I spent a bit of this morning on a playground with my daughter, and tried really hard not to hover around her, as is in the norm among parents of my socioeconomic status in the United States (this behavior should most certainly be obviated by the fact that this is a “child safe” playground). This always gets me to thinking about variation in child rearing over history and across cultures. There seems to be an instinct to assume there is one true way to raise children, and this tendency is often quite costly in time and mental energy. The New York Times highlights this nicely with an article titled The Only Baby Book You’ll Ever Need, where the author relays the insights from a academic work by an anthropologist, The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. The basic observation is pretty straightforward, in some cultures very young children are not cossetted, they are either non-persons, or, they are small adults with non-trivial responsibilities. By “some” cultures what you really mean are the vast majority of societies known across human history, including in the recent past the ancestor of developed Western societies. The contrast here is mostly between WEIRD cultures and non-WEIRD cultures.
But there needs to be a bit more precision here, because the behavior that is alluded to in The New York Times refers to the core readership of that periodical, and don’t reflect all Western societies, or even all American social strata. Before my daughter was born my wife read Bringing Up Bébé, which highlights how different French and American parenting wisdom can be. And even within American society there is variation. Much of what is defined as “American” in these comparative studies actually reflect the folkways of upper middle class cosmopolitans, the sort of people who write and read books on parenting (though this segment of the populace is often the leading indicator of social norms more broadly). And even within living memory the parenting wisdom of the American upper middle class has changed a great deal.
So not only does parenting wisdom vary across cultures, it varies within culture (or perhaps more precisely across subcultures, and over time within a culture. But there’s a final piece of the puzzle which is important to note, a fair amount of the variation in outcomes of children is not due to parental choice in any case. More precisely, about ~10 percent of the variation in outcomes of your children on many metrics is due to the choices you make in a distinctive sense as against what other parents do, while ~40 percent is due to variation in genes, and ~50 percent is just unknown (and often referred to as “environmental”, but in a sense that it isn’t accounted for in additive genetic variance; it could be developmental stochasticity, and so still biological). If you read The Blank Slate or Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids you’ll know this, though perhaps the best primer on this topic is Judith Rich Harris’ The Nurture Assumption.
Meanwhile, there are serious social and legal consequences for raising your kids in a way which wouldn’t have been atypical up until the 1980s. The culture can be irrational longer than you can resist….
Addendum: Two points I forgot to bring up. First, it strikes me that the expected number of children you are going to have shapes these mores. The “high investment” strategy probably doesn’t scale well. It is probably harder to cosset kids when you have half a dozen. Second, the behavior genetic work often focuses on variation within a population. So obviously the cultural context might matter, equalizing outcomes across many families. The key isn’t to think that NOTHING you do matters, but the return on the margin in comparison to peer cohorts for extra effort probably is pretty low. That being said, my daughter is starting Kumon this week so she can read early. Less for academic preparation than for the fact that both her parents are readers, so it seems she’ll enjoy herself more if she can read to herself as early as possible.