There are few things more certain to divide opinion than children. When it comes to parenting, everyone has their own advice to give, and their own take on the perfect techniques for raising a healthy, successful, well-adjusted child. But one glance at the society we live in will tell you that we haven’t discovered the ideal parenting style quite yet.
Mei-Ling Hopgood‘s latest book, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting, attempts to address this question on a global scale. Often our understanding of our parental duties and options is reliant on the culture we live in, and it may not always be the best recipe for our children. It’s okay, you can say it out loud: the American way isn’t always the best.
Hopgood herself has a wealth of different cultural backgrounds to dip into, from her own childhood (she was adopted from Taiwan and was raised in Michigan, alongside two Korean brothers) to the six years she’s spent living in Argentina. As she searches the globe for alternatives to the Western standards of parenting she reaches far beyond even her own experience, exploring the father-centric culture of the Aka pygmies and the work ethic of Mayan children with insight and enthusiasm. When she tries to relate her lessons to her own child she isn’t always pleased with the outcome, but you have to admire her willingness to adopt new methods – not all of us can claim to be so open.
How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm reads more like a series of interconnected essays than a coherent narrative, but fortunately Hopgood’s easy, vibrant style keeps the pages turning, even when her explorations get bogged down in scientific summaries. You always know that each chapter will end with her applying what’s she’s learned to her daughter Sofia, often with hilarious results. A few of the techniques she uncovers are so firmly entrenched in cultural expectations that you can see their failure coming in advance. Don’t try this at home.
For every chapter that amuses more than it illuminates, there’s another that provides an intriguing insight into childhood development, and Hopgood is at her best when she’s debunking the commonly-held myths of Western society. As an expectant father (and primary caregiver), it was interesting to delve briefly into these foreign cultures and imagine applying their lessons to my own son. If we can teach him to eat like the French, and help with the household chores like the Mayans, then maybe we can consider our work done.
The one cultural idiosyncrasy that How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm doesn’t address, however, is the current trend for sanitizing and sterilizing everything within reach, ensuring that our kids grow up in a Lysol-scented bubble. Maybe some battles are just too big to fight in a single chapter.
How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting is published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. It is available now from all good bookstores, or from Mei-Ling Hopgood’s website, priced $15.95.