break if one bad thing happens or we make one bad choice. But kids and parents are amazingly resilient and have thrived in situations that some of us would find impossible.

Q: I chuckled reading the “How Buenos Aires Children Go To Bed Late” chapter. I’m Canadian, raised by West Indian parents, and I remember all too well being put on the “coats bed” to sleep during weekend grown-folk parties. We slept soundly despite the thumping calypso and loud laughter just outside the room. Do you think that some American parents could benefit from loosening up the rules sometimes? What can our kids learn from seeing some flexibility? 

MLH: It depends on the family. But I think for me the flexibilty was a good thing, both for the kids and my own mental state. They got to know other families and kids, and learned how to behave in an adult social setting, which I think is important. That said, again, with my baby now, I’m pretty selective about breaking routines these days, but I do think it’s important that she learn to be flexible.

Q: Your chapter on Tibet was wonderful. I, too, suffered a miscarriage. I know the depths of devastation and the incredible need to regroup and feel like “you” again. Would you explain a little about the Tibetans’ emphasis on the mom-to-be’s mental and spiritual wellness — especially the importance of stillness?

MLH: The Tibetan view (particularly Buddhist) is that stillness, or peace, is important for a mother and baby’s wellbeing. We spend a lot of time talking about the physical prep for pregnancy in the U.S., when it’s also valuable to think about one’s mental and spiritual health as well. It just makes logical sense: our bodies and minds do better when we are less stressed, more relaxed.

Q: Journalist Pamela Druckerman’s new book Bringing Up Bébé has been getting a bit of press lately [We talked about it on MMM last week].  It proposes that French children are essentially better behaved largely because their parents are more relaxed and “less neurotic” about child-rearing. What are you thoughts on that? And did you come across similar findings within the different cultures/countries you researched? 

MLH: I get what she is saying, and I think I saw that in a lot of other cultures — such as Argentina. Moms and dads are more relaxed about the regular challenges involved with parenting. For example, we all would gripe about our babies and their erratic sleep habits. But the moms there wer emore matter-of-fact about it. In fact, my pediatrician (with both of my daughters) listened to me complain about sleep issues, and then said, “Ya va a pasar.” It’ll be over soon. In the U.S., we kill ourselves to try to “fix” those things.

That said, I really have issues with the trend in parenting discourse to claim French or Chinese parenting “superior.” I know that’s mostly the media, rather than the authors. But I believe that is a pat, oversimplified way of looking at parenting globally. We sincerely have a lot to learn from each other.

Q: In the book you talked about how globalization and the “commercialization of parenthood and childhood” are changing the way we parent. We seem to be — for good or bad — collapsing all of colorful differences into one “monotone” way to parent. Do you think there’s anything parents can do to preserve our delightful differences?

MLH: I hope people all over the world really think about whether the sweeping subscriptions we read in parenting literature is good for everyone. I think we need also to move away from saying there’s one perfect way of doing anything. That may sell, but it’s destructive.

Q: What do you hope other parents who read your book will take away from it?

MLH: I hope that they will take tips that might make them meet the challenges of parenting, and I hope they will take heart in knowing that there are many ways in the world to raise a happy and healthy child.

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For more on Mei-Ling Hopgood, please visit her web site, where you may also watch a wonderful trailer for her book. You’ll be instantly soothed by her mellow voice! 

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Do you have a watch on? Might want to check it, because IT’S GIVEAWAY TIME, Y’ALL! You know the accent is always on “fab” in The Confab.

Thanks to Mei-Ling — lovely as she is wise — and the kind people over at Algonquin Books, we are giving away FIVE copies of How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm. All you have to do is leave a comment below or mosey over to the MMM Facebook page (by the way, have you “Liked” us on FB yet? Ahem.) and tell us one parenting tip you’ve picked up from another culture or country. As, Mei-Ling rightly said, we have so much to learn for each other. So … do tell!

7 Comments
  • 1
    Christina says:

    I am not yet a parent, but hope to be soon! In the meantime, we’re starting to settle on our parenting strategy. One thing I have picked up from my Chinese background as well as what I’ve read about the French style is the way a large variety of foods, textures, and new flavors are introduced to babies at an early stage, rather that relying on the idea of baby/child friendly food. Also family meals and only serving one meal for both adults and children. I have seen how in my very large family how this has helped cultivate generations of eaters who don’t shy from eating such ethnic delicacies as octopus, fish stomach, and jelly fish.

    Also, I really don’t think there is a “superior” way of parenting. I hate how the editors write those headlines just to be provocative and get everyone so defensive. Even within the US, every family has different values and different personalities and we all try to do what we think is the best way for us to raise happy, healthy, and well-adjusted children. I would love to read this book and hear about other cultural traditions in parenting!

    • 1.1
      Ms. Mary Mack says:

      Well done, Christina! You are quite the impressive not-yet-parent-but-soon.:) Thanks for the great comments.

  • 2
    Annette says:

    This sounds like such a fascinating book! I am Mexican and my husband is Caucasian, and there are definitely cultural differences in the ways we were raised. However, the idea of attachment parenting is something that I picked up (and then kind of ran with!) from my Mexican grandmother, who breastfed on demand, co-slept with her infants and wore them regularly. It’s a practice that’s been around for centuries, but that in America has only fairly recently been labeled. It feels right and natural to me to raise my children in this way, and much of that has to do with having been raised in a similar way.

    • 2.1
      Ms. Mary Mack says:

      It really is a great book, Annette. There’s one chapter called “How Kenyans Live Without Strollers” in which author Mei-Ling talks about visiting many cities/countries where parents had absolutely no interest in strollers. The reasons range from the practicality (or lack thereof) and expense of the things to cultures that belief that babies — specifically during the first year of life — need to be physically close (attached!) to mothers/parents. All of it, just fascinating.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • 3
    ellen says:

    this looks great. I would love to win a copy, but will definitely check it out regardless. I’m currently reading the druckerman book and I am more than a little put off by the style, despite the sometimes common sense parenting techniques. I haven’t been exposed to a lot different cultural parenting styles, but I loved the pediatrician’s comment “ya va a pasar’. That’s exactly how I approach struggles with my almost two year old, because it seems like in a couple of weeks, the issue has resolved itself naturally.

    • 3.1
      Ms. Mary Mack says:

      Thanks for the comment, Ellen. I’ve read plenty about the Druckerman book, but not the actual book yet. Mixed reviews, for sure. I’d be curious to hear more of your thoughts on Bringing Up Bebe when you’re done with it. Speaking of French parents, I’ve been spending time on this blog: http://karenlebillon.com/ Karen’s book, French Kids Eat Everything will be out this spring, and — based on her blog — I’m eager to read more from her on the subject of food, nutrition and kids.

  • 4

    […] “takes an anthropological approach to motherhood.” A couple of months ago, Ms. Mary Mack hosted an interview with Mei-Ling Hopgood about what she learned from writing the book. I was intrigued and actually won a copy of her book […]