We don’t use time-outs or other kinds of punishments; most people do. Whenever I get into a conversation about toddler discipline, the conclusion seems to be that kids are different, and different kids respond better to different parenting approaches. It’s true that kids are different! And aside from being true, it’s a way of giving other parents the benefit of the doubt and affirming our diversity of styles. All of those are good things. So why do I find the line that all kids are different so unsatisfying?
For the first year and a half of Rebecca’s life, I heard the same rhetoric about a lot of differences that were unambiguously more practice-based than kid-based. When Rebecca was six months old, she ate grown-up food instead of baby food, rarely cried at night, and often peed or pooped in the potty when given the chance. A year later she was potty-trained. It’s not because she was special; it’s because we did babyled weaning (i.e. self-paced finger foods instead of baby food), cosleeping, and part-time elimination communication with her. I know there are kids who have different experiences with the same practices, because yes, kids are different, but I also know that these practices can work for most kids. Variations on them were the norm in a lot of times and places, before disposable diapers and before breastfeeding was discouraged.
Elimination communication, cosleeping, and babyled weaning were a good fit with me and my lifestyle, too. When Rebecca was a baby, the moments when she and I were in sync, sharing food or peeing at the same time or whatever–those were moments that fed my spirit and gave me the energy to take care of her all day. Even if they look like more work, the boost I got made them easier than the alternatives. Instead of saying Rebecca’s special, it would make more sense to point to the oddities of life as the stay-at-home mama to one babe, and how that brings out the side of me that gets excited about synchronized peeing. The same practices aren’t going to suit every other parent the same way they suited me, and that’s fine.
I suspect that something similar applies to discipline practices for toddlers. In Guatemala, for example, there are no Terrible Twos. According to Mosier and Rogoff’s research, as summarized here and here, Guatemalans tend to follow discipline strategies that maintain harmony with their toddlers–i.e. letting them do what they want–and rely on social modeling to grow them into cooperative people. Their approach emphasizes interdependence and group harmony more than we do, individual rights and independence less, and that’s what’s transmitted through their discipline style. Other traditional cultures with similar values apparently have similar results with their children. The fact that our culture has so many emotionally explosive and rebellious toddlers by contrast is evidence that our toddlers are ending up in more situations they can’t cope with, and that our typical combination of practices and social structure is hard on a lot of kids / parents / families. (Yeah, who knew?)
If different cultural practices mean different apparent temperaments, then practices matter more than a lot of people give them credit for. It’s silly to reduce all the differences in kids’ behavior and parents’ responses down to the kids’ temperaments. But this is where it gets tricky to talk and write about, because no one who says “kids are different” actually means that practices don’t matter, and all of us wonder about the differences between our kids and maybe the differences between ourselves as parents. If those differences were the starting point for a discussion of discipline instead of its endpoint–if we talked directly about different personalities and values and motivations and how they play out–then I think I’d be more satisfied. I’m skeptical that things like time-outs really are best for most families, but when it comes down to it, all I know for sure is that they’re not right for us.
But what can you do practically with the knowledge that things are different in Guatemala? Reading these research summaries from the viewpoint of discipline makes them sound like an endorsement of positive parenting, but if positive discipline isn’t your thing, then maybe you notice other differences. For example, I’m thinking that Mayan children probably spend more time in mixed-age groups, which provide a richer context for observing pro-social behavior and trying it out. I’m going to analogize behavior learning to language learning now, because I’ve read that Hmong adults don’t talk to their babies. The babies learn how to talk anyway, because they’re surrounded by spoken social interactions. Most American mothers and other caregivers are more isolated or ghettoized, and so the amount they talk to babies makes more of a difference. Does that mean we need to be more explicit about our behavioral expectations, whereas kids with a richer social life would just pick them up? Maybe.
In any case, even if my childrearing has elements in common with various non-Western ones, the same practices mean something different when Rebecca and I spend most of our time alone with each other (and with maybe some uninvolved strangers), than they would in a context where she constantly saw people taking care of each other and deferring to each other’s needs. In my context, listening to Rebecca and looking for points of compromise says less about group interdependence, more about respecting her as an individual–and I hope ultimately about respecting other people as diverse individuals, too.
What I draw from the anthropology of parenting is a sense for what’s possible. Sometimes, when a conversation indirectly sends the message that one or the other of you must be doing it wrong–that it’s okay to have different parenting practices insofar as kids are different, but that it’s best not to talk about the differences in what you believe or in what nourishes your spirit–then it’s a relief to see how much diversity really is out there. That’s why, when I feel awkward about nursing my 2.5 year old in public, I remember this piece on “extended” breastfeeding in Mongolia and I feel better. Looking at anthropology also renews my focus on how parenting strategies transmit values. Nearly everyone behaves well enough eventually, by their culture’s standards, so maybe the real question is the one Alfie Kohn asks in Unconditional Parenting: Beyond how to behave, what are our kids learning about themselves and the world as a byproduct of our discipline approaches?