It is good to read a book which articulates theories that you always internalised but seldom vocalised in a world of over-scheduled babies and over-zealous parenting. For instance, a lot of my initial parenting seemed to involve integrating our social life with that of the child, and wondering how all of us could have fun while still being together. I knew I had cracked it when, at age eight months, my son was dipping baguettes in tzatziki and making a meal of it, swaying to Black Eyed Peas, while we passed around margarita pitchers at a home brunch. It just felt so democratic.
The first chapter of Mei-Ling Hopgood’s book on parenting wisdom from around the world addresses just this. The case in point is the children in Buenos Aires (where the author lives with her husband and two children), who are allowed to stay up while their parents socialise till hours most of us would frown upon.
The book is an insightful, and often hilarious, account of how parents in different corners of the universe, from Argentina to Tanzania raise their children and there are plenty of ideas that are worth trying (although it’s too late for me to try the Chinese split-crotch trousers for potty-training). By studying ways in which children from different parts of the world eat, sleep, play, fight and work (yes!), Hopgood often makes you want to drop your guard in parenting and adopt tradition and culture as at times the more organic and least invasive way of raising a child.
Another nod moment was my utter scorn for baby food and the resulting empathy for babies who will spit it out because it is so yucky, which leads to my philosophy of “what looks good, tastes good,” a sentiment that resonated in her chapter on ‘How the French teach their children to eat healthy food.’
Apart from her researcher’s thoroughness about the cultures and traditions she has examined, Hopgood rings true because of her voice of self-deprecation and her non-judgemental stand. In her chapter ‘How Aka Pygmies are the best fathers in the world’, she examines stereotypes about where, when and how a father interacts with his children and how a lot of it has to do with biology and environment. She explains how in urban scenarios, very often, women leave very little for the father to do, because they believe they can do it the best. She writes, “From the day of Sofia’s birth, I commanded a slow and steady takeover of her life. I’d interact with the nanny daily, plan out the baby’s diet and do our daughter’s hair. It’s easier, I reasoned.”
Hopgood reveals these ideas through observation, interviews, and experience. And although frequently opposing, each of these child-rearing methods has something you wouldn’t mind trying at least once. Like the idea of four/five-year-old Mayan babies caring for their siblings (something that rang true, as I was an unsuspecting candidate at age four when I was handed twin siblings to look after).
Or how Polynesian children always play without adult involvement and how playing with children is not normal in most cultures. She writes, “I was surprised at the number of cultures in which mum and dad don’t play much — if at all — with their children.”
I found myself making several notes to self through the book. “Must try Japanese method of letting children fight and resolve their own conflicts.” Or “Must try the Mayan method of finding my son a chore that is uniquely his.”
In a world where one-size-fits-all parental advice is still fostered, although it doesn’t work, Hopgood’s analysis on cosmopolitan cultures at least gets you started on thinking out of the baby book box. Because far from the world of diapers and scheduling is another way to parent, which very often is worth trying.
Now to find my four-year-old a job. Mayan style.
Author: Mei-Ling Hopgood
Price: Rs 499
(This review was first published in the Indian Express on 23rd March, 2013)