Parenting Lessons from Namibia

Last week Alisa and I saw Babies, the new documentary film coming out next week that follows the first year in the life of four babies born in Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo, and San Francisco.

It’s a beautiful film — I highly recommend it, with the caveat that it is, basically, a nature documentary with human babies in front of the lense instead of jaguar cubs, and as such it requires a patient frame of mind. I wrote a review that ran on Babble last week, in which I said “it’s the kind of film that has a Doppler impact — it comes slowly at first and then, after walking out of the theater, the cumulative power of it gobsmacks you.”

I may have been more gobsmacked than most because it amplified a suspicion I have had for some years now that we in the Western world are parenting against the grain. It’s harder than it should be. Most things have gotten a whole lot easier in the last 10,000 years, but I think it’s possible that parenting has gotten harder.

To put a finer point on it, I don’t think it’s natural for a grown up to be isolated in a white box with one or more small children. The stay-at-home-mom vs. working mom debate assumes that one scenario is more natural than the other, but I think both scenarios share the same fundamental problem. In the traditional village environment, beautifully depicted in the Namibian footage in Babies, infants and toddlers receive constant stimulation from siblings, peers, animals, and the various nuances of the great outdoors; in the modern, urban/ suburban environment, in contrast, parents provide that stimulation — we get on our hands and knees with educational toys and pretend that we too are just discovering the mysteries of gravity, percussive acoustics, and the tensile strength of styrofoam. This, of course, can be a magical and lovely experience — I love nothing more than time in our white box with my kids, rolling around on the floor — but the reality is that my interest in kid stuff is exhausted before my kids’ interest in kids stuff is exhausted, and then I tend to feel guilty and frustrated.

Because of this tension, and the intensity of work and other interests, I all too frequently try to multi-task, sneaking in emails while lying inside the fort constructed out of coffee tables and armchairs, reading the newspaper in the tub while the kids splash about. As I said in the Babble piece, I have a general sense that I am doing too much and not enough at the same time.  Beneath the overwhelming sense of joy I feel every day to be the father of two amazing boys — boys whose personalities unfurl before us every day like a gift slowly unwrapping itself in our living room — beneath all this I feel an intermittent low level guilt that I could be doing it better.

What became clear to me watching Babies is that part of what we do as parents of young kids, if we follow instructions and keep the television off, is compensate for the historically anomalous absence of stimulation in the modern home. And deal with the historically anomalous presence of hard surfaces and fragile objects. The Namibian village environment is, by comparison, full of visual engagement for a young child, and borderline baby-proofed.

After the screening last week, Alisa and I had the good fortune of spending 15 minutes talking with Thomas Balmes, the director who spent two years shooting the film. We commiserated on the subject of boys and their incessant fighting — it sounds like Thomas and his wife, who live in Paris with three kids, spend a lot of time functioning as referees between their two boys, much as Alisa and I do. Thomas said one of the most striking things about the Namibian family is that the children – all eight of them – almost never fought.

A discordant moment between our otherwise perfect sons, Declan and Grey.

The simplest explanation of this that I can think of is that kids are calmer in peer environments – we see this at Declan’s pre-school. When you have one or two children at home with parents, they compete for the restricted currency of parental attention, and this encourages dramatic behavior that earns that attention. In a community of other children, the prevailing currency becomes attention from peers, which encourages more cooperative behavior.

Of course I don’t mean to make light of third world challenges or overstate our own – we are blessed to have lower infant mortality rates, health advantages, better educational opportunities, and so on. I do not suffer from the naturalistic fallacy, the belief that everything was better before we had roofs over our heads. But I do think that we can learn from the Namibians. I am fascinated by human evolution, and believe we can benefit from studying human behavior in environments that are closer to our ancestral environments. Our biology hasn’t changed a lot in the last 10,000 years, but our environment has changed radically, and it’s not surprising that some of those changes are correlated with frustrations, our improved quality of life notwithstanding.

One of the most striking examples of this may be the challenge we face raising adolescent kids. We are some years off from this (Declan, our oldest, is 5), but I gather this is the most challenging period for many families. And this makes logical sense – 15 year olds are biologically ready to father and mother children and start their own homes. Attempting to keep adolescents who are wired for procreation and independence as abstinent dependents is much like treating a wolf like a poodle — it doesn’t work. Once again we are parenting against the grain of our evolutionary environments.

There aren’t always easy solutions to these dissonances – we need to keep our children safe, nurture their development, and encourage them along a path of extended education, even if it results in frustration.

But there may be some ways we can change our behavior to parent a little more with the grain — perhaps we can summer in village environments where we help look after each others children. Maybe we can try to give our children more responsibility and independence as they get older, keeping in mind that they are biologically prepared for it, if not intellectually. I don’t have the answers, but these are some early thoughts. I would like to be a little more serene, a little more in the moment, a little more like the Namibians, a little more of the time. Particularly given that we are about to have a third boy. Did I bury the lead? A third boy. Holly molly. More on this soon.

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8 Responses to Parenting Lessons from Namibia

  1. Toby Murdock says:

    Another good post Rufus.

    And I think that it relates to your previous one about connection. In western civilization we labor away for so much, and as you rightly point out, have achieved much in terms of safety, health, nutrition, but in doing so we’ve lost so much of our connection to one another: so much of our existence now is in nuclear family isolation.

    I’ve felt the same thing you mention: I love my kids (opposite of you: I have 3 daughters) but I have only so much interest in non-stop kid fun.

    The best dynamic I find are parties in friends’ yards where kids and adults are all together: you’re with your kids, but they’re also with other kids and everyone is happy.

    In all of our progress in making a safer, healthier, wealthier society, we need to work on bringing balance that allows the connections between us to be enjoyed much more readily.

  2. Well said Toby. I have had the same experience sharing summer houses with other families … it’s the modern approximation of the village dynamic. We need more of it.

  3. BettyDuffy says:

    This movie has gotten under my skin, in a good way. Some of the ideas, (like that helicopter parenting doesn’t really benefit parents or kids) have already been fumbling around in my brain, but the community part of it, the idea that a mother of eight, who seems to do nothing but feed herself and her kids and have more offspring, can be so graceful–it is such a profoundly different concept of culture and parenting than what we deal with here in civilization, but still so close to what we’re biologically designed to do–I’m seriously thinking about moving to a mud hut, taking off my clothes and living in a perpetual state of pregnancy.

    Just kidding.

    But I do love the comfort that the Namibian mother has with her childworn body. I love the way she and the other women moan in pleasure at the taste of something good to eat. I love the mud hut that is their shelter at night, but otherwise, is on the periphery of the work they do herding children and animals.

    And on the other side of that, I couldn’t help feeling sad with the child taking in a superstore for the first time, all the blinking lights, and gizmos that are sure to instill that bottomless well of wanting with which people in civilized nations constantly contend.

    Yes, parenting in America, even in rural areas, is against the grain. Even having more kids here (I have five) doesn’t cure the isolation of depending on markets for your well-being, and living in shelters that are more often than not, walls that divide us by class as well as by physical distance.

    • The Plastic Bottle

      Hi Rufus, Toby, Betty,
      Great thoughts here!!! I’m so glad that BABIES does raise so many great conversations, and questions, which is for me the reward I get in directing films. And Rufus, just one small anecdote to continue with our conversation in NY about the little fights they had in Namibia; I just recently realized that the only time I noticed some fighting in between the kids in Namibia over the months of shooting there, was the opening sequence of the film. When they fight over a water plastic bottle : “Which I brought”. And which was virtually the only thing to fight for in the village as you can observe Himba people do live totally disconnected from any western goods…
      Interesting , no?
      Cheers
      Thomas

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