You Love Playing With Your Baby. But That’s Not the Only Way.

Emergent Thinking About Emergent Humans
April 30 2013 10:00 AM

Western Parents Love Face-to-Face Interaction. But That’s Not the Only Way.

Baby boy looking at his mother.
This kind of attention is not universal.

Photo by Marina Dyakonova/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Face-to-face interaction is the foundation of modern Western parenting. It is how we explain what it means to be human—this is how we show emotion, this is how we communicate, this is how we make funny flatulence sounds. We think of this sort of dyadic interaction as what parenting is. It’s hard to imagine a baby raised without this sort of back-and-forth and turning out fine.

But many babies elsewhere are raised without it—and they do indeed turn out just fine. But there are many different versions of fine.

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The German psychologist Heidi Keller once ran a brilliant experiment in which she showed German mothers and Cameroonian Nso mothers footage of the parenting style of the other. Both were deeply unimpressed. (Sample reaction: “The Nso even suspected that it may be forbidden in Germany for mothers to hold babies close to their bodies.”) The German mothers had the most difficulty comprehending the lack of face-to-face exchanges among the Nso. It just didn’t make sense to them.

From a very early age, Nso babies are engaged in the social life of the community. They are carried facing outward. They see everything but their mother. Their world is broader than the dyadic world the German babies—and mine—inhabit. (My baby, on the other hand, knows way more about funny flatulence sounds.) These parenting styles don’t cleave along developed–undeveloped lines. They have deeper cultural roots. Middle-class American mothers, for example, spend twice as much time face-to-face with their babies as middle-class Japanese mothers.

It’s not just what the babies see. It’s what they hear, too. A study comparing native French mothers with West African mothers living in France found that less than 10 percent of what the French mothers said to their babies was a reference to someone else—someone who wasn’t the mother or the baby. But some 40 percent of what the West African mothers said referred to someone else. The French mothers were preparing their infants for a culture in which social life is conducted one-on-one. The West African mothers were preparing theirs for a society of communal engagement. Their childrearing stresses the significance of the community, not the mother—or the baby.

You can see the imprint of these different styles as early as toddlerhood. Mirror self-recognition is a primitive measure of self-awareness, and at around a year-and-a-half, German toddlers were far more likely than Nso toddlers to recognize themselves in the mirror. After months of eye-to-eye contact, in which their parents had responded to their every action, the German toddlers had caught on to the idea of their own selfhood sooner: They knew they were actors in the world. In a culture that prizes independence, they’d become independent.

But the independent child is less likely to pick up his room. More on that, and how very different styles of early interaction foster very different levels of compliance, tomorrow.

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Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, from which part of this post was taken, was just published. His website is nicholasday.net. He is @nicksday on Twitter.

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was published in April 2013. Follow him on Twitter.