By Nicholas Day
CHICAGO – 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 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.
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.
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 world the German babies inhabit. 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.