Small Cultures With Small People Part Three: How Your Family Rolls

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In Part Two of Small Cultures With Small People, I looked into how babies’ culture-making ability develops from birth. This is a huge influence in the way family culture-making plays out, as parents respond to the changing needs of their little one/ones. This followed on from Part One, which was about how people make culture and the family group.

In this post, I want to explore what happens as a result of family members coming together and participating in whatever activities emerge within the group. First, I will reprise the topic of development, as it relates to the family, then I will talk about how small cultures get negotiated, and who decides how things play out.

New Developments in Family Life

The Wonder Weeks charts ten developmental leaps which occur across the first eighteen months of life. These represent huge, fundamental changes in how a kid sees the world. With each leap, new meanings are conferred by the child onto the world around them, and this is reflected in their behaviour. So, a baby who has learned that day and night are different is more likely to have different behaviours at these times of day. Typically, babies start sleeping more at night, and less during the day, as a consequence of this leap. Sadly, the effect may be temporary!

Adults do this ‘leaping’ too, though not nearly as often, and new understandings about their world also shape the way they act. As far as I know, these are not so uniform as the developmental changes that take a baby through to adulthood. However, becoming a parent is one clear shift, where the brain actually changes shape, new thinking occurs, and new behaviour follows. We have a remarkable capacity to move with the times, which is kickstarted by our biology and circumstances.

In addition, there are the incremental, everyday shifts in our understanding of all around us. For instance, there is the adjustment you make when picking up a newborn after being used to a solid lump of toddler, or visa versa. The different weight feels odd, but you move around a bit, pretty much without thinking, and a new balance is achieved. This is because we get used to a certain way of picking up a child, but as soon as we sense that we have applied it in an inappropriate way, the natural thing to do is to modify our behaviour.

Likewise, a child might have a sudden realisation that hair is perfect for grabbing onto, and evokes an interesting, piercing sound from the person carrying you. They may eventually stop doing it if told enough times that hair pulling hurts and please do not do that, or are put down again as soon as they try to play this intriguing new game. Once again, new thoughts or sensations lead to a new behaviour, which affects interaction with others, and their subsequent behaviour. When these behaviours are understood as patterns that occur with a particular person or people, and are associated with this particular group, they become culture. If our beliefs about who does what in that group change, then so does the behaviour, and round we go again, interacting, responding, reforming.

So the way our culture-making works is that we see something new, and make adjustments in our interactions. This is why it is really useful to have friends with a child just a little older than your own, because you get a better look at what you might be in for, and it is not such a shock. The way a toddler makes culture is very different to a baby, and a small child has a different approach to a big one, and so on and so on. Plus there are all the intricacies of personality and mood, which play a huge part in what gets created.

Negotiating Small Cultures In The Family

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To say that we negotiate small cultures is another way of expressing that when people come together in a shared activity, then they have to work out how to get things done together, and what is appropriate or not. Different folk will have  variant conceptions of how family life should look, and will be working from personal models of reality which differ from their siblings’ or parents’. These differences might be a matter of age, development, gender, personal persuasion, mood, whimsy…..the list is long. Most of all, behaviour arises from a particular context in time, history, and space, and the meaning it carries alters, depending on these factors.

Assuming then, that you are always in the process of making culture within your family, there are various notions about what specific behaviours mean and whether or not they are acceptable in the context of the moment. Moreover, there may be conflicting notions about what behaviours mean and whether or not they might be a reasonable way to act. There are different ways of gaining consensus about the right way to do things and putting a shared understanding into practice. At a given instant, depending who is involved, parents might dictate what is OK, or might negotiate with their kids about what to do, or might let the children take the lead, or there may even be a stand off, with hissed words and slammed doors.

A Note On Book Buying

If you are anything like me, you might deal with change by purchasing books, or at least talking to people who appear to have read a lot. These tomes/bookworms can offer a generic structure that you can (theoretically) introduce into a small culture. It can be a great source of ideas, or it can make you feel like you now have a bunch of problems you didn’t know you had beforehand. Overall, because small culture is always evolving, and systems in books do not, it is important to realise that they cannot always be a good fit for what is going on.

Baby books with titles like ‘The Darlingest Little Baby in Town’ or ‘Abstract Concept Parenting’ are constructed around particular ideas about who takes what role in a family and how they should act. Advice is given with a certain understanding about the responsibilities and capabilities of each person. With something as complex as human interaction, there are few beliefs and behaviours that can be applied with total consistency within a family unit. It is always wise to bear in mind that there is no reason in the world why this should be so.

When it comes to expert opinion, it is fine to take on board ideas you like and leave anything that doesn’t feel right for you. It doesn’t matter if the book accuses you of ‘accidental parenting’ or uses lots of acronyms. You do not have to do what it says, because there is no foolproof recipe for how family culture should be. Some people suggest that there is because humans just love making up wacky rules and beliefs, then forgetting that they are a fiction among millions of possible others.

It is the nature of the family group to change and shift with the flow of life, so bugger anyone who says you should apply their rules or else. Besides, you and yours are a select bunch of experts on the topic of your family.

Cooking Small Culture

Having broken off writing to chat with my husband, he compared culture to diet, and behaviour to food, and baby books to recipe books:

“If you only eat bananas, then you will be missing out on nutrition and enjoyment from other foods. What you are eating may not always be appropriate to your disposition and circumstances, and it will cause trouble for you. On the other hand, if you eat a range of foods, and select according to what you need and want to eat, then you are likely to be healthier and happier. Following this analogy, baby books are like cookbooks, practices that you adopt are ingredients, and culture is what you end up with on the plate.”

I would take this a step further and suggest that culture-making in the family, and in general, is a process where everyone grabs the ingredients that make sense to them, and chucks it onto one big plate. There will be conscious and unconscious reasons why each choice is made, and sometimes the result will be pleasing, like strawberries and cream, and other times ingredients will clash with one another, like horseradish and vanilla. Some people might like a whimsical pairing, and others will not. The more people, the more potential ingredients, the more ideas around what the end product should look like, and the more reactions to how it turns out.

Therefore, one way of keeping culture-making harmonious, most of the time, is to form some sort of mutual appreciation of what everyone is going for in terms of texture, colour, and flavour. Perhaps, this explains why culture-making with babies and toddlers can feel like trying to enjoy eating crayons off the floor.

Having read this, my husband (clever clogs) points out that it is our preconceptions about food and crayons, from our wider knowledge and experience of diet, that leads us to question ‘crayons a la toddler’ as a viable source of nutrients. Our youngest offspring has no such limiting beliefs, therefore is more able to select and enjoy this option. This raises the issue of whether to trust the innovation of the littlest family member, or to take control as a parent, and dictate what is going to get eaten (or not).

It seems reasonable that children should benefit from the experience and knowledge of their parents, but also that parents can learn new and valid ways of doing things from their babies. There must be context if sense is to prevail, and in this case, I would tend towards banning of crayon consumption owing to the obvious, and the fact that our floor is seldom clean enough to eat from.

When Parents Decide How Things Go

Moving away from the table, and what lies directly under it, then the question is what you want to create in your family culture, and assuming that harmony is a goal, aligning the contributions of group members. For sanity’s sake, it is best to accept that sometimes discord is bound to happen. Usually when someone has a very particular idea about what they want and it is not working en masse: the toddler who wants to snatch her brother’s train and hit him in the face with it, or the parent who is frantic because you all had to be out the door ten minutes ago and no one is even dressed yet, or when parent A thinks that a time out is in order, and parent B thinks time outs are a load of crap.

Working out who does what and when is different from moment to moment, from family to family. However, I think most would agree that it is a good idea for parents to care for the interests of their offspring, and provide some kind of teaching about the ways of the world. They can make use of their knowledge and experience, to take an active role in shaping group practices. The caveat is that they are more burdened with preconception, so should try to be aware of limiting beliefs and stale logic, being open to fresh thought.

Of course, parents will often also find that their notions about what is a reasonable idea or behaviour are quite different to one another’s. There is always potential for diversity between adults and adults, as much as there is between adults and children.  We are all individuals, and have our own unique perspective on the world. In general, the more group members of any age listen to one another, and give equal respect to each other, no matter how old they are, then the better able they will be to create harmonious culture much of the time.

It seems to me that parental intervention to promote culture-making harmony is no bad thing, but it can be tricky to decide on the best way to carry this out.

The question is, what can parents do if a child is bringing a behaviour to the cultural mix that they feel is against the best interests of the family, and/or the individual? Jack Pransky identified five questions which parents can ask themselves before attempting to change a child’s behaviour. Written with older children in mind, these can apply every bit as much to babies:

1. Am I feeling love in my heart for my baby/child at the moment?

2. What is my baby/child learning from what I am doing?

3. How am I seeing my baby/child at this moment?

4. Why is it important to me that my baby/child does what I am asking?

5. Do I really know what is going on in the mind of my baby/child, that is driving the behaviour?

You can hear more about these questions in Jack’s interview on the Born Happy Show Podcast, or in his book Parenting From The Heart.

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By asking questions like these, and giving an honest answer, you can be guided in your response to any behaviour, check your feelings, and know whether it is truly a ‘teaching’ moment or a ‘let it go’ moment. Rapport and mutual respect is a wonderful conduit to harmonious culture-making. More than that, these questions ask you to consider if your heart is in the right place or whether you want things your own way because you are about to chuck all your toys out the proverbial pram. The latter is a sign that you are not doing your best thinking, and may regret whatever you say and do next.

When Baby Decides

Given the amount of rapid growth that happens in the infant body and brain, it is no wonder that sometimes parents find it hard to keep up. New behaviour appears all the time, and it is not always easy to work out what has shifted in their sweet and tender consciousness that has caused them to become a minion of Satan overnight (it almost always happens over-night).

There are at least two things that might be happening in this scenario:

1. Little one is doing something new and unexpected, which is fine, but you are tired, stressed, or otherwise feeling ‘off’. As a result, their behaviour looks like a humungous pain in the bum that must be solved forthwith;

2. Little one is doing something new and unexpected, which is fine, but they are confused, freaked out, and otherwise feeling ‘off’. Therefore, they are unhappy and seeking comfort.

Sometimes, 1 and 2 co-occur, and you find yourself in a rather despairing looking situation. It is in these moments that the case for parental intervention, to rule out ‘accidental parenting’ or some such nonsense might start to look really compelling. It can feel like whatever baby is doing is going to last forever, and you are never again going to be able to sleep, eat, shower, or pee on your own again. No doubt, the child will be damaged in some permanent and awful way, and it will be your fault for not taking action.

Do not fall for this type of thought! You are making small culture, and you can be certain that it will change over time in your family life.

It can be hard to work out what is happening within your child from their behaviour, especially in the prelinguistic phases. Calm scrutiny and curiosity may well yield some canny hypotheses, but there is no guarantee of surety. However, there is always the option of accepting on good faith that your erstwhile bonny bairn is doing their best with what they have right now, as are you.

Having asked yourself Mr Pransky’s questions, you will be aware of your own thinking. This will help you decide if this is a good time to make any big decisions about interventions. Often, what babies really need is a good dose of understanding and patience, to comfort and reassure them until they find their bearings. In many places, there is an awful lot of pressure for babies to achieve independence early on, but in the long run there is not a great amount of evidence to support rushing and forcing as opposed to waiting and seeing, and maybe waiting some more. Whatever is going on, I guarantee you will feel better about it and make more sensible decisions if you take note of the feelings you are experiencing in relation to choices you make.

Final Thoughts

I have covered quite a mishmash of cultural bits and bobs here from development shifts to cooking culture to interventions and decision making. Culture-making in the family is, not only a huge topic, but also one that is full of personal assumptions. As such, I am aware that the views I put forward are a product of my own time, place, history, interests, stories, whims and fancies. I hope that the ideas here prove useful to you readers, who may be coming from similar or different circumstances to my own.

However you roll, I hope that you are enjoying this parenting adventure.

Did this discussion strike any chords with you?

How do you roll in your family?

As always, I would love to hear from you!

Come chat in the Facebook Group!

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