Friday, 17 January 2014

Parenting style as a calculator for weirdness

I went to a friend's birthday coffee the other day at a posh hotel. It was very nice, indeed. Very civilized, you know. A bunch of western expat ladies, sipping tea and coffee, exchanging pleasantries.  At first glance, we all had a lot in common, despite being quite a mixed bunch (There were a couple of Americans, a few Brits, a couple of South Africans and an Australian or two…And of course, as you know, one Azeri.) However, we were all married expat women, all in Doha, most with the kids going to the same school…Lots to discuss, lots to agree on. And yet, I witnessed a major clash of personalities, right there. A girl next to me, who I had briefly met before, was a young American mother of a small baby she brought along with her. She was a certain type, you know…A type that I would label as an environmentalist. (Note: See my old posting for a classification of the British suburban ladies here.)
As the beautiful birthday cake was cut and passed around the table, and the baby squealed in excitement, the South African mum across the table smiled and suggested that the child was probably after a slice.

No, said the American mother. She is not allowed any carbs until 12 months of age.

Having met this lady before, I was not that surprised. But the SA lady looked shocked. What do you mean? she asked with an intense sort of smile, tilting her head to one side. Why? Based on what??

The environmentalist mother proceeded to explain how, according to a recent research, babies' stomachs were not ready to digest carbs very well until they were a year old. Encouraged by the obvious interest, she added that she was going to try feeding the baby raw liver next. (She read somewhere that many generations of native Mauritians let their babies suck on the raw cow's liver. Not sure why she decided it was therefore a good idea? Perhaps she read that Mauritians tend to live longer, or are known for superb brain development. I did not want to ask. I felt that asking that question would sound like I was trying to challenge her.)

She found liver from an Indian water buffalo, which feeds on green grass only, and therefore is quite safe.

At that precise moment, I am sure I noticed the SA's mother jerk compulsively in the direction of the baby, as if following an impulse to grab her and run for the door.

It is amazing, isn't it, how aggressive and judgemental we all get when it comes to parenting? Parenting approach, to me, is one of the most dangerous topics, in many ways not unlike a religion, something mothers from all sorts of cultures can get incredibly passionate about, if challenged by someone else. Yet, it is something we all, without fail, seem to consider ourselves experts in. Even when we pretend, like I did that morning (hopefully successfully) as I nodded and smiled, listening to the Mauritian raw liver theory, to understand and respect a very different approach to what we are used to, we still secretly think to ourselves 'jeez... what a nutcase!'

Just like in this quote of George Calin where anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you a maniac, we tend to judge other parents for their inability to handle a tantrum, their bizarre sleeping rituals or crazy feeding routines.

It was easy for me, to be honest, raising my first child in England. I, having had very little interest in parenting or babies before I actually had one myself, submerged myself happily and entirely, without questioning what was actually right or wrong, into the way things were done in the UK at the time. Besides the division between most of the mums I knew back in the UK between those who followed Gina Ford's routine, or those who believed in a softer, Baby Whisperer approach, there were not many other major differences to get excited about. Most of our babies were weaned on the same foods, no raw liver or other unorthodox products involved, went to bed around 7pm and played with similar toys.

However, living in Doha, I see that there are so many more different approaches to everything I used to do back in the UK! Not all parents put their kids to bed at 7, some small children stay up as late as 11pm, running around the compound while I could already be on my second dream about Clive Owen. Some mums are a lot more earth-motherly than I'd ever met before, with washable nappies and co-sleeping, some are stiffly strict about no-sugar diet, and some don't believe in vaccinations. It is unsurprising, really, how different we all are and why shouldn't we be? In the end, all the babies (hopefully even the one fed on the raw liver ) survive.

It is okay to have such different parenting approaches. In fact, it can be quite useful. Parenting styles are brilliant tools for being able to judge the extent of craziness in some people. You might want to use this tool if you are otherwise unsure or unable to tell if your new acquaintance is cool, alright, a bit wacky in a charming sort of way, or a total nutcase. And we all have our own threshold of how much madness we are happy to deal with. I always try and understand. I honestly do. And sometimes, I even take something back from other approaches, having compared them to mine, and having perhaps realized where I could improve what I am doing. But then there are some cases where I just know, very quickly, that the person is soooo different that she or he lives on a different planet, somewhere in the galaxy far, far away, so far that no translation into any Earth language would ever be possible. In such cases, I just smile and wave. Smile and wave.


  1. Maybe smile and wave are the best things you can do in some cases. Just to avoid confrontation and boring and endless chit-chat, you know.

    1. Avoiding a chit chat is sometimes simply impossible!

  2. An Azeri girl from Tabriz18 January 2014 at 22:17

    This was a very insightful and interesting post!

  3. that made me think...despite all the talk about decline in "family values", here in US, we are living in the era of mothers (and often, fathers) preoccupied, if not obsessed, with the idea of parenting. modernity made parenting into a science, with mother as a designated parenting expert. that was by no means the case historically. now, the 20 century added something to it - "parenting" became an ideology. the ideology that you have to follow. the styles may be very different but the idea that we all have to have certain parenting style, to subscribe to specific set of ideas and practices in child-rearing is rather common and fairly overwhelming :)

  4. I really like this post. What's interesting to me is, how do we know when something's different, and how do we know when it's worse? For example, not allowing carbs is probably fine, but allowing kids to eat raw food can probably give them food poisoning. How do we point this out?

  5. a hundred civilizations, a few thousand years. mankind has survived on diametrically different parenting styles for a long time. who are we to judge others' parenting styles?

    (well yeah, of course i will say "what a nutcase" in my head :D)