Category: Culture

What Makes Parenting Simple

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The only thing that can ever make anything complicated is the way we think about it, approach it, dream it. We make meaning of everything, and in doing so, we create the world around us. It looks like it is the other way around, but indeed, we are authors of our own lives, and no one can take that power away from us.

It is all a matter of choice.

Simple parenting is a choice.

Like any writer, we borrow from convention, trying on other people’s stories to see how they feel on our own skin, but we bring each pen stroke to life all by ourselves in our own authentic way. By choosing to live it.

One need look no further than the practice of parenting across cultures to see how invented our family life is. If you are Balinese, Brazilian, or British, the chances are you have grown up around certain notions of childhood and family, which differ to those held elsewhere in the world.

If you were a member of the Beng, living on the Ivory Coast of Africa, then you would likely believe your child to be a reincarnation of an ancestor. Your baby would have been drawn direct from Wrugbe, the Beng land of the dead, into a new life. You would wash your newborn with special black soap, reserved only for use on babies and dead bodies, the two groups inherently connected in your mind. You would need to persuade your little one into this new life of theirs and prevent them from returning to Wrugbe, which, after all, would be a more natural environment for them.You might prioritise buying them a cowry shell bracelet to protect them from illness and bad spirits.

For more about the Beng, and childrearing practices in different societies, see ‘A World Of Babies’ by DeLoache and Gottlieb, Cambridge Uni Press.

Common beliefs about parenting from our own stomping grounds cover the accepted practices for responsible care-giving and child-rearing. Some examples that come to mind are:

  1. Parenting is the hardest and most rewarding activity you will ever do,
  2. Struggle is bad for you and therefore should be eliminated from parenting,
  3. Children’s upbringings need to be carefully managed according to what scientific evidence indicates,
  4. Parent and child relationships are very complicated,
  5. We must prevent our children from becoming vulnerable to the world,
  6. We must protect the world from our children and their chaos,
  7. Having a child means you should stop doing a lot of other stuff, like sleeping, working,  going out in the evening, and travelling,
  8. Experts are better qualified than us in the field of childrearing, and therefore are the best people to decide how our child needs to be raised,
  9. The best way to promote rest is that children should go to bed early, at which point their parents have free time as a couple or as individuals,
  10. Parenting is not relaxing. EVER.

Do you find yourself nodding along at all? Do you recognise these notions? In my personal and subjective experience, they are often presented as the real truth about bringing up children.

Hang on though, because THIS IS ALL MADE UP CULTURE STUFF.

We can create ANYTHING.

We can do better than the cultural equivalent of Dan Brown.

We are not the victims of circumstance. We are the authors of our lives.

Even when you feel like Lord of the Flies has nothing on one of your average family outings, and you wonder if you are The Heart of Darkness to everyone else’s Swiss Family Robinson…..

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No, no, no.

I cannot speak for you, but this is what looks real to me right now:

  1. Parenting is a social construct which suggests an active role on the part of mum and dad when engaging in a relationship with their offspring. It neither MUST be hard nor rewarding.
  2. Struggle is a natural part of growth, and indicates that either a) growth is about to happen or b) consciousness is low and self-care is needed. Struggle need not be synonymous with chronic stress and anxiety. It only becomes so when people fall victim to the idea that no form of discomfort is OK in life, and/or people are not able to access appropriate support, and/or high levels of stress and anxiety become accepted as normal in that culture.
  3. Scientific evidence provides a patchy, yet valuable, resource of information for parents to make use of in their decision making, should they wish it, including the level of involvement parents should expect to have in their child’s development. However, any given piece of research informs practice best  where it has been well-evaluated with a particular context in mind.
  4.  Parent and child relationships are extremely simple. There is a mother or father and a child who interact with one another. Complications arise through the layers of thought that they create about one another. In this, adults are at a disadvantage due to their well-developed egos, inner autobiographers, and long, long memories. Not to mention, whatever beliefs and personal stories they have picked up from their own childhood.
  5. Like it or not, we inhabit a vulnerable physical place in the natural order of things, and we are not bullet proof, disease proof, shatter proof, or shock proof. There is only so much we can do about this. However, we are also resilient, with many innate gifts and abilities. The best way to access these inner resources is to try them out in a variety of contexts and manners of our choosing. Though children need to be kept from running into speeding traffic or launching themselves lemming style over balconies, they also need to experience failure, loss, mistakes, and difficulty.
  6. Children may be noisy, vigorous, curious, honest, and insatiable, which goes against social convention at times. It seems fair to expect that people should try to respect one another, as far as they are able, whether they are teeny weeny or big and grown up. However, we are built for social flexibility and negotiation which helps us figure out lots and lots of ways to interact. Therefore, we are quite capable of flexing those cultural muscles if caught off guard by an enterprising youngling. The best teacher of respectful behaviour is demonstrating by example, rather than getting all bent out of shape for fear of breaching decorum.
  7. Having a small person in tow does indicate that lifestyle will not be the same as without one. However, there are many, many forms that the lifestyle can take. Though change is an inevitable fact of life, there is no foregone conclusion that specific limits apply to families in terms of whether, when, and where people work, sleep, play, travel. Many parents do feel exhausted and limited, but it is more to do with being in modern Western society, plus having children, rather than a natural consequence of parenthood. Rigid beliefs about how family life should look which do not take into account everyone else’s view in that family can also lead to self-imposed limitations.
  8. Every person on this earth is unique, with their own physical form and their own version of reality. This means that understanding how to raise your child relies more on ability to understand your child than anything else. There can be no one size fits all techniques or tricks, and no formula which comes close to simply listening with great care and respect to a) your child and b) your common sense.
  9. In our packaged and managed, time-obsessed society, it is natural to want to package and manage chunks of time. However, experience is often much, much too messy for this. When attempting to manage how a group of people spend all their time, there are bound to be clashes, disagreements of expectation, misunderstandings, and differing needs. Also, people’s needs for solitude, company, leisure, play, or work, are not uniform, and do not conform to a set timetable. Too often people are not encouraged to respond to their actual needs, but rather to a clock or schedule. Though rhythm and routine are shown to have a calming effect on our physiology, whatever convention dictates in terms of when and how life happens can be totally off the mark. That is before you even introduce the question of what is practical, which can further influence who does what, how, and when.
  10. Parenting does not need to be hectic all the time, and there is such a thing as downtime with children, as well as without them. Everyone needs a bit of R and R during the day, especially small, growing, beings. What prevents parents from relaxing, much of the time, are minds which are too switched on and overstimulated to be present during these moments, or to recognise that quietude is an option. Most of all, looms a never-ending list of tasks that must be done before relaxation is permissible, which is the real rest-killer. Finding little, quiet windows is trickier when caring for multiple children, or a single child who is especially lively for whatever reason, but even so, half the battle is slowing down to a mellow mental pace, as and when an opportunity for respite occurs (however brief it may be).

The bedrock of our society is CHOICE, and yet all too often we forget that we have the power to write our own lives like never before. Instead we say, ‘Ah yes, we were once young, carefree souls, but now we have kids so’………

…..and then we tail off in despondent resignation.

INSERT HEAVY PAUSE

(Because, having spawned, and brought tiny humans into the world our own desires, our own needs, our own happiness is somehow shelved)

And we look back on nostalgic visions of childhood where the celebrations and wonderments, the big and small experiences, were always NOW and there was a magical sense of CONNECTION. A time when there were no details to worry about, and no forms to fill in, and no need to feel weighed down. We were so free.

Then we say ‘but that is what CHILDHOOD is like, and that reminds me, we have to provide this incredible, rich, textured experience to our own little ones, and gosh, what hard work it is’.

But we also have to make sure they do well in school. They have to learn to do calculus, or speak Mandarin, or score goals, or play the oboe. And we have to make sure they have a successful career and that they get to be happy because they can get all the material goods they could ever require, plus spiritual fulfilment, emotional health, and whole-brain heartfulness.

At some point we might start looking for a set of magic techniques to take care of all this.

Then we see that we need to do all these things for ourselves too, in order to be enough, and to be happy, and that now we have to do it ON TOP OF parenting. If we don’t then we are setting a terrible example, and our children are doomed.

You see now, what a complicated burden parenting is.

However, this reasoning ignores the glaring fact that IT IS ALL 100% FABRICATED.

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The only thing that parenting needs to be is a connection between you and your child that is grounded in the present moment. A connection through which you attempt to understand them and to do what is best to help them grow. It is that simple. All good decisions and feelings and experiences will flow, natural as rainfall, from that connection.

There are so many choices. Bold choices, timid choices, creative choices, wise, foolish, and wacky choices.

The rest is just generic, made up, dime-a-dozen culture stuff.

What are you making up today? Is it necessary? Is it beautiful?

Treat your obligations like furnishing your dream house. Does it make sense to you? Does to bring you pleasure?

Then choose, choose, choose. And remember that you chose, so that you can unchoose it should you so wish.

What do you choose, you Mamajestic lovelies? Tell me what matters most to you.

What would you choose over and again?

What could you unchoose to make your parenting more simple?

Come share your thoughts in the Mamajestic Facebook Group.

With lots and lots of squishy love,

Alexis xxx

PS You can read more about parenting and connection at the Three Principles For Families Centre Site

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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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Small Cultures With Small People Part Two: Born to Love

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In Small Cultures With Small People Part One, I talked about how we create culture as a means to organise human group behaviour. Now, I want to move on to the way that babies start to make culture. 

In Western cultures, the first prolonged form of culture making we do happens within the family, though we also develop experiences of doing this with other people we come into contact with. Just think how often babies are happy to smile and interact with new faces and you can begin to see that we are built for this. We are born to connect with other people, born to love. 

In this post, I want to explore some of the ways that culture-making abilities might develop during the first year of life. To skim the surface of this topic, I would like to look at some evidence that culture-making is innate and well into an advanced form by baby’s first birthday.

Nature and Nurture

There is a longstanding question about whether nature or nurture is more important in human development. On the one hand, we are teeming biological organisms, with a particular genetic history, while on the other, we are social constructions, in a particular sociocultural context. Regardless of which is more dominant in particular circumstances, it is clear that both these factors are crucial to understanding the basic apparatus that we set out with in life. So, when it comes to understanding how we interact with others, how we love, then it is important to consider that our biological and social realities both play a part. Not forgetting that what individuals choose to do with what they have is part of this equation too.   

Our Innate Capacity For Connection

There is no doubt that our biology disposes us to be social creatures. As babies, we cannot survive alone, and require a large amount of parental investment to make it in the world. Like elephants or dolphins, we are ‘allomothers’, which means that we are mammals who specialise in group living, and rely on our ‘families’ a great deal for mutual support in raising our young and caring for our elders (Gopnik 2009). Therefore, it is vital for infants to be able to form connections with their parents, siblings, and other significant family members or caregivers. 

Throughout the first years of life, we learn to recognise who we need to connect with, and how to sustain those connections. We create a working model of how to interact with others which is powerful enough to influence our relationships for the rest of our lives (Johnson 2010). We are able to do this because, even as newborns, we have all the apparatus for interaction and love, even if we do not operate it in the same way that adults do. Given that we have an innate capacity for connection with others, we must also have the innate potential to create culture. 

Adrian Holliday points out that culture is created by drawing boundaries around a group of people. Culture is constructed by each individual, according to where they perceive these boundaries to be. This means the culture changes as circumstances and perceptions shift. Read more here on his blog.

First Experiences

The best book I have read that tries to imagine the infant experience is The Baby In The Mirror by Charles Fernyhough (2010). I used this account to look for the emergence of culture making ability. mirror baby

The first boundary a baby experiences is the journey from inside to outside of the womb. Their little brain has been growing for some time, and is already adapted to the specific environment they will find themselves in. The flavours of their mother’s amniotic fluid will have given them a unique preparation to be born into that place, at that time, to those parents.

While little one has been gestating, the family that the child is to be born into will have also been making preparations to receive this new person. They have a set of beliefs and expectations about raising children that are activated through the experience of pregnancy, and which will shape the child’s experience of the world from day one. 

The first cultural boundaries that the infant mind creates might be between people and non people. Newborns do not know themselves to be persons, as they have no idea that they are an individual, bounded entity. They live in a synaesthetic dream world that is hard to comprehend with an adult mind. However, there is firm evidence that they are born with the ability to perceive faces and mimic facial expressions. This ability recedes over the first few weeks of life, while the senses become more organised towards what mature brains perceive, but it is right there at the beginning. 

Another ability which may be innate is to tell the difference between objects which can move of their own accord, and those that cannot. They will recognise the voices of their parents, even if they do not yet understand the relationship between sound and object. Thus, the baby starts on the path to distinguishing actual people, but it will take around eight weeks for this to happen. 

Throughout the first six weeks of life, the puerparium, the people caring for the baby undergo powerful transitions in their own right. The mother will feel her body pulled into a new, non-pregnant shape, and many will take their place as half of a breastfeeding diad (or a triad in cases where there is shared feeding). These shifts in the body are coupled with changes to the brain, as the mother adapts to her role. Fathers or partners also undergo physical and mental adaptations which mark the start of a new phase in their life.

Though the baby cannot yet recognise who is who, the way caregivers carry out their roles, and the way they shape their environment in order to do so, will have a profound effect on the baby’s developing sense of reality. 

First Smiles

Between six and eight weeks of age, infants have learned enough to begin to control their facial movements at will. Their facial recognition software has been rewritten, allowing them to distinguish individual features, and in particular to identify eyes and gaze. They know when they are being watched and when they are not. They discover that when they mimic the smiling expression of the watcher, that person reacts with yet more smiles, and so they begin to explore the social world in a whole new way. People are not just there for food, warmth, and comfort, they are…fun. 

Two things come out of this shift. First, that babies begin to recognise their parents and other important figures who pop up a lot. Second, they realise that certain people respond to them with a greater degree of interest and affection than others. Both these factors lead to attachment, which is a huge change in their culture-making processes, as the baby creates two categories of people, an in group and an out group. This is the baby’s first real experience of creating a culture. 

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First Separation

The infant must establish security, then they can grasp at independence, so it makes sense that the next step the baby takes is to begin to understand themselves as an individual who can be separated from the person or people they are attached to.

This is an extremely important boundary to draw in terms of culture-making, because it is then possible to be left, and to be returned to, or to leave and return. Thus, they can also understand that they participate in a wider range of groups. Some babies will undergo more distress than others at this discovery, and how they are responded to is a powerful shaper of their worldview. The pattern this takes will be crucial to the baby’s growing construction of what interpersonal behaviour looks like, and what response is appropriate to certain situations. 

Susan Johnson (see above) discovered that babies whose caregivers respond to separation cries expect this to be the norm for everyone, while babies whose caregivers ignore separation cries are puzzled when they see the opposite reaction. The infants had clear stories about ‘what happens when you cry’ that shaped their reality, and predicted whether or not they would demonstrate distress to their loved ones or not when they were left in the care of others. These early experiences are shown to shape behaviour well into adult life, with broader cultural groups often favouring general demonstration or suppression of emotions. 

First Steps

Another key factor in how a baby’s culture-making develops is their growing personal agency. As the baby begins to gain greater mastery over face, head, arms, and hands, and can exploit this to communicate and play in new ways, these skills are brought into their culture-making repertoire. Where they are able to enjoy a game of peekaboo, find amusement in the sensations of bathing, or show annoyance at being placed into the rather expensive swing that their parents thought would help them sleep, they are able to have a direct effect on the culture being made at a given time. They are becoming more active participants in the social life of the family. 

As their charge grows, the baby’s parents and other carers will also adapt to the physical and mental development that is happening. In some cultural groups there may be rapid ‘baby proofing’ and ‘routines’ put in place, while in others the baby may begin to be looked after more by siblings, and to make little cultures with local peers. The form of these inevitable transitions will create new dimensions in relationships between younger and older family members, which will be reflected in the way the baby acts towards them, and visa versa.

In culture-making, we create our own behaviour and that of others to a greater or lesser degree, but there is much more of a grey area around who prompts what behaviours in whom. Some babies and some parents are more adaptable than others, so suffice to say that you will see yourself mirrored in your children in all kinds of ways, and also be able to pinpoint in ways that you have changed as a result of having them. 

Wherever they are, babies will experiment with new behaviours and draw conclusions around the results of their investigations based on responses. This is a point where the behaviours which are most valued in their social environment will be prioritised over those that are not, and some abilities will take a back seat. So, if the child is growing up on the plains of Mongolia, they will probably be encouraged towards greater physical independence than if they are being raised in a tiny flat in Tokyo. In my own experience, babies in Portugal are expected to interact with a larger cross section of the population than those in the UK. Factors such as gender, religion, ethnicity and so on will impact the way the baby is treated as they become more of a social agent in their own right. 

Compelling as it might be to catch on to cultural traits that span large groups, there are many nuances to individual culture-making that are lost when you cast the net too wide. You never can use environment as an absolute predictor of social behaviour. The way it works is so much more fluid than that, as the world of this moment is not the same as the last, and there is always the potential for change and innovation. 

First Birthdays

By the baby’s first birthday, he or she will have made a detailed study if those around them, and the place they inhabit. They will have undergone the necessary physical and mental development for feeding themselves and walking upright, though they may not yet have developed this skill. The urge to be like the people caring for them will become more and more apparent, as their independence increases. Though there are many, many variations regarding what ‘milestones’ are in different culture groups, and the speed at which each individual child reaches them, the child’s biology and chemistry will be saying ‘grow, grow, grow’. 

By their first birthday, a child will have experienced participating in a range of small cultures, and be able to change their behaviour according to situation. So, for instance, they will know that going to their baby singing group or the doctors is different to going to grandma’s house, and that grandma’s house is not the same as their house. Different activities will happen and they will be expected to behave in different ways in each setting, and they will be aware of different degrees of closeness to particular people. Thus, they will be able to shape their behaviour more to specific situations, or to create situations to suit what they feel like doing.

How their agency is received, and the part they are ‘allowed’ to play in the culture making of the family and immediate surrounds will affect their first working model of ‘how I make culture’. This model will become the base from which they move into more diverse small cultures and from which they take responsibility for creating new culture.

The Importance of First Culture-Making Experiences IMG_0462 It is from our early culture-making experiences that our sense of ‘who I am’ and ‘what I do’ comes. Whoever we are, it is deeply related to ‘who our folks are’ and ‘what our folks do’. Regardless of this, it is important to realise that these are mere ideas that are constructed through our experiences and what we imagine is expected of us in society.

While on paper, concepts like nationalities and ethic groups are straightforward and you are either a member or not, in reality they are only labels. The same too, goes for things like ‘attachment parenting’. They are powerful labels that can trap people into ‘this is who we are, this is what we do, and this is what is possible for us’, but they are labels just the same. They cannot possibly give an accurate description of reality. In actual fact, we are capable of creating ourselves and our cultures ad Infinitum. As J.K Rowling observed, there is an expiry date on blaming your parents for who you are. 

It is vital to consider that even little babies are learning how to make their own choices and take their place in the world in their own way. They may be tiny, but their birth creates new cultural groups and sets off a ripple effect that shifts the small cultures they participate in. The perceptions that their biology renders them capable of making, and the way they are received by those around them affects how they use their innate ability to make culture. It is through culture making that they come to express love and to be loved. This is a beautiful reminder of our social nature and creative potential, which is with us from day one. 

I would love to look at this in more depth some day, as I find it so fascinating how our abilities emerge as we grow, and how different environments offer various ways of understanding and encouraging the experience. It is hard to fathom that babies have often been considered a kind of helpless, incomplete adult in western cultures. Though they lack the means to care for themselves they also show us the amazing capacities we are gifted with from the start of life, many of which adults forget how to use in an effective way as we get older.

In Part Three of Small Cultures With Small People, I will look at how we negotiate the culture that we create in a young family.

What do you notice about the way your baby interacts with others?

What are you creating together?

Let me know what you see, and send me any questions or comments. I would love to explore this with you!

If this interests you go ahead and share, share, share. That would be lovely. IMG_1308        

Small Cultures With Small People, Part One: How We Make Culture

I am going to be running a series of posts exploring culture within the family. Here, in part one, I am talking about how we create culture and what this means for an understanding of behaviour and interactions between parents and children.

How We Make Culture

As human beings, one of the super cool things we do is make culture. I don’t mean just creating literature, art, or behaviours, like hand-shaking or nose-wiping, that have particular meanings in a particular country. Those are to do with ‘large culture’, which describes national characteristics and products. I am talking about ‘small culture’, where groups of individuals, each with their own unique perspective, come together and interact, and from which special patterns of behaviour and shared meanings evolve.

Culture is more than manners or identity, more than an elaborate means of not pissing each other off. It is an expression of what looks and feels real to a set of people, of the understandings they have about themselves, their environment, and one another. It also reflects the changing nature of our perspective on the world, which has the capacity to shift from moment to moment.

The ‘small culture paradigm’ was outlined by Adrian Holliday, who also described culture-making as an ‘innate human ability’. In his work, he argues that culture-making is at the heart of all groups and institutions that people create, and allows us to co-operate and transfer ideas from one person to another. Read his paper on small cultures here.

The conclusion that I drew from this is, the better we are at recognising and using this ability, the more we can explore the creative potential inherent in interaction, and the stronger our connections with others can be.

A really great example of culture-making in progress is to watch children playing a game like hide and seek. Though there are basic generic rules and behaviours involved in the game, which the participants may or may not actually understand, new rules and expressions of the game will appear through that episode of play.

So, perhaps some bossy older kids will want to create new rules with ‘safe spots’ and chasing, while errant younger players might decide they want to hide, then leap out and ‘scare’ the seeker, because they cannot wait to be found. The way each player sees the game and wants it to evolve will be expressed in their behaviour, and how they understand  rules and roles within the game, as it continues, will develop based on reactions to that behaviour.

Whether everyone gets along and the game is thought to be satisfying and fun depends on the ability of the kids to align their understandings around that expression of the game being played at that moment. If they cannot do this, then someone will be deemed to be ‘spoiling’ the game, and a radical change of play may be needed to set things ‘right’, or there will be branching off into new groups, new games, and new rules and understandings will be forged around those. Childhood play is really Culture-Making Practice par excellence.

I wrote a post about culture-making a while ago, which you can read here.

Culture Making In The Family

When members of a family interact, culture-making happens, and small culture arises between them. On the surface, there are the behaviours each individual deems appropriate to the moment, which spring from what makes sense to them at that time. This will, in turn, depend on their view of reality and mood.

Through this process there will be an inevitable evolution of understandings about the rules governing family life, and the way the family works together (or not!). By rules, I mean the logical ideas each person is using to reason about and react to what is happening. So, this includes both actual ‘Do This, Do Not Do That’ stuff, but also ‘I see the world like ‘this’, so doing ‘that’ makes sense to me’ type rules. No two people will understand rules in the same way, and the same person will have different ideas about rules from moment to moment.

There will be a tacit range of mutual understandings between the parents and children, which come from the fact that the individuals concerned have participated in this cultural group for a prolonged period of time. A lifetime, in the case of the kids.

These shared ideas are a bit like the generic elements of hide and seek, and provide a basis for everyone to work together.

For instance, you might create an understanding between you that bedtimes follow a particular routine of pyjamas, stories, toothbrushing, and cuddles. The routine itself might come from parental decree, or arise between the parents and children’s ideas. Family in-jokes and rituals are other great examples of these behaviours, such as the ‘cuddle attack’ created by my husband, and perpetuated by all. The point is, the ideas of the participants are somewhat aligned in proceedings.

There will also be differences in how each family member perceives the world from moment to moment and person to person, which causes them to act in divergence from generic understandings, from one another.

Differences in our ideas about ‘the rules and how they operate right now’ adds a frisson of unpredictability to any small culture that gets constructed.

For instance, my older two kids like to play a game at mealtimes where they make their spoons into little characters that talk to each other and jump around with great hilarity. The game always begins with the spoons greeting one another, then a big bounce, accompanied with a shriek of delight. After that, the spoons might chase each other, chat, or whatever. The game often gets rather excitable, and meal times take much longer because of the ‘inter-bite’ play.

The main factor in whether I find this behaviour sweet or irritating is my mood, accompanied with whether we have to be anywhere soon after the meal. I might also be less into this ritual of theirs when we have guests who appear unamused. There is a gulf in perceptions about table manners, and expectations regarding timely consumption of food, which may be wider or narrower, and more or less apparent, depending how disposed I am to their antics. Though the antics themselves are variations on a predictable theme. There is no ‘correct’ response, only a reaction based on current interpretation.

The result is that sometimes I am happy to let the spoon game play out, and other times, I discourage or even ban it. Sometimes I barely notice it. There has been no overt rule making, as there has with things like throwing in the house. However, there are times when it infringes on a ‘don’t knock stuff over if you can help it’ rule, or a ‘try not to be late’ rule which are part of my personal ideas. My rules, however, are my understandings, which the children do not appear to share.

I might respond to the apparent difference in our understandings by trying to introduce my rules to them. I might let the whole thing go because it does not seem a big deal. At the end of the day, I know my rules do not have to be my children’s rules. However, there is a place for teaching moments, and parents often do set rules about time, safety, respect, and avoiding accidents. After all, it is part of the mechanics of family life to do stuff like planning ahead and taking care of ourselves, our loved ones, and our living space. Parents have more experience in this area.

So, if i want to bring our understandings of reality into alignment, the kids would need to see the basic necessity of my rules. So, it falls to explaining, teaching, nagging, modelling, or all the above to try and make that happen, or having faith that all will become apparent to them on its own as their experience grows!

I can look back and see this behaviour swimming in the ebb and flow of our small culture, being created and recreated differently at different times. 

How Culture Evolves

Unlike large culture, the small culture evolves on a continuous basis and changes according to who is participating in a group at a particular time, and their perspective in a given moment.

So, when one parent is caring for the children, the culture is not the same as when both parents are present, or when a sibling is born, the culture is not the same as before the youngest came along. The small culture will also be affected by moods and rhythms within the group. In fact, the culture a group of people construct can be completely different between two in the afternoon and eight at night the same day, because it is always in motion. Just think how different your relationships can look depending on whether you are in a benevolent frame of mind or feeling put upon and knackered, and how this influences the way you interact with others.

This means that there is always new culture being made, and if there is anything that we do not like about the way things are working, it is reassuring to think that it can be changed. Change not only occurs through acting in new ways to produce new results, but also thinking in new ways, so that things look and feel different. Equally, that is why sometimes our mutual understandings seem to be going swimmingly, but the next moment everything is turned on its head. That is all part of the fun.

Because we are so good at making culture, even if we don’t realise that is what we are doing, then we often try to create it, work it, and shape it, with the idea that we are going to get it ‘just so’ and that will be it. Job done. However, even when we experience everyone working together and doing everything as expected, it cannot possibly last. Something shifts, a mood changes, or a perception alters, and BAM! new culture appears, which may leave us feeling like we are at square one again and it is not fair. 

However, the inevitable movement of culture is a wonderful gift. Not only are we assured a new start every time things go pear-shaped, we get to play, experiment, and imagine all kinds of new ways that we can work together. Small culture needs to change all the time because people do, relationships do, and it just doesn’t make sense to cling to a stiff turgid structure for interaction. This is especially true when you are making culture with babies and small children, who transform at an alarming rate.

Difference Is A Natural Part Of Small Culture

The world is full of opinions about how families should look, act, and feel. There are any number of views about what is appropriate in the raising of children, or of household decorum. There are ‘large culture’ assumptions about how say, British or Islamic families are, or how ‘Attachment Parenting’ families behave. In reality, there are as many expressions of British, Islamic, or AP family cultures as there are interactions in each family group. Large culture is an influence on family small culture, as Parenting Literature can be, but is only part of the picture.

The only constant is change, so diversity is inevitable in the way people choose to behave and assign meaning to what is happening in their relationships, under their roofs (whether we are talking houses, apartments, caves, tents, or the big blue beyond).

It does not make sense to try and make your family interaction an exact image of a book, or personal vision, or inherited structure. It is a waste of energy. So too, is telling other people they should conform to your expectations, or pouring judgement on those who do and see things differently.

It is possible to aim for an alignment of realities between family members, to the degree that you can work together. It is possible to negotiate about what is OK and not OK, and to create rules. It is also fine to be flexible, especially when your family members are in the early years and undergoing an intensive period of change. Small culture can be create and recreated as many times as you need to, to get it to work for harmony in family life, rather than against it.

In my opinion, understanding that culture is created and that we have culture-making ability could really help families to live together in happiness, and support one another.

In Part Two of Small Cultures With Small People, I will talk about how human development affects culture-making in the family. Then I will go on to discuss ways of negotiating how small cultures get created in Part Three.

Watch your culture-making! Notice this power you have!

What did you see? Do you find this a useful way to look at family behaviour?

I would love to hear some comments…

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The Amazing Ability That Most People Ignore

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Continuing on the theme from I Gave My Baby To A Stranger In The Supermarket:

There’s a little-known ability that everyone has. It is part of the basic wiring you get as a human being. You use it every day, whenever you talk to others, or take part in an activity with other people.

It is the ability to create culture.

Most people understand culture as part of their identity:

I am English, so I am descended from Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. I come from the land of Shakespeare and Monty Python, but also The Only Way is Essex. I drink tea on an almost continuous basis. When I say hello to people, I sometimes get flustered because I don’t know when to kiss, hug, or to shake hands, or to do an awkward little wavy thing with one hand. I have big feet and skin that goes red at the first hint of sun. I have the right to live and work in the UK. I enjoy fish and chips, Yorkshire pudding, and cucumber sandwiches, though not all at once. When provoked, I say words like bugger and bollocks.

Culture is about belonging to a group, understanding how things work, knowing how to walk the walk, having the right to.

However, all the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviours that we think of as OUR culture or YOUR culture, are really grist to the mill. It is from our experience of cultural stuff, the bits which we call our own, and the bits that do not belong to us, that we can make new groups, with new rules about what it is ok or not ok to do.

What often goes unnoticed is that culture is not just something you are, but a connection that you make with others.

It is an understanding of what rules apply when one person interacts with another. This understanding might follow along with familiar patterns, like how to know when it is your turn to be served in a pub. It might just get made up as you go along, like deciding that in your family there needs to be a system for deciding which child gets to sit on the loo while they brush their teeth.

You make culture. All the time.

It is Thursday morning, and you just participated in baby singing group.

You made a bit of culture.

You sat in a circle, singing in harmony (or near enough), and making quacky ducks with your fingers. You welcomed and encouraged one another, while your offspring chortled and dribbled on one another. You figured out how to get three pushchairs out of a church hall door, without getting wedged.

In a fit of sleep deprived anti-logic, you just gave directions to a nice stranger, which will now result in him driving the wrong way round a one way system.

You just made culture (and maybe an enemy).

You looked approachable, and in gesture and word, passed on information. You accepted hasty thanks. Realising your error too late, you whispered a quiet apology ‘sorry dude’.

Last night, your first baby was born and you made a new family.

You also made a whole bunch of culture.

You held your baby in your arms, watching them open their eyes to the world. You said ‘hi there, baby’. You offered a feed. You snuggled skin to skin. You laughed and cried with your partner. You realised that your imaginings of this moment could never match the experience. You modified your thoughts and behaviour around your new understanding.

Every day, we walk around making culture, without even noticing.

Every time you interact with another person you are ‘making’ culture.

This is so exciting, because when you make culture, rather than inherit it, you are free to choose what it looks like. You are free from prejudices which infect communities, and can experience greater empathy and better communication with others. In the context of carrying, birthing, and raising a child, culture making allows you to find a rhythm for life, which speaks from the heart of the people in that family unit.

When you think of culture as manifesting in a different way, in each group you take part in, there is much less room for examining differences between one set of people and another. Take the way that you parent in a family unit. Whether you wear the baby, or push them in a pram. Whether you breastfeed them to sleep, or let them settle themselves. Whether you allow TV or not. Whether you serve up fish fingers or quinoa. Whether you call the meal ‘dinner, ‘tea’, or ‘supper’. As long as basic human rights are protected, it really does not matter a jot whether you agree with what someone else is doing. They are making their culture, and you are making yours.

All of the knowledge, beliefs, practices, that exist in your life are there at your disposal. They don’t need to be consistent or constant. They don’t need to look like anyone else’s. They are just what you have invented in a particular space and time, to make getting along with other people a bit more straightforward. It is created one way today, and if you want to change it tomorrow, you have the means to do so.

I reckon it is worth noticing that.

So, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to NOTICE yourself making culture. Then come tell me about it!

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Click here to see the abstract of the article I drew on for this post. More to follow!

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