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Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent
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Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

4.19 of 5 stars 4.19  ·  rating details  ·  1,096 ratings  ·  183 reviews
New parents are faced with innumerable decisions to make regarding the best way to care for their baby, and, naturally, they often turn for guidance to friends and family members who have already raised children. But as scientists are discovering, much of the trusted advice that has been passed down through generations needs to be carefully reexamined.

A thought-provoking c...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published May 4th 1999 by Anchor
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,142)
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Jun 29, 2013 Meg added it
Shelves: parenting, health
I'm not sure how many stars to give this book, because I had very mixed reactions. The earlier parts of this book are full of interesting biological and anthropological descriptions of (1) evolutionary and biological information about babies, and (2) how parents in various cultures care for babies. Totally fascinating, well-described, and exuding open-mindedness and curiosity about the wonder of human biology and the rich variety of human behavior.

Then, suddenly, the book changes, and the second...more
This is the book I like to give every pregnant friend. When you have a child, you inevitably receive a lot of well-intentioned advice. Writing from a biological anthropologist's point of view, Small helps you pick apart which bits of wisdom are cultural (which is not to say that they should be discarded!) and which are more naturally aligned with babies' basic biological design.

This crucial knowledge, which most parents and even pediatricians do not possess, will help make some aspects of babie...more
This was a really thought-provoking read that overall I enjoyed quite a lot. But I feel like she frequently repeated herself; by the end I was pretty tired of hearing about the !Kung San, and wished I had skimmed rather than read the whole thing. Also, despite her overall commitment to a scientific approach, she did use fairly biased/loaded language in her treatment of Western practices. I often agreed with her, but it seemed a bit heavy handed.
This was a fascinating read. The author relates the parenting practices of different cultures around the world and talks about how certain parenting styles are due to the biology of human babies. As a simple example, babies were designed to be breastfed, biologically speaking. But in Western cultures, we've decided to diverge from those biologically-based practices to gain more convenience and independence from the traditionally more intimate parent-infant relationship. I like how the author say...more
Written by an anthropologist, this is an intriguing account of how humans care for infants, from a cross-cultural and evolutionary perspective. It begins by providing a fascinating summary of infant care in several diverse cultures including three hunter-gatherer societies and the modern industrial societies of Japan and the U.S. The variety of practices described, not only of caring for the young, but also related to social structure, mating, pregnancy, and birth made for some interesting readi...more
Well, nothing to make you feel insecure about your own parenting than reading about cultures where the kids get held for 3x the amount of US kids, and only cry for a few seconds at a time. Gives you something to think about, but I don't think I'll be very successful at this until I have a whole village to pass my kid along to, or at least a back strong enough to wear a sling for more than half an hour.

So far, long on introduction - as in, I read the intro and am now 60 or so pages in and still...more
If I could rate this 2.5 stars I would....

What I liked: the examples of how a variety of world cultures approach major parenting choices such as breastfeeding, babywearing, and bedtime/sleep issues. Really fascinating to read, and a variety of different approaches can still lead to healthy, happy, well-adjusted children! I wish she'd focused more on this aspect and left the other stuff out.

What was interesting but I'm on the fence about it: the evolutionary biology stuff. It was interesting to r...more
I wish I had read this book before I had babies, but I'm definitely glad I'm reading it when they're still little. It is about the field of ethnopediatrics, the comparative study of parenting across cultures, with the ultimate goal of determining where mismatches between biology and culture exist so that we can better meet our babies' needs.

A major tenet of Small's argument is that the biology of babies has evolved at a pace much slower than our culture's technology and lifestyle. As a result,...more
There is so much that I agree with in this book. I loved reading about the anthropological support for the idea that attachment parenting is what is best for babies, and I really enjoyed reading about how babies are cared for in some non-Western cultures today (though I would have enjoyed reading about more of them and also about Western countries other than the U.S.)

That being said, I did find some significant flaws with this book. For one thing, Meredith Small asserts at times that all parenti...more
Jul 08, 2008 Regina rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Regina by: parents
This book is better than the usual pop psychology book on parenting. It is essentially a review of the relatively new field of ethnopediatrics by an anthropologist. It tackles the nature/nurture question head on and makes some truly subtle points in places. At times the author lapses into vague generalizations about our Pleistocene past determining our current biological drives. And rather suprisingly, given that the author is a female anthropologist, some of the discussions about co-sleeping et...more
This book was really good but, a bit hard to get into. Its also a little academic. That said, I think it really challenged me, was full of very stimulating meaty research and kind of changed my perspective as a parent. I've always leaned towards attachment parenting and felt a little disjointed from much of common American parenting philosophy, but this book pushed me even further into that camp. I felt like reading the careful research on cultures around the world and how they raise children re...more
Allison Rockwell
An ethnopediatric argument for reevaluating the ways we in the West have been taught to care for babies, combining evidence from anthropology, evolutionary biology, and pediatrics. The author makes a strong argument for immediate contact with the infant after birth, co-sleeping, continuous feeding (or as close as possible to it), and responding quickly to cries, and uses case studies from !Kung San people in Africa, Japanese parents, and American parents to demonstrate how extremely different pa...more
"Culture should not be a dictator but a facilitator," according to the author of this really interesting book. Small looks at many different cultures and the lessons they bring to raising babies, along with why each culture may have different approaches (e.g. longer term societal goals not just short-term goals for not crying). She encourages parents to question their own cultures, to seek what is best for the child and to examine what our parental goals may be. While I may not adopt all of her...more
I read this book when my son was around 5 months old - so that was over a year and a half ago. In the sea of parenting books that are constantly shoved in our faces as new mothers, this one was like a life preserver for me! Learning a little about how people of all different cultures all over the world raise their children helped me to let go of some of the ideas our society has put into my head over the years about how I was "supposed to" parent my son. As a first time and kind of high strung m...more
I appreciated the break from the normal pregnancy books with this one... But I was hoping for something a little more enlightening. But I felt like the most interesting points about other cultures were discussed in the preface. It did give me some things to think about related to breastfeeding and co-sleeping. I can't believe America is the only culture where co-sleeping doesn't really happen. And the idea that babies need co-sleeping so they can learn to breathe since they aren't completely dev...more
Excellent! A review of the way humans around the world parent, including hunter/gatherer tribes and Western, industrialized countries. It is shocking how backwards many American traditions are. Why are we more concerned about facilitating a child's independence over their emotional security and well-being? That is the path that we are on when we stop breastfeeding a few months after birth, leave infants to sleep alone in separate rooms, and spend just twenty percent of the time in physical conta...more
Read this aloud to Jun.

I liked the fact that the author looked at various parenting practices around the world, and how and why people parent the way they do - from sleeping to interacting with babies, etc. Though it did seem it was a big long book to say that the way Americans tend to parent, while valid culturally, is probably not healthy and is very far removed from the ancestral environment in which babies and parents evolved in certain ways to interact with one another. It definitely pooh-p...more
So I’m having my first baby in 10 weeks time (assuming punctuality on the part of my unborn daughter). As the oldest of 5 with an extensive track record of babysitting my own and other similarly Catholic (i.e. large) families I’d like to think I’ve got an advantage when it comes down to some of the nuts and bolts of basic baby maintenance. I can bottle feed, burp, bathe, and change a mean diaper. I have experienced the existential horror that is a baby that won’t stop crying.

I have never actuall...more
I really struggled with a rating for this book. Parts of it are very interesting. All of it references research, though it's not always clear to me that the research is being presented fairly/neutrally.

The book itself is absolutely ideological. In some sections, she does a very good job of pointing out how we shouldn't judge other cultures for some parenting choices, but she's very judgmental of what she sees as common Western parenting choices (some of which are dated and I think pretty uncomm...more
Whenever I say NO MORE BABY BOOKS someone tells me how I just have to read THIS ONE. Then I cave and regret it. But this was different--I have no idea how I happened upon it, like a fairy bringing over this magic bean or something, this is a gem. It's all about the anthropology of how different cultures parent their babies and it was SO DANG INTERESTING. Basically, everyone thinks us Americans are nuts. Go figure. But yeah, we do things different. We don't sleep with our babies. We get worried w...more
Andrea Paterson
An excellent look at how babies and their caregivers have evolved through time and across cultures. This book was highly comforting in that it proves there is no "right" way to parent your child, but it is also deeply informative, describing clearly the biological imperatives that make babies the way they are and outlining the parenting practises that best support those biological needs. While many methods of care can be appropriate there are some that are a better biological match than others....more
Katherine Parker
Sep 19, 2008 Katherine Parker rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people with babies/small children
Recommended to Katherine Parker by: Tilden
Shelves: breeder-books
This was a quick read. It provides some interesting insights about how we parent, how unconscious a lot of our parenting strategies are, and how we unconsciously transmit our culture's values through our interactions with children. In particular, I had never thought about whether or not other cultures talk to their children a lot and value language acquisition as much as Americans value it. She also laid bare for me the understanding that, as many aspects of American culture as I reject (materia...more
Jan 14, 2008 Jenn rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people interested in attachment parenting
I read this book long ago for a class on child development. It was incredible, and I remember loaning it to my sister-in-law when she was pregnant. It was the first book I picked up to read when I got pregnant, and I tried to get my husband to read it also.

What I'm obviously trying to say here is that I think this book is great for parents to read.

It's not your "typical" parenting book - there are no top ten lists, no cutesy anecdotes. What it is is this - scientific & well-studied reasons...more
This book explores how human biology and culture influence and define
the way we choose to parent. The author surmises that human babies
are biologically evolved to send signals (crying, smiling, rooting)
based upon hundreds of years of evolution within a hunting &
gathering culture. She illustrates that the way some cultures parent
today sometimes clashes with how babies have evolved thus far.

Various cultures' parenting styles (American, Kung! San of Africa,
and Japanese among them) are used to d...more
I picked this book up a while back, I think at a library sale on a whim. I didn't know the book prior to buying it but I did recognize the author's name. Meredith Small is a primatologist whose work I knew when I was studying anthropology.

The sub-title gives the gist of this book's subject matter: "How biology and culture shape the way we parent." For those with any interest in parenting, children, or even just examining human behaviors cross-culturally, this is a great book to read.

Small revie...more
This book is excellent! It describes a new field of medicine/science called ethnopediatrics, which exists to discover how biology and culture affect how we parent - and it's most interesting where those two points intersect. She writes from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist, describing how and why babies develop the way that they do in utero and why they are born at 9 months (when their brains are so underdeveloped: basically that is when they will fit out of the pelvis) and how once...more
Meredith Small is an anthropologist at Cornell and in this book she explores how different cultures raise children in (surprisingly) different ways. I enjoyed the cultural anecdotes and the comparisons of human behavior to the behavior of other primates. Some of the studies and results she shared, in particular about sleep and breastfeeding, were compelling. If anyone ever critiques you for breastfeeding, or breastfeeding in public, point them to this book (as if such fools would be interested i...more
This little introduction to "ethnopediatrics," the study of child-rearing across cultures, is by no means a how-to manual, but nonetheless may be one of the better parenting books I've read to date. This is a well-researched, thought-provoking survey of parenting styles among non-human primates and human cultures throughout the world. The conclusion? It is Western child-rearing practices that are "weird."

I loved the indictment of our cultural obsession with "independence" and getting infants to...more
missy ward-lambert
I should confess that I didn't read this book cover to cover; I have a bad habit of skipping around a lot when I read non-fiction books. But I really enjoyed the book as a whole. It's a well-researched, fascinating look at how different cultures raise children. Despite our tendency to assume that we are raising our children the "right" way, really we are products of the culture we have been raised in--and sometimes, if you get right down to the biology of it, our culture is wrong. I especially e...more
Charity (CJ)
Jun 29, 2008 Charity (CJ) rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: parents who feel like people look at them funny for how they raise their kids
Shelves: parenting
I will preface my review by saying that I recognize that I might be biased about this book because it reinforced many things about parenting that I already believe.

That being said, I really found this book enlightening. Small, an anthropologist at Cornell University, outlines research done here in the West about parenting practices and the nature of human infancy and describes parenting practices in cultures around the world. Her basic premise is that, while parents (and even those without child...more
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Meredith F. Small is a science journalist, anthropologist, and professor at Cornell University. Although well known from her award winning magazine writing, she is also the author os several trade books that take a anthropological look at parenting, sexuality, and mental illness. Her book Our Babies, Ourselves as been called a "cult classic" for parents, health professionals, and anyone interested...more
More about Meredith Small...
Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children What's Love Got to Do with It? Fall Creek (Grace McCloud Mysteries) Naše děti, naše světy Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology & Culture Shape the Way We Parent

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