Conventional wisdom in American parenting emphasizes independence as early and quickly as possible. On the other hand, congruent with less ruggedly individualistic cultures around the globe (Maté, 2011; Morelli & Rauthbaum, as cited in Arnett, 2016), models such as attachment parenting (see Miller & Commons, 2010) promote the value of strong bonding early in life that paradoxically is conducive to a greater degree of autonomy — balanced with social interest — in the long run.  Psychological researchers have noted that attachment parenting: (a) mitigates potentially overwhelming negative emotional states (e.g., preventable fear, anger, distress) and therefore propagates appropriate emotional regulation; (b) reduces exposure to stressors that adversely impact brain development and self-regulation; (c) is associated with fewer expressions of distress; and (d) promotes empathy, perspective-taking, social competence, cooperative behavior and engagement in school life (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015; Hazan & Campa, 2013; Miller & Commons, 2010).          

In 2016, former Harvard anthropologists Robert and Sarah LeVine published Do Parents Matter?: Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight and American Families Should Just Relax. A paperback edition issued in late 2017 propelled the book both onto academic reading lists and into popular culture. In their book, the LeVines contrast parenting practices centered around the promotion of self-reliance within the insularity of the nuclear family structure in the U.S. with indigenous parenting practices in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Pacific.

Specifically, Do Parents Matter? is organized chronologically from prenatal development through the dawn of adolescence. Each chapter begins with the stereotypical U.S. take on a particular parenting issue, follows with a comparative analysis of how that issue is addressed in several other cultural contexts and concludes with a take-home message of what American parents can learn from the philosophical threads that underlie those variations (e.g., about interdependence versus independence, about cultural meanings of children’s precocity or of how Eriksonian competence is defined, etc.).  The LeVines’ emphasis on the maxim that “It takes a village to raise a child” and on the problems of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) nations’ intellectual colonialism makes a substantial contribution to understanding worldwide variations of attachment parenting that take the burden off of individual parents while serving as protective factors for and promoting optimal developmental outcomes in their children.

Overall, I intend to hold onto my copy of the LeVines’ book. In my graduate course on human development for helping professionals, I plan to draw from its superb descriptive illustrations of cross-cultural parenting practices (e.g., non-medicalized birth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, sibling care, the employment of paradoxical intention in handling tantrums, the role of Vygotskian scaffolding in helping children learn tasks, the role of work and mastery of skills during school age, etc.). The relevance of these topics to humanistic psychologists should be obvious, and the LeVines’ book coincides with recent publications by humanistic psychologists (e.g., DeRobertis, 2017) that promote relationally-oriented alternatives to the assumptions of conventional American psychology and educational practices. 

However, I find myself inclined to provide a word of caution about the LeVines’ book. If it is to be adopted for university courses, instructors must be prepared to address the LeVines’ sometimes haughty critique of psychology (a field other than their own), especially in the opening chapters.  Specifically, the LeVines make the case that attachment theory and post-Freudian psychodynamic psychology — with which many classic and contemporary humanistic psychologists affiliate themselves (e.g., DeRobertis, 2017; Schneider, 2017; Maslow, 1999) — have led American parents down the wrong path and that they would be better off learning from other cultures. The LeVines’ apparent lack of familiarity with current perspectives and research in these areas greatly detracts from the quality of their scholarship and is a concern that needs to be taken seriously. 

For example, in the book’s introduction, the LeVines lucidly contrast the presentation and outcomes of secure and avoidant attachment in two African villages. But then in Chapter One, while they accurately portray attachment theory as having originated in the mid-20th century as an alternative to the strictures of Watsonian behaviorism, they take a giant leap backwards by recycling a decades-old argument that attachment theory amounts to mother-blaming. They could have built a much stronger case by proceeding to bridge their anthropological expertise with the robust psychological literature from the last quarter-century on attachment (as summarized in Music, 2017; Siegel, 2012), human bonding (an updated term for attachment, Hazan & Campa, 2013) and resilience (Masten, 2014; Walsh, 2012, 2016), which extend well beyond the infant-mother relationship to include a variety of nurturing relationships that establish an emotional foundation for optimal well-being. In my classes and in a recent Journal of Humanistic Psychology article (Bland & DeRobertis, 2017), I discuss how the findings from DeRobertis’ (2016) phenomenological study on children’s education imply that in U.S. society quality teachers can serve not only as extensions of attachment relationships (when they already exist) but also as surrogates thereof (when they do not). In addition, I emphasize that whereas Graber, Turner and Madill (2015) hypothesized that during adolescence family support would moderate the significance of friendships as a risk or protective mechanism, they instead discovered that irrespective of parenting dynamics having just one fulfilling friendship prevents relational, emotional and behavior problems historically affiliated with insecure or disorganized attachment.

Likewise in Chapter Four, the LeVines’ bifurcation of face-to-face and skin-to-skin contact in their critique of Bowlby, Ainsworth and Kohut shows that they neglected the recent cultural psychology and behavioral development research in this area (as summarized in Arnett, 2016 and Miller & Commons, 2010) that updates and/or adapts classical attachment theory to a contemporary multicultural context. Furthermore, the LeVines’ similar pummeling of post-Freudian psychodynamic/formative humanistic psychologists, particularly Horney, is problematic. By rehashing hackneyed secondary-source arguments, they demonstrate their failure to consult Horney's original writings (e.g., Horney, 1937), in which she made a critique of the push toward self-reliance in Western parenting that is comparable to their own critique.  Likewise, the LeVines also overlooked Erikson’s (1950, 1959/1994) cross-cultural observations as they pertain to optimal social and emotional development. And where is the contemporary theorizing of Maté (2010, 2011; Neufeld & Maté, 2004/2014), the humanistically-oriented physician whose integration of developmental psychology with cross-cultural psychology and philosophy, neuroscience and medicine is in line with what the LeVines called for in their critique of American psychology?

To one-sidedly criticize a field other than one’s own in a public forum such as a popular press book is a precarious endeavor. Especially in the current era, for two former Ivy League faculty to present erroneous and outdated argumentation in the interest of selling an idea to laypeople who often do not know the difference only serves to reinforce the public’s anti-intellectualism and mistrust of expertise (see Nichols, 2017). Rather than myopically rehashing stock arguments that the LeVines seemingly picked up from secondary/tertiary sources (and, it appears, from decades ago at that), a more effective approach would have been for them to consult both classic primary source writings and current theory/research in humanistic and developmental psychology and then to build an interdisciplinary synthesis. What a book Do Parents Matter? could have been.

Posted Thursday, March 1, 2018

Andrew Bland PhDAndrew Bland, PhD, is a member of the graduate clinical psychology faculty at Millersville University in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He teaches courses in counseling and assessment skills, human development and systemic approaches in psychology. He earned a master's degree from the University of West Georgia's humanistic psychology program in 2003 and a PhD in counseling psychology from Indiana State University in 2013. Since 2004, he has provided therapeutic services in community mental health, residential, partial hospitalization, corrections, school-based and college student counseling programs in three states. His research interests include the practical application of humanistic psychology themes in the domains of love, work and the therapy process. His passions include listening to and creating music, gardening, traveling and spending time with his wife and their two young children.


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