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The "Why" in Parenting. Book Review on Raising Children: Surprising Insights from Other Cultures by Dr. David Lancy

Thank you to Cambridge University Press for providing this book for me to review. All opinions are 100% my own. 

I am many things. I am a mom of a lively three-year-old boy and expecting a baby girl any day now. I am also a wife of almost 8 years, an educator to adolescents and an admirer of all things historical. While I enjoy a good conversation about politics, parenting styles, and educational trends I find those conversations rarely end without a heated debate and myself wondering “why do I keep getting involved?” I have a bachelor's degree in history and masters in education and I feel qualified to engage in such conversations but as an extrovert that has grown into an introvert, I crave conversations where the focus is “why” and not about right or wrong.

My stage in life is inundated with conversations about co-sleeping, baby wearing, potty training, nursing, stay-at-home moms and my husband’s role in parenting. Comparatively, my profession is consumed with buzz words of bullying, mental health and the various ever changing acronyms that are rampant in the education profession. Despite the ever constant attempts at making me second guess both my decisions in the classroom and our family parenting choices, I find comfort in books about parenting and education. It only prepares me for yet another conversation that I hope will end in a thought provoking manner. When given the opportunity to read an anthropologist’s view on raising children throughout various cultures in the world I was excited to read what Dr. David F. Lancy, an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University, had to share. 

Dr. Lancy is the author of several books about children and culture that I look forward to reading in the future. This particular review focuses on his book Raising Children: Surprising Insights from Other Cultures. This book gave me a lot of the "why" I had been craving when it comes to parenting and education and in the end challenged my role as a parent. Do we really need to worry about every single decision we make? Of course, our children are special but compared to whom? Are we trying too hard to make them stand out at the cost of someone else? 

Unlike most parenting books that stand behind a particular view on the best ways to parent I had to shift my mindset with this book from “what to do” to “understanding what people do”.  Dr. Lancy points out that an analyzation of child rearing using only western societies is detrimental to a complete picture of parenting as western society is an outlier in almost all aspects of parenting. Dr. Lancy does an excellent job establishing this point and indirectly exposing how some parenting fads or decisions in the West have attempted to be validated by comparing them to other societies. 

Attachment parenting, for example, in western society is seen as catering to every need of the child—nursing on demand, co-sleeping, etc. This emphasizes what Dr. Lancy calls “neontocracy” where children are the most important people of the household. Controversially, in most other societies children are lowest on the totem pole and while it is true that nursing on demand, baby wearing, co-sleeping are all aspects of other societies, it has a different purpose: baby wearing allows a mother’s hands to be free to do other tasks like agriculture and nursing on demand, as well as co-sleeping, allows a mother to increase the intervals between pregnancy. In fact, most societies do not even consider infants to be people until much later in life.

Figure 1.2. Neontocracy versus Gerontocracy (page 6)
 from Raising Children: Surprising Insights from other Cultures by Dr. David Lancy 

Other examples that I found interesting included "baby parading" which made me laugh as I think about the times that my husband has been out with our three year old alone only to be asked "babysitting today?" or "mom must be busy." The chapter about playing and learning was very insightful about giving toys that simulate "real world" that are in fun colors when really they could be just playing with the actual items that we use daily and learning from them. Which brings up another point--are we hovering too much? Granted I don't intend on giving my child a machete anytime soon but are we too afraid of letting them figure things out on their own. I'm fairly certain that if I take away my child's toy hammer and give him the real deal that if he hits his finger with it, he probably will figure out that it hurts and not do it again. 

Jokes aside, the greatest "ah-ha" moment for me was one that touches the surface of an ever growing issue amongst children, depression. As an educator, I can tell you that depression and mental health concerns are a daily conversation when it comes to adolescents. While reading the book many items were mentioned about how we try to teach our children how to play and give them little time to make their own rules or to even negotiate a decision in a sporting event. Could this combined with the pedestal that we have placed our children on as we constantly work towards their happiness be a contributing factor? If our culture is dictating that you are of less importance as you get older or that you now have to work for it why would you be happy about that?

Two of my favorite quotes from the book.

As I read further I focused more on how we (our household and western society) are raising our children. Are we making choices to benefit our child in an attempt to make them stand out or are we raising children for the greater good of society? Dr. Lancy mentions several news articles in which children physically attacked, some even shot, their parents over arguments about chores. Other experiences in western society show that many children refuse to do chores without pay attached to it. Once my husband and I started having conversations about raising children and the choices we wanted to make, one decision became very clear —we want to give our children an allowance for the strict purpose of learning how to budget money (savings, charitable contributions, and spending). However, they will also have chores not for the purpose of earning money but for the purpose of understanding that in a society we believe we should all pitch in to help one another. Our house is a community and we all do our part—if we all approached community this way, imagine how much we could accomplish for the pure enjoyment of helping others. 

Paperback, $19.99

Why in some parts of the world do parents rarely play with their babies and never with toddlers? Why in some cultures are children not fully recognized as individuals until they are older? How are routine habits of etiquette and hygiene taught - or not - to children in other societies? Drawing on a lifetime's experience as an anthropologist, David F. Lancy takes us on a journey across the globe to show how children are raised differently in different cultures. Read more here.

Reading this book has been an amazing experience to think about the "why" in both my parenting and educational decisions. I feel even more confident in my choices. The truth is much of the individual decisions we make have little effect on the outcome of our children, many children that have little to none of the resources that western society has have grown to be happy, law-abiding, and productive members of society. This would be a great book for new parents or for those that might be stressing a little too much about every parenting decision they make. 

Want it? Get it! 

Visit Cambridge University Press to order your own copy of
Raising Children: Surprising Insights from Other Cultures by Dr. David F. Lancy.

Special thanks to Cambridge University Press and Dr. David F. Lancy for the opportunity to read this book.


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