One thing new parents are guaranteed to receive is advice – often unsolicited, sometimes helpful, and occasionally insensitive.
While parents probably trust advice from health professionals more than that of strangers in the supermarket, evidence shows that parenting advice is culturally biased.
Researchers have crystallised the predominant culture of countries like Australia with the acronym WEIRD – western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic.
A study released last year showed that 90 per cent of developmental psychology research relies on data from WEIRD participants.
“Countries in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Israel contain around 85 per cent of the world’s population, yet contributed less than three per cent of participants,” says Queensland University Associate psychology professor Mark Nielsen.
Researchers are drawing conclusions from these studies, and assuming it applies to all children, which Nielsen likens to “a biologist studying a domesticated tabby cat and suggesting it tells them everything about a wild lion – it may reveal some things, but a lot will be missing.”
He argues that findings need to be replicated in different cultures before results are generalised, because they are used by parents, educators, and policy-makers.
“The reality is that parenting practices are more likely to differ across cultural communities than they are to be similar,” he says. For example, Nielsen explains that WEIRD parents tend to teach their children what to do with an object by using guided verbal instructions. In other cultures, especially many indigenous communities, parents are more likely to demonstrate by using the object themselves.
Similarly, there is cultural variation in how much mothers focus on face-to-face interaction and object play with their infants. This leads to culture-specific maternal reactions to infants’ communication signals.
“If research were conducted among parents of only one of these cultural groups, then our understanding of parent-child interactions would be far more limited,” Nielsen says.
Here’s some examples of how parenting gets done differently around the world.
Although practised globally and recommended by the World Health Organisation, attitudes towards breastfeeding vary.
In countries such as India, colostrum may be considered “dirty” and thrown away, with the baby fed on formula for the first few days.
In Mongolia, breastmilk is considered so nutritious that it is given to the elderly for medicinal purposes.
Lebanese women worry that eating leafy greens will cause bloating or diarrhea in the breastfed infant. Family members may tell mothers their milk is “bad” if the infant is fussy or wanting frequent feeds.
In parts of Africa, including Kenya and The Democratic Republic of Congo, breastmilk is considered valuable, and is often shared. In some regions of Kenya, it is believed that breastfeeding in public makes the mother and infant vulnerable to the “evil eye”.
In Norway, childhood is “institutionalised” early, with children entering state-subsidised care – called Barnehage, Norwegian for "children's garden" – when they turn one.
Danish parents will leave children outside in strollers, while they eat in a restaurant or café.
In the Polynesian Islands, infants are handed into the care of other children as soon as they are able to walk.
Japanese parents also encourage early independence, with primary-school-aged children allowed to tackle the streets and subways on their own.
While not usual in WEIRD countries, many cultures have a confinement period, based on the belief that new mums need recuperation after pregnancy and birth.
In China, women stay home for a month, spending most of the time resting. They dress warmly to keep the body from chills, drink warm water, and don’t bathe for ten days.
Guatemalan mums have a confinement period of nine months, during which they can’t leave the house. This is believed to protect them from exposure to illness and evil spirits.
In many parts of India, confinement lasts 40 days. Women rest, do minimal housework, and have a daily full body massage.
While discouraged here, co-sleeping is the norm in many other cultures.
Bedtimes vary too, with European and Asian families keeping children up later, so they can spend time together when parents return from work.