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.