Q&A: The American Parent Trap

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Sarah LeVine and her husband Robert LeVine have spent decades traveling the world studying global parenting styles and surveying mothers and fathers. The Harvard anthropologists published their conclusions in Do Parents Matter? Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax. The LeVines found that despite significant advancements in public health and Western medicine, American parents remain the most anxious moms and dads in the world, in part, because they tend to muddy the traditional family hierarchy. In a political climate where policymakers worry about the so-called “decline of the American family”—a deeper understanding of family relationships in other cultures can contribute valuable insights to this national conversation. Rachel Cohen spoke with Sarah LeVine about their research. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: Let’s start with the title of your bookDo Parents Matter?

Sarah LeVine: Of course they do, but not as much as American educated parents seem to think they do. What particularly interested my husband and me, because we’ve worked in many places around the world, was the tremendous anxiety that new American parents have about babies, and even second-time American parents have. They seem to carry this conviction that there’s only one right way to do almost anything—whether it’s to sleep or not sleep with them, to breast feed them or not breast feed them, or feed them solids or not feed them solids, etc. I have done a great deal of work studying how people raise babies in different places, and the range of parenting behavior was just so tremendous, yet the children turned out just fine.

Why do you think American parents are more anxious?

One very important thing is that educated women in America tend to have babies awfully late—in their 30s, or even in their 40s. They often have had rather intense careers before they have children, and as a result, they have very high expectations of themselves for performance, which they then carry over to raising children. So they read tremendously, and there are masses of books of how to raise children—in my days, there was Dr. Spock and T. Berry Brazelton and that was about it—but now there are books on every possible aspect of raising children.

Another thing is people often have no support from their mothers because their mother might live very far away, and there aren’t other older people around. Maybe these new mothers have worked for 15 years and all of a sudden they have a child—they get out of the hospital and they’re home with this infant and they’re terrified because they don’t have any support.

Your book explores parenting practices that are extremely normal in other countries but that are stigmatized in America, such as sleeping with your baby.

Ninety percent of the children that are being born nowadays are born in non-Western countries, and in non-Western countries, the vast majority of people sleep with their babies. But even in Japan, which is an incredibly modern country, mothers sleep with their children, sometimes until they’re teenagers.

I worked in Mexico for many years—I was working with working class people and lower-middle class people, and my assistants were university educated young women—and everybody slept with their children. People would build houses with several bedrooms, and I discovered the bedrooms were used as storage space, because everyone was sleeping in the same room. Upper-class Mexicans were the only people who didn’t sleep with their children, but they had nannies and the nannies slept with the children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages sleeping with children, and you say they’ve been “dragging their feet” on this—refusing to look at cross-cultural studies. Why is this?

They think children sleep better, and, perhaps they do, but for the mother this definitely isn’t the case. The fact is if you sleep with your child, and most people in the non-Western world not only sleep with their children but nurse their children, it’s much easier to do if you’re in the same bed—because then you don’t even notice.

My husband was trained as a psychoanalyst and I was trained as a child therapist at the University of Chicago, and in those days, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was the Freudian idea that if you have children, they should never be exposed to their parents having intercourse, because that would be absolutely traumatic.

Once when I was working with some peasant communities in South America where everyone slept in the same room, I asked them, well what are you going to do about intercourse? They laughed at me and said “well, we have it!” If [American] parents are terribly anxious about it, because they’re familiar with the Freudian notion, then their children might very well get anxious too, because they would get the sense they were seeing something they shouldn’t be seeing. But other societies don’t feel that way—and people see sexual relations as absolutely natural. Moreover, in peasant societies, it’s almost sort of a duty because there’s a sense that you should have as many children as possible.

You’ve seen some things that really shocked youlike force-feeding. Globally, corporal punishment is going down, out of a much broader sense that it’s bad for kids. How did your cultural and academic biases affect your work?  

Even though I can always speak the language of [the people] I was observing, and I would read whatever literature I could find, I was terribly prejudiced. I really was. That’s not just because I was a Westerner. It was because I had been trained at the University of Chicago that there were right ways and there were terrible ways of doing all kinds of things—because that’s what developmental psychology was like. So when I saw things that I had been trained to believe would be disastrous, it was shocking, even though I knew enough to know that perhaps every child in that culture was treated that way and I could see that older children and teenagers and young adults were warm, amusing, and competent.

For example, it used to be that if you were dealing with strange children in the U.S. who seemed to be on the autism spectrum, or sometimes they didn’t speak at all—in those days it was believed that cold and unyielding mothers produced those types of children. Of course, thank God, it’s now known that there are many factors that contribute to autism and Asperger's. But the primary idea in the psychiatric profession was that these children are estranged because they had so-called “refrigerator mothers.”

I went to northern Nigeria to this very conservative Muslim society and I would see these mothers who absolutely never made eye contact with their children, never spoke to them. They nursed them and sometimes fed them when they got older, but they never spoke to them. I thought, my God these children are all going to end up on the spectrum. I knew why the mothers were behaving this way—it was a way of inculcating their moral values into their children. There’s a very strong value in most parts of Africa that children must respect their parents and parents must respect their children, and this necessitates degrees of distance.

However, it was quite different for those Nigerian children with their grandparents. While their mothers never spoke to them, those same children had a wonderful time with their grandparents who were very intimate with them. The point is, you can get affection and psychological nurturance from someone other than your mother, and one of the problems with American popular notions of parenting, which have been absolutely encouraged by the psychiatric and therapeutic community, is that the mother is the source of everything.

That was something that took me a long time to disabuse myself of, even though I myself was raised by a nanny and we all turned out pretty OK.

Other societies seem to have a much broader understanding of what a child needs in terms of love and support and family. American policymakers put so much stock into the traditional idea of a family headed by heterosexual, married parents. They even call them “intact families”and suggest any divergence from that arrangement could hurt a child’s chance for a successful life.

We need to recognize that what produces a well-adjusted child and a well-adjusted adult is not just growing up in a two-parent family. We don’t really know what it takes to produce a well-adjusted child, but one important thing is that someone loves them, and there is a whole host of people I know from my background where their nannies loved them, and their sisters loved them. There are perfectly obvious examples in plain sight nowadays of people not being raised in conventional families and they are outgoing and warm and sociable.

You explore how the government’s role in childrearing expanded after the Industrial Revolution. That is, adults were “infused with a concern for other people’s children” and reformers pushed governments to take on more responsibilities around education, work, and public health that before had been left to parents. The pendulum seems to be swinging in the other direction in the U.S., at least in terms of schooling. There is a growing school choice movement built around the idea of empowering parents who know what’s best for their kids.

The situation here in America is very different from northern Europe. Northern European countries are all fundamentally socialist, and even though the U.K. has a conservative government at the moment, the infrastructure of the state is the product of socialism and socialist ideas—which means the state has far more responsibility than is the case in the United States. 

With the exception of the U.K., which has a long tradition of private schools, in continental Europe everyone goes to state schools—regardless of your social class. That’s because in Europe, schools are seen as the responsibility of the state to create citizens: It is simply a major focus of public education. In the U.S., there are many school districts that don’t even teach civics anymore, so this shift away from the general commons is less surprising.

We have some American schools structured on models of strict discipline. Some progressives worry these schools may harm students, emotionally or developmentally. What’s your view of that trend?

I haven’t any personal experience with these kinds of school in America. However I’ve spent a lot of time with strict schools in Africa and Haiti, where schools are models on old-fashioned British and French schools. I know so many adults who have come out of those systems: You listen to the teacher, and that’s it. It’s not the way progressive schools in the U.S. are structured where everything a child says is expected to be listened to and taken seriously.

I actually grew up in a school like this. Though we sort of complained, in middle and old age we realized how incredibly important the schools were in providing us the structure, which we can then rebel against later on. Although the discipline was a bit harsh, I think we all agree that we benefited from it. When everyone is focused on the same goals, and there is a peer group that you can relate to, especially if you come from chaotic homes, schools can provide children not just with a focus but with the tools to become self-respecting adults. It doesn’t suit all children, though.

Americans seem to want a much more egalitarian relationship with their children compared to other societies.

Parents in other countries have a much easier time raising children than Americans do, and that’s because in other societies there are clear distinctions between parents and children. Parents are responsible for the children, and there’s a clear hierarchy and everyone knows where they stand. In the U.S., parents want to be best friends with their children. But that can be confusing for children. It’s an illusion that children have the same power, they do not. The irony is that while things may be less egalitarian within the family in Europe, their larger societies are far more egalitarian.

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