Bali women are not Attachment Parents

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that moms should sling their babies around and breastfeed them all day because mothers in third-world countries, like Bali, do and their babies never cry. Or that we should all co-sleep because that’s what moms in China do and they get more sleep.

First of all, it’s not true that Bali babies never cry. Or that Chinese mothers sleep more. ALL babies cry, and hardly any moms sleep! If you think you’re going to go through your baby’s life unscathed in those two areas, I hate to inform you that it’s not going to happen =)

Second of all, we’re not in Bali or China. Don’t you think those moms might change their ways if their situation warranted it? Can you imagine telling a poor Chinese mom that she needed to keep her baby in her bed if, suddenly, the Dr. Phil Foundation gave her a crib and a house of her own?   Or what about if Bali women suddenly didn’t have to spend their lives in the fields? Can you imagine telling them they have to keep strapping their babies to them even though they can now be home, or work an office job? Ridiculous!

I’m not saying the American way is superior.  I’m saying we can do what works.  The glory of culture is that it flexes our prejudices about the way people need to be raised. All over the world, mothers and fathers feed, clothe, bear, train, and nurture their children differently. And babies have been made by God strong enough to be healthy, happy, and successful in a wide range of environments. So people who think American moms should not do what they do put unnecessary pressure on us. With due respect to Dr. Sears who breaks the mold, many of these people are experts in the elite ivory tower and have no idea what parenting in the real world, America or otherwise, is really like.  It’s not that they haven’t researched lots of children or studied them.  It’s not that they haven’t studied cultures with significant percentages of children.   It’s that they have never parented themselves, or tried to raise a bunch of children for long-term success under their own doctrines.   This makes a huge difference.  I have spent considerable time at two top-tier universities, taken psychology and cultural anthropology courses there, participated with experts at Boston University who were researching autism, and have  a mentor friend who is Harvard faculty in the field of minority and ethnic parenting strategies.  I am telling you for certain that this is the case.

So not only is there a lack of (inner) experience going on, most experts have also spent six or more years doing a PhD and post-doc work in universities which are increasingly anthropological, pluralistic, and anti-Western.  In the standard cultural anthropology class touching on child development, the story goes like this: some unmarried cultural anthrolopologist like Margaret Mead goes over to Samoa, in the name of science, and sees how happy and well-adjusted Samoan society is. She then notices that Samoan babies don’t have cribs and are carried around all day, and so she concludes, “we need to do that too.” Then you get some anti-American academes touting her theory, which gets taught in social science classrooms all over the world, and dribbles down to your pseudo-scholarly Barnes & Noble inventory.

Not only is this anti-Western, it is disingenuous. We aren’t raising Samoan, or Bali, or Chinese children. We’re raising Americans. And because they are here, they need to be able to fit into American society, even if they’re Samoan, African, or Chinese. Do you withhold DVDs from your children because people in Bali don’t have them?  Do you boycott Old Navy because the native Samoans went around with earthy robes? Or do you accept Western society—because after all, it is your home—and raise your children using some of the icons around you? Of course you do!  If you choose to opt out of some of those icons, do it for practical, moral, or educational reasons. And if there is wisdom and tolerance and creativity to be gained by examining other cultures, then glean from it. But don’t delude yourself into thinking that you are going to get the well-adjustment from the Samoans without raising them Samoan (i.e. IN Samoa). Or that you can get a successful, well-tailored, broad-minded American doctor or businesswoman without putting aside the values of indigenous Samoan society. That is silly. It is even rude to the Samoans to suggest you can. You can’t pick and choose from other cultures, and add it to your own, like you would from a buffet. You denigrate the significance of a culture’s heritage by doing so, you act as a colonialist (thinking you can discern what aspects are “best” and leave the rest), and you definitely won’t obtain their distinctive results.

But third of all, and this is most important… Bali women are not “attachment parents.”  They are doing what works for them.  They carry around their children all day mostly because they have to, and that’s the way they have learned. If they had to add to their life the AP religion that the experts made up, they would probably toss it in the trash. They are practical, not theoretical, parents. They are not worried that their children are going to grow up feeling inadequate, insecure, neurotic, or resentful.  They aren’t concerned that their children will hate them if they discipline them.  And if they are, they aren’t slinging their children around to prevent it. And the co-sleepers of China or other areas aren’t sleeping together to promote more bonding. They are sleeping together because they only have one room, or one bed, and that’s where everyone has to go. Even poor people in America do this, or parents who are lucky enough to have lots of kids.

So if you decide to adopt one of the AP icons: the co-sleep, the sling, or whatever… do it because it is practical for your lifestyle, not out of Freudian anxiety. Do it because you want to nurse the baby quickly in the middle of the night, or because you have twins and only one bed, or because you have to have a serious phone conversation with somebody and you know the baby will be quiet if you carry her around while you talk. All these practical reasons are good and will not produce an attachment child, with the baggage it contains.

Preserve the method, toss the religion, and don’t look to third-world contexts to verify the experts.

15 thoughts on “Bali women are not Attachment Parents

  1. I read your post with respect but I think it has the fundamental flaw – unconsciously you think of yourself superior than others. I am surprised those comments were from someone who believe in babies have been made by God. Your unwillingness to learn from others does not warrant the conclusion that others have nothing to learn from. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, maybe you can take a moment to meditate on the very spirit of striving to live under poor circumstances but being thankful.

    A thankful mother of two

  2. This is the second post I’ve read from your blog, and I think I am in love. (In a totally platonic way.) 🙂
    I couldn’t agree with you more.
    But also, I respect how well you write, and how brave you are to say these things, knowing that you may be attacked by critics like Joan.
    Keep on writing!

  3. I am confused and wonder what you mean when you say that we should not be learning from other cultures. You say, “We aren’t raising Samoan, or Bali, or Chinese children. We’re raising Americans. And because they are here, they need to be able to fit into American society…” Are you implying that my children will not “fit in” because I wear them and sleep with them? My children also do not eat chips and drink soda. My daughter would not recognize the food in any of the lunchboxes of children that I used to care for when I was a public health nurse. She played today with a friend that had a toy gun, and had no idea what it was. (Though we did discuss afterwards what it was and why she was not allowed to play with one.)Does this mean that I am doing her a disservice in some way. I wear and sleep with my babies not out of a sense of guilt and not because I am “anti-American?, but because I believe that God created the mother-baby relationship to be an especially close one. I love my babies and want to be close to them, and give them peace and security.

  4. I am certainly not saying to avoid learning from other cultures. what I am saying that the context of parenting in other cultures—especially the indigenous ones so beloved by AP theorists—is completely different.

  5. So you truly believe that they only wear their babies, because they have no other choice? I live in South Florida in a community with a high Mexican and Guatamalan population. Though some women do use strollers, other woman still wrap their babies on their backs. And I love seeing their surprise when they notice that I do as well!

  6. I am not against wearing your baby either. I wore my fourth a lot for practical reasons. I am against the ideology of attachment parenting, which makes modern Western women feel like they are adopting a risky parenting strategy if they don’t AP. If women today don’t want to nurse, sling, or parent philosophically the way AP wants them to, that should be ok. It isn’t fair to equate AP with “good parenting”. Nor is it fair to hold the reward of “a baby who won’t cry” and “a secure child” out in front of our noses. (Both of which I find most contemporary literature does on the subject).

  7. Wow, interesting title for your article. It got me thinking along a new perspective. I’m a Sr. American living in Bali,working with an Org. that supports 8 orphnages with 517 children.
    There are several reasons that I agree with the statement that Balinese Women are not attachment parents. 1st, if a Balinese couple decided to seperate or divorce,or the father dies the children go to the fathers parents… this is Balinese Hindu way and tradition.

    2nd,In Bali many families find it difficult to support and care for their children after they become age 5. ..to pay for the education of their children.( Tuition, books, uniforms, etc.). is many times impossible. The parents/parent or family under these circumstances follow the accepted practice of those before them… raise them untill they are 5, then allow them to fend for themselves or send them to an orphanage. 75% of the children at our orphanages have family. The food, attention, bed and free education we provide is an alternitive to abandonment.

    I always wondered, How could a person, especially a mother with the supposed nurturing qualities that we expect in west, just let their kids go? It’s just the culture here! They still love their Kiddos, tradition dictates their acceptance of detachment.

    In the U.S.A. many parents feel responsible for the wellbeing and outcome of their children …. this can be most stressful. In Hindu Culture, you accept your station and lot in life…a lot less stressful.

    Interesting article and very thought provoking… could not find the author of the article. Was that posted? Would like to know more about her.

    To Joan,who left a comment. We could all use a little more KINDNESS!

  8. Aaaahhh, you are a breath of fresh air! I love this post, well, all of your posts, but back to this… I did that silly sort of thing w/ my first. I read Sears and watched a pbs show on african women. Next thing I know, I thought my son shouldn’t touch ground for the first six months because I heard about a tribe that did that. I had no other moms to talk to, just thought I was REALLY doing the attachment parenting thing. So there my son was, in my Ergo, until my daughter came along. Then I realized how silly it all was and my daughter was rarely in the pack. They are now three and four and I don’t see how being in the pack vs not made any difference.

  9. I am clinical psychologist and I studied for 3 months in Bali, Indonesia. There are many complex reasons why Balinese children do not touch the floor before they are 6 months old. The majority of these children are not necessarily being slung over their mother while she works in fields; they are being cared for at home by parents and relatives. There is a deep religious reasoning behind the practice.

    I see you are passionate in your beliefs and your belief system.

    I just listed one example, however, there are a number of simplistic fallacies in your blog –Nevertheless, it is fascinating to me how your blog has struck a cord with some other mothers as is evidenced in the comment section. Congratulations on connecting to each other –but please fact-check first.

  10. I also find the article a little simplistic on the cultural front, however thought provoking nevertheless.

    I have lived in Bali or 5 years, and work with mothers and children – both balinese and western. i am a craniosacral therapist, and work with the individuals, and with the family relationships themselves.

    What i notice is that as the Doc pointed out, small infants in bali generally have more body contact, being carried around during the day by other siblings, relatives etc. Its not unusual to see a young man, not the father, standing in the street with a baby in the early morning watching life go by. there is a warmth, emotional connectedness and inclusion into adult life which balinese children experience as a result of family based living. i’m not into all the attachment lingo, however i find the balinese are softer emotionally, less protected with shells of anger and general defensive structures. whether this is a result of a more connected early childhood experience, or also a cultural phenomenon of outer friendliness and inner reserve, i am not sure. however there does seem to be something different going on in Bali, since i personally experience much more gentleness and empathetic connection, and less fear than when relating to people from the west.

    what strikes me is that the religious and cultural conditions placed on the balinese make for more human warmth and connection for children. or less isolation and neglect, in many cases than in the British culture i come from. the balinese on the whole are way way more present in the moment than for example europeans. there is often somebody really home in their body who can connect with the child, which of course helps the child develop. western culture with its busy demands doesn’t leave much time for parents to actually be with their children in this way, and children’s legitimate demands for attention may feel like a chore. In Bali the kids are more part of life and seen as a pleasure to be around by adults. There is more time and space for the kids.

    i will make the blatant generalization (forgive me) and say that it seems many western parents in bali give their children to local nannies and spend little time with their children at all. this raises a very disturbing issue of what happens when children from one culture are left by their parents within a very different one, but without the extended family structure of that culture. there are some extremely disoriented and disturbed western kids growing up in bali right now whose parents are enjoying a luxurious lifestyle, and don’t seem to realise what is happening with the children.

    i dont find any difference working with balinese or western children or mothers. the children need the right kind of empathetic attention to develop their brains and sense of self. i don’t find there is any variation culturally. all kids respond to that attention. and emotional disturbances in the parents affect the children similarly, though the expression of it does differ in the different cultures.

    What i do find is that balinese women are far less in their heads and thoughts than most western mums. and this does seem to make a large difference to the sense of security that the child has, through being felt and responded to. this seems to me less to do with being carried around, and more with having an emotionally available and connected adult present to be with.

    So wonderful this article has got a discussion going, and some reflection. thank you all.

  11. I agree with Mia. I think your article is a little too simplistic and it leaves out the point that western mothers have things to do also. It may not be labor work, but there are still things to do and, I think it is much more convenient to go through a store, park, mall, around town, airport, etc. with a baby in a sling (hands-free) than to lug around a car seat or use up a hand holding a squirming/limp baby or push a bulky stroller. Plus, your baby can be more involved and observe better from this vantage point.

    Also, from my experience working with children of all ages for the past 10+ years, those that were raised more AP style, are calmer, more confident, and friendlier than those who were left to cry it out in their cribs. It’s not just about the physical aspects of AP (carrying in a sling, co-sleeping, etc.), it is a general parenting style, a way of interacting with your child, like Mia said, that lets them know there is a caring adult always close by that gives them the confidence to be independent and caring themselves.

    I think a lot of parents are so “in your face” about AP because they are trying to counter all of the advice out there that tells you to abandon your baby and just let them cry so they can learn. This has been shown in study after study to be detrimental. And I can say with confidence, from my experience, you can tell how children were handled as babies when they are 3-6 years and then again as teenagers. So while there are many AP mothers out there making people feel bad about their parenting, it is important to notice that children in the world who are raised in a gentle way (unlike most American parents who are often impatient and harsh/agressive with their children), seem to be more relaxed, confident, friendly, loving, social etc. whereas, children from this country are often anti-social, agressive, hateful, easily frustrated, bickering, disrespectful, bullying, etc.

    It’s OK to dismiss some unpleasant things about our culture and seek a better way from other cultures.

  12. Sorry but I only got half way through this and couldn’t go any further as one thing you are essentially missing is something that most western societies are loosing, and in many cases have lost totally. Where does real love and compassion come into all this? Have you ever thought about the love a child needs? What you miss in your whole blog here are those two words – love and compassion! I truly believe that what children really need is more love and compassion, not a crib or complaining, bickering parents!

    You make comments on Balinese mothers slinging children around, have you spent a lot of time in Bali? Have you ever been into a Balinese household and actually witnessed first hand how they work? These are not always poor people, even Balinese families with plenty of money still have the same family values as the poor people in Bali. From what I have witnessed by living here in Bali for over 11 years is that Balinese people seem to be slowing the process of severing the bond between child and mother. Another major thing you missed is that it’s often the father that carries the baby around a lot. I have met lots of inspirational fathers over here who simply gave up work so they can bring up their children. They didn’t worry about income, they didn’t stress about all the material needs, their aim was having enough to feed their children and themselves while being to bring up their children with what they need most. I have recently connected again with an old friend who I have just found out is another totally inspiring father and he happens to be a westerner, an American in fact! This guy fell in love with a Balinese girl when he was 21 in America, she got pregnant so he done the right thing and married her, right there and then in America as he knew he wanted to be a father and a good father. He didn’t realise that he was taking on, not only a Balinese wife but a Balinese family too! He learnt all about balinese family life and totally emersed himself in Balinese way of life and brought his children up how any Balinses family would. he is now about 29years old and his wife still being young and frustrated left him only about 6 months ago. What did he do, worry about it, try to get her back and follow her, get mad at her – No! He still lives in the family compound and takes care of his two children, and also his new Balinese family. Why? All I can see is that he has lots of love and compassion and is a very loving and caring father and, a family member who is part of the local community. I have yet to see his children crying or screaming for anything.

    What I see far too much these days are mothers and fathers who have children and still go out partying, drinking, socialising with their friends while their children are looked after by someone else. I see parents who seem to spend more time on Facebook and social media networks than with their own children. Is this a good parent – not at all! A good parent stays with their children as much as they can so their children are happy and loved!

    If people bring children onto this earth, surely their lives should be lived for those children, or am I missing something? My mother worked 2, at times 3 jobs, she walked many miles for shopping and then many miles back with bags of shopping, she saved up all she could to try and buy us presents for birthdays and Christmas, and do know what; I never once heard my mother complain about doing any of this. I am really lucky, my mother loved me and my sisters with what what I can only call true unconditional love, and endless compassion for those around her.

    I would highly recommend you watch the movie “I Am” to see how our world is moving. You can even watch it without leaving your home on youtube!

    Yours concernedly,

    G

  13. I think it’s pretty funny that all of these posts are by people trying to have intellectual input and sound like experts talking specifically about certain points. Alass you are missing the big picture. DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOUR FAMILY TO CREATE A LOVING SITUATION. That’s the point. Don’t do something because it’s the popular thing to do right now. My son almost died of bacterial meningitis this year. My “friends” actually put me down for letting doctors use a prolonged course of antibiotics! Because medication is bad! Seriously? NO ANTIBIOTICS = CHILD DIES! Get real America. Stop being so ignorant and get a clue.

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