The “Right” Way

Remember the movie “Babies,” a film showing babies and parents in many different cultures? Striking, are the similarities in human development yet differences in cultural child-rearing patterns. There is a universality to children’s behavior at different stages responded to differently in various cultures.

One scene in a tribal culture, shows a mother caring for three children while nursing one of them. A younger one climbs up on her and she places him on her other breast. The third also struggles for her attention and she incorporates him on her lap while nursing the other two. Most impressive is the mother’s calm during all of this. She is unperturbed – no sense of anxiety or agitation.

A group of young doctors, themselves parents of children of similar ages, responded in awe to the mother’s behavior. One, a mother of twins, told of feeling she would lose her mind when trying to nurse them both. A father, spoke of reading a dozen books to find the best way to deal with babies’ sleep. They all agreed they were acting on the belief that there was a right way to do everything and to an involvement with research studies that might point the way.

Another cultural difference that emerges from the film is that parents seem unperturbed by some of children’s exploratory behavior. This is apparent in children’s interaction with animals, as well as their crawling around on muddy ground picking up things that seem interesting. Not wearing clothing also creates a non-issue for toilet training, which seems not to be a matter of concern for these young children or their parents.

The film seemed to point up a more relaxed attitude about parenting than exists in our culture and one can speculate about what some of the reasons might be. The belief that there is a right way to handle various issues in child-rearing may be related to our belief in science generally, more specifically to the focus on child development. This focus was given impetus by the changes from an agricultural to an industrial society which brought about changes in family life. Fathers went out to work and mothers became responsible for child-care.

These days many mothers are once again employed out of the home raising new concerns about both child care and child development. Concern has intensified about whether children’s needs are being met appropriately as has the search for additional input in light of mother’s absence from daily care. It is as if everything from sleeping, feeding, toilet training, proper stimulation as well as everything else will determine a child’s future if not handled in the “right” way.

The mother of an eleven-month-old baby expressed her feeling that she was making decisions that would affect the outcome of her child’s life. She thought she had found the perfect solution in a work situation that made possible numerous visits home in the course of the day. She was “popping in” often for ten minutes at a time but was perplexed and worried because the baby would be upset and cry each time she left. Believing that her intermittent presence was ideal it had not occurred to her that this pattern of frequent separations might be too difficult for an eleven-month-old.

The belief that there is a right way to do everything to insure a child’s best development, based on supposedly scientific research, has shifted the focus from the child to a method. In many of the cultures portrayed in the film, there seems to be a culturally accepted way of dealing with various aspects of development which provides reassurance to parents. In our own culture, definitions of the “right way” are perpetually shifting, promoting uncertainty and confusion.

Uncertainty about outcome is part of parenting, and will not be cured by a method.