I discovered Nicholas Day through this Slate.com article about cultural diapering practices, and consequently found his book, Baby Meets World. It would be difficult to overstate how much I loved this book.
Nicholas Day has succeeded in writing a book that is thoroughly researched as well as highly relatable, infused with humor, and full of personal narratives about his journey as a parent. His book invites readers to explore the subject of parenting while honoring the differences between us and the common goals that unite us.
The most salient point of Baby Meets World is this: when it comes to raising children, human beings have chosen remarkably different paths to nurture their children from birth to adulthood across cultures and throughout history. While respectfully emphasizing this point through marvelous anecdotes and superb writing, Day leads readers to a deep humility about the whole process of raising children.
For example, not that long ago, conventional wisdom and medical knowledge taught parents that thumb-sucking was to blame for a host of physical, emotional, and cognitive ills. Consequently, experts recommended extraordinarily damaging interventions to “cure” infants of their deviant behavior. After a chapter exploring this embarrassing history of our misunderstanding of thumb-sucking, Day concludes:
How, in the not-distant-enough past, people managed to misread the self-soothing response of an infant – an infant who’s largely helpless without that response – as something deviant. Incredibly, they misread an almost universal response as being deviant: the fact that every child had the deviant habit failed to convince the experts that it wasn’t actually deviant.
…Today it seems ludicrous to have been so worked up about a habit like thumb-sucking. The anxieties are too far back and too foreign. … I cannot read about thumb-sucking without realizing, Someday my anxieties will be too far back and too foreign, too. What am I doing now – what am I doing to Isaiah – that will be ridiculed in a hundred years?
I greatly appreciated that Day not only highlighted the absurdity we find when we look at our historical approach towards thumb-sucking but that he followed this line of logic to point out the arrogance of assuming we have it all figured out now!
I was truly fortunate to connect with Nicholas Day via email to chat about his book, Baby Meets World, and I am including that interview below. Enjoy!
EP: One aspect of your book that resonated so deeply with me was the level of humility that historical and cultural awareness can bring to the subject of parenting. So much parenting advice seems to be black and white, but with a little digging, we find dozens of examples throughout history or around the world of parents raising their children differently. In all your research, have you found any element of the parent/child relationship that seems to hold true across cultural or historical boundaries?
ND: There are very, very few. (Except for Baby Einstein, obviously.) But the few things that hold true, across time and space, are the few things that matter: love and attention, food and shelter. Almost everything else is up for grabs.
EP: What cultural or historical parenting practice has surprised you most?
ND: At a certain point, after a certain amount of strangeness, you stop being surprised: of course, they encased their children in sandbags, you end up thinking. The various exotic childrearing beliefs tend to all blend together into some sort of National Geographic-like slide show. What stands out is how differently parents a lot like me acted not that long ago. Like that only a century ago the conventional wisdom was that touching your baby was dangerous and should be avoided. (It was thought, erroneously, to be the cause of high infant mortality.) Can you imagine how that affected the parents of the time—how wracked, how inside-out they must have felt? If we have any sort of parental instinct, it is surely to touch—to hold, to squeeze—our children. And many parents surely did just that. But it is clear that many didn’t: they obeyed the authorities. They withheld their affection. It’s stomach-churning to read about.
EP: How did you decide to write this book?
ND: After my son Isaiah was born, I had a lot of simple but resoundingly unanswered questions. Most books about babies treat them as problems to be fixed, like leaky faucets. (Just use this socket wrench and he’ll sleep all night!) I wanted to read a book that treated babies as the fascinating beings that they actually are. So I wrote it. I don’t recommend this, by the way.
There’s been a lot left out of the baby books, and I wanted to bring that hidden world of infancy into the light. I was especially curious about the things Isaiah spent his time doing. Not just doing causally. Doing in an obsessed, semi-compulsive way: sucking, smiling, touching, toddling. But no one says much about these activities: to everyone but the baby, the most visible parts of infancy are the most overlooked. They shouldn’t be. They’re fascinating and they cover a lot of what transpires during infancy: how a baby feeds and consoles herself; how she develops emotionally and socially; how she begins participating in her world; and how she learns to explore it.
There’s way too much happening in infancy to cover all of it, or most of it, or even more than a tiny sliver. This book is built around the idea that if you look deeply at a few things, rather than superficially at many things, you’ll end up seeing, and knowing, a lot more. And you’ll end up with some perspective.
EP: How has your research changed your parenting practice?
ND: Speaking of perspective! It’s made me calmer. I’m less likely to panic. I’m more likely to take the long view. And I’m aware that whatever I’m worrying about any given day probably doesn’t matter that much. (And correspondingly, that whatever I’m not worrying about might be what actually matters. Which isn’t always reassuring!) You’re always different with the second child, of course, but my experience with our second was really very different, and I attribute some of that to the book. I was more able to just enjoy his babyhood.
EP: What was your favorite section of the book to write?
ND: Toddle—the section about how babies learn to move. It’s a fascinating subject. Even though you know how it’s going to end—spoiler: walking—it is still endlessly surprising.
Are you interested in winning a copy of Baby Meets World? Leave me a comment below. If you feel so inclined, share one of your meaningful practices with young children that might (or might not) be unique to your culture. Or, just say hello! I’ll use a fancy random number generator to select a winner on Friday, September 13 at 5pm PST.
If you are an author and would be interested in being featured as one of my monthly book reviews, please contact me! Check out my past interviews (Vicki Hoefle and Heather Shumaker). I have more great books lined up for the coming months, including Kelly Bartlett’s Encouraging Words for Kids, and Daniel Siegel’s Whole-Brain Child.