Friday, September 24, 2010

The Good Enough Baby

I know that this piece in current issue of The New Yorker is intended for yuks - The Good Enough Baby - but as with so much humor, it offers a reality checklist: Is my baby clean enough? Is my baby well fed enough? Is my baby stimulated enough?

The last item, on stimulation, especially interested me as a parenthropologist:

During the past few decades, early-development “experts” have stressed the importance of so-called “enrichment activities”: reading to babies, singing to them, even talking to them. We are now finding that these activities, in addition to being excruciating for the parent, may actually be harmful to the baby...

In their 1996 book, Parents' Cultural Belief Systems: Their Origins, Expressions, and Consequences, anthropologist Sara Harkness and psychologist Charles Super noted the differences in what they called parental ethnotheories given to describe and explain an infant or young child's behavior. In particular, they found that when an infant cried, American middle-class parents interpreted the cries as expressions of "boredom," which needed to be remedied with stimulation, like a new (different) toy. In contrast, Dutch parents interpreted the cries as a barometer of too much stimulation, so that the child required quiet and calm.

When I first read Harkness and Super's work, I was pregnant with Beanie. It became a running joke between StraightMan and me, who to be perfectly frank are low-stimulation people, that we would raise her Dutch...

As a parenthropologist, I think Harkness and Super's observations that American parents place value on stimulation is important. It allows us to see "boredom" as a cultural and social construction: For example, we make boredom explicitly through use of talk like "I am so bored..." and implicitly through use of talk like "This is so exciting..." We learn to feel and to give name to feelings as boredom and excitement.

Which is not to say that I am immune to such feelings: Blah blah blah. Yawn.

(Shout out to DoulaK and SustainabilityK in Prague: What are Czech ideas about boredom?)

1 comment:

  1. I'll see what I can discern. Interesting to note, though -- G is in the equivalent of US kindergarten, but his classroom is far less stimulating than his preschool facility was, in terms of the amount and kinds of toys. I was anxious that he would get bored really quickly with the games and toys (he often complained that preschool was boring), but thus far he's challenged enough. What with the having to learn Czech and all. (!)