Henry James had three rules: be kind, be kind, be kind. Seems like pretty good parenting advice to me, but could we be a little more specific?
Mei-Ling Hopgood has written a delightful book that gleans parenting tips from cultures around the world. As the title suggests, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, different contexts provide different challenges. Yet the solutions have broad appeal.
In reference to the title, Eskimos keep infants in carriers made of animal hides, close to the mother’s body, and sometimes directly against her skin. The winters of southwestern Virginia do not reach subzero temperatures, but there is evidence that holding a child close is beneficial for both baby and mother regardless of the temperature. Hopgood points out that babies who are carried at least a few hours a day cry less often; furthermore the mothers of these children produce more milk and are less likely to suffer from postpartum depression. Maybe Americans resort to use of a stroller too often.
We may not live in a hunter-gatherer society, but perhaps we could try to be as attentive to our children as the Aka Pygmies of the Congo. Interestingly, since the mother and father share many of the same responsibilities and work together as a team to procure food on a daily basis, they spend roughly the same amount of time with their children. Ginny and I are both pastors, so maybe our experience of parenting will have more in common with African tribes than one might originally think! In a country where increasingly both parents work outside of the home, a team approach to parenting may serve us better than the traditionally ascribed gender roles to mother and father.
I was most intrigued, however, by Hopgood’s discussion of the Japanese approach to conflict. Apparently, the Japanese practice a deliberate nonintervention by which parents and other authority figures refrain from jumping in and resolving conflicts between children. If an American preschool teacher, for instance, was to sit back and let two children wrestle over a toy, there would likely be charges of laziness, if not outright negligance. But in Japan, the emphasis seems to be upon learning to deal with difficult people, even at an early age. If adults do not interfer, the theory is that children are able to grow into more complete human beings.
To return to the idea of being kind, I probably would have figured I was doing both children a favor by breaking up their disagreement. But Hopgood’s fascinating work has led me to believe that James’ mantra is not necessarily redundant: there really are different ways to be kind. In some cases, the kinder action is to give others the freedom to problem solve and, within reason, negotiate their own conflicts. And this is true in different cultures, across both time and space.
In the Greek New Testament, the word for kindness (chrestotes) does carry the connotation of being morally good to another person (see Eph 4:32). But more often, the word pertains to the quality of being helpful or useful (2 Cor 6:6; Gal 5:22; Col 3:12). When it comes to parenting, we should be willing to learn from the best practices around the world for, as we say around here in the Appalachian Mountains, the proof is in the pudding. Be kind; be helpful; be useful.