Cultures, Social Behavior

Crushing Illusion of Truth: On Fictional Experts and Imagined Baby Care Guides

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“Every group thinks that its way of caring for infants is the obvious, correct, natural way – a simple matter of common sense. However, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has pointed out, what we easily call “common sense” is anything but common. Indeed what people accept as common sense in one society may be considered odd, exotic, or even barbaric in another.”

–Judy S. DeLoache and Anna Gottlieb

Psychologist Judy S. DeLoache and anthropologist Anna Gottlieb, both professors in their respective fields, combined their expertise to create a unique and informative book. A World of Babies: Imagine Child Care Guides for Seven Societies presents a series of imagined baby care guides that might have been written by a wise and respected member of each of seven different societies. These guides are written by fictional characters using real information from anthropological studies of those societies. Each of these characters has the best interests of children at heart–and in mind

Imagined Baby Care Guides From Around the World

According to one review of the book, these imagined baby care guides answer a number of questions posed by parents around the world throughout history. The book takes us through history by including the Puritans of New England, as well as around the world, by including the Fulani society of western Africa as well as social life in a village in eastern Turkey. The Walpiri, an aboriginal people of northern Australia are represented, as are the Ifaluk people of Micronesia. The guides address topics such as ways to achieve a successful pregnancy, how often to bathe a baby, and how long to breastfeed. They also include descriptions of the ceremonies surrounding birth specific to each of these cultures.

Impressively, in addition to extensive research of the work of many respected anthropologists, historians and psychologists, the authors also utilize observations from their own field studies. In an article in Scientific American, Ms. DeLoache mentions some of the field work that was included in the book. Making the “authors” of these imagined baby care guides fictional characters reinforces the fact that the book is not intended to advise parents on how to raise their children, but rather, to present information about various child-rearing practices. The result is that readers are able to learn a great deal of about other cultures in a very entertaining way.

Imagined Baby Care Guides Versus “Expert” Baby Care Guides

People have been raising children since long before the first parenting guide was printed. The book clearly illustrates that parenting has always consisted of transmitting cultural traditions developed through generations of experience. In an article about the book, the author expresses the opinion that today’s parenting guides written by “experts” may be the result of the rapid social and technological change experienced by industrialized nations. Increased mobility and the subsequent shift from traditional extended families to the smaller nuclear family has resulted in the loss of many formerly important child-rearing and social traditions developed over time.

The fictional “experts” in the book are respected members of their communities, such as grandmothers and traditional healers. The book has been praised for its attention to ethnographic detail and a way of presenting parenting advice from within a greater social context. Social context includes many elements, including geographic location and climate, religious beliefs, economic circumstances, and political history. Presenting the imagined baby care guides within the context of the greater society allows readers to better understand practices that in the context of their own modern societies, may seem strange indeed.

Today’s “expert” parenting guides often rely more on scientific studies than personal parental experience, although there are some that combine the two. The fact that many of today’s modern societies are more diverse in terms of religious and political beliefs than societies of the past may account for some of the conflicting advice of modern parenting guides. One advantage of learning about child-rearing practices of other cultures through imagined baby care guides is that of gaining other perspectives through which to view our own. Another advantage is the possibility of resurrecting some valuable traditions lost to the faster pace of modern life.

The best possible result of this book is that parents will be not only simultaneously educated and entertained, but encouraged to create new traditions in which they rely more on one another and less on “expert” advice.

imagined baby care
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