Why is Western Parenting WEIRD?

Why is Western Parenting WEIRD?

Westerners are WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Actually, plenty of Westerners are not rich or educated, but the acronym WEIRD was coined to make the point that the college students in the US who form the basis of many psychological studies epitomize these qualities, making them, well, weird.

Consequently, these studies provide little or no insight into a universal “human nature.” Some researchers call for more cross-cultural research and correspondingly less reliance on weirdos. Many critics have also noted that the term WEIRD may not capture the most salient aspects of the people so characterized. For example, Westerners tend to be individualist and think of themselves as independent agents, whereas most other people in the world are communitarian and think of themselves as intricately embedded within a network of relationships. Consequently, I still think of the I in WEIRD as “individualist.”

One way to see the WEIRDness of Westerners (or at least Americans) is through their parenting practices. Compared to others, American parents

  • are slow to respond to infant cries
  • leave infants alone to sleep in separate rooms
  • infrequently hold and carry their infants
  • breast-feed for a short time (if at all), according to a parent-established schedule, rather than infant-initiated breast feeding for three years
  • worry about “spoiling” children or “rewarding” crying behavior
  • employ “sleep training” techniques like “cry it out

Within a global context, these are weird practices. How did Westerners come to treat their babies so weirdly? One may point to both religion and science as mutually-reinforcing WEIRD practices: original sin and behaviorism.

Original sin is a specifically Western Christian idea, not shared by Eastern Orthodox churches or Jewish communities, even though these traditions also regard Genesis 3 as Scripture. In some interpretations of the doctrine of original sin, babies are born bad and doomed to hell until baptized. St. Augustine invokes the crying baby as evidence for human selfishness and his notion of original sin. John Calvin said infants’ “whole nature is as it were a seed of sin, and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God.” John Locke identified a desire for dominion as the first and original sin: “Their love of power and dominion shows itself very early…We see children (as soon almost as they are born…) cry, grow peevish, sullen and out of humor, for nothing but to have their wills.” An said, “When the baby comes out of the womb, it wants what it wants, and it wants it now. And if it doesn’t get it, it’s going to start crying. That’s nothing but sin.”

A popular meme in conservative Protestant circles is misattributed to the Minnesota Crime Commission in 1926. No one has been able to locate where it actually originated, but likely within the same conservative Christian circles that have kept it alive as a popular sermon illustration and parenting point:

Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish, and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it—his bottle, his mother’s attention, his playmate’s toys, his uncles’ watch. Deny him these once, and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness, which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He is, in fact, dirty. He has no morals, no knowledge, no skills. This means that all children—not just certain children—are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in the self-centered world of his infancy, given free reign to his impulsive actions, to satisfy his wants, every child would grow up a criminal—a thief, a killer, or a rapist.

Similar quotes may easily be multiplied both from major Western thinkers and popular Christian parenting books. Psychologists call these interpretations of infants “attributions.” Attributions are inferences about the causes of behavior of others (like “infants cry because they are selfish”) that can shape our own attitudes and behaviors. People who think that children are wicked are more likely to abuse them than those who think they are innocent. The great developmental psychologist John Bowlby pleaded for faith in an “original goodness” alongside “original sin” to mitigate Western enthusiasm for punishing children (and adults).

These religious ideas evolving from original sin gained considerable support from psychology. Freud and his followers believed that a baby bonded to its mother because she supplied milk. Love and touch were unimportant in this line of thinking, and touch could be a downright dangerous means of transmitting disease (scientists did not know about the healing power of touch or the antibodies in mother’s milk).

The behaviorist school in psychology believed that love (and emotions generally) were not amenable to scientific study and not important in life. John Watson was president of the American Psychological Association and a powerful cultural leader whose best-selling book Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928) argued strenuously for extreme forms of the WEIRD parenting practices listed above. Watson’s book was not unusual, but resembled parenting advice offered for generations. Another popular work, The Care and Feeding of Children by L. Emmett Holt (1899), which addresses the problem of infant cries in ways that are still echoed in advice to parents:

What is the cry of indulgence or from habit? This is often heard even in very young infants, who cry to be rocked, to be carried about, sometimes for a light in the room, for a bottle to suck, or for the continuance of any other bad habit which has been acquired. How is an infant to be managed that cries from temper or to be indulged? It should simply be allowed to cry it out. A second struggle is rarely necessary.

Note that a desire to be held and rocked are identified as bad habits to be broken, rather than perfectly normal desires that should be met.

The behaviorist paradigm of childcare was discredited decades ago, but parents have been slow to get the message, in part because parenting books rarely rely on the evidence from developmental psychology. Attachment theory draws together a considerable quantity of data that continues to surprise and unsettle Westerners who seem unnerved to discover how profoundly dependent and vulnerable we really are, and how wrong Western cultural assumptions appear to be. There is now considerable understanding of infant crying that contradicts the claims of religious leaders who regard infants as wicked and doctors who embrace behavioralist paradigms.

Infants cry because they need care, not because they are bad or manipulative. An infant does not have the cognitive capacity to be deceptive and manipulative. Infants cry less if they are cared for more. The behaviorist claim that “rewarding” infant cries with care increases the behavior is simply wrong. Neglected babies cry more in a desperate attempt to get the care they need.

But babies do eventually “cry it out” and become quiet, and this fact seems to reinforce the behavioralist claim. Parents are told that their baby is learning to “self-soothe,” but babies cannot self-soothe any more than they can manipulate. They have simply given up and their nervous systems have shut down in order to conserve energy. Researchers call this quieting “despair.” Babies may not be able to self-soothe, but they can grieve, become depressed, and give up hope that they will ever be cared for. For any mammal, this isolation and neglect is torturous. In the 1950s, Harry Harlow demonstrated the effect of this deprivation on monkeys, and the heart-breaking he made of love-starved monkeys shocked people into the realization of what non-WEIRD people already know: love matters. His deprived monkeys were so obviously in agony that they inspired the modern animal rights movement. There was less initial concern for the human babies subjected to similar treatment. Babies are not monkeys, people said.

As babies are left to cry, they still learn. They learn that the world is a loveless place, that their needs do not matter, and that they are not loved or lovable, so they should not expect to be cared for. These lessons are stored in implicit memory. As the child grows, the conscious mind will forget, but the unconscious remembers. The child also learns to habitually shut down in the face of stress or social threat, leading to problems with anxiety (due to chronic fear) and depression (due to chronic grief). In short, these WEIRD parenting practices constitute undercare, neglect, or abuse, depending on how they manifest within families.

Anxiety and depression disorders constitute the fastest-rising problem seen in incoming college students. Is it because these students were left to “cry it out” when they were babies? There is no way to know for certain whether there is any scarlet thread that connects infant caregiving to adult mental health, because so much else happens within infancy and so much happens between infancy and adulthood.

Some researchers worry about parental responses to infant cries because the parents who think a baby should be left to cry likely establish certain attributions about their children and habits of behavior that last beyond infancy. If you think your baby’s pleas for care are manipulative bids for power that must be defeated, then how do you interpret your toddler’s pleas? Or those of the elementary school child? Or the teenager? WEIRD parenting practices reflect and reinforce bad and wrong ideas about what human beings are and how children develop.

The science of parenting has improved dramatically over the past several decades, but parenting practices have been slow to keep pace. More empirically-based parenting advice is becoming available. However, as with young-earth creationism and the anti-vaccine movement, scientific information is not enough to change minds and parenting practices. Outdated behaviorist ideas continue to reinforce conservative Western Christian ideas about the wickedness of children.

The doctrine of original sin does not require that infant cries be regarded as signs of selfishness or wickedness. First, many Christians who believe in original sin do not mistreat or neglect their infants. Second, the Bible provides alternate examples of parenting practices surrounding infant cries. In Exodus 2:5-10, Pharaoh’s daughter feels pity for the crying baby Moses and rightly spares his life, even though she recognizes that he is a Hebrew boy who should be consigned to death.

God shows the same response to the cries of Ishmael in Genesis 21:17. God hears the baby cry and instructs Hagar about how to save him. Although the chronology in 17:25 suggests Ishmael is an older child, the story indicates he is an infant – he is carried on Hagar’s back, left under a bush, and is too young to follow Hagar. God similarly responds to adult cries in Psalm 6 and 2 Kings 20:1-7.

The divine example sets the standard for how we should respond to the tears of others. Biblical writers regard God as providing care more reliably than parents (see Psalm 27:10 and Isaiah 49:15). Indeed, the mothers of Moses and Ishmael abandon their infants (however reluctantly), but God provides for them. Unanswered infant cries in the Bible appear only in desperate circumstances. Indeed, the desperation of besieged and defeated Jerusalem appears precisely to illustrate how people neglect infant cries:

Even the jackals offer the breast and nurse their young,
but my people has become cruel like the ostriches in the wilderness.
The tongue of the infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food, but no one gives them anything. (Lamentations 4:3-4)

Ostriches were regarded as careless parents because they laid their eggs on the ground and did not protect them like other birds (see Isa 34:13; 43:20; Job 39:13-17). Jackals and ostriches appear together in Scripture as animals that haunt wastes and deserted places (Job 30:29). Here they are contrasted, with ostriches presented as neglectful parents and jackals as attentive. Prophets often compare the Israelites unfavorably to animals (Isa 1:3; Jer 8:7). Animals obey their instincts, but humans rebel against God.

Indeed, this is an excellent metaphor for WEIRD parenting practices that defy normal parental instincts to pick up a crying child. If the Bible is any guide, parents cannot ignore their infant cries and then expect God to respond to their tears (see parable of the unforgiving debtor in Matthew 18:23-35). The description of unresponsive parents in Lamentations 4 escalates in verse 10: “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children.” These were desperate times indeed, in which infant cries were unanswered.

Western parents are not cruel any more than the “compassionate women” who boiled their children. Rather, Western parents find themselves in desperate circumstances. Westerners have constructed a WEIRD world that can be downright hostile to family life. Many young people in America look around them and decide not to have children because the costs are so high and the risks so great. They do not feel sufficiently safe or cared for to start families. Breast-feeding rates are low in the US and breast-feeding mothers do not persevere long in the practice. They are not bad mothers, but are coping as best they can in a culture that vilifies a mother for breast feeding in public yet provides no “acceptable” place for women to nurse or breast pump. Maternity leave is brief if it is available at all, and mothers are penalized at work for the time they take to raise children. Affordable quality daycare is an oxymoron. In many families, both parents work and need to sleep through the night, hence the urgency for “sleep training” and desperate measures to get infants to sleep (or at least be quiet) long enough for parents to get the rest they need to go to work. Under these conditions, one should not wonder why babies are left to cry.

As with many social problems, the solution is social. We are not independent self-made people who can fix our problems with enough willpower motivated by criticism and exhortation. Our ideas about human autonomy are wrong. Our rhetoric of “free will” and “personal responsibility” obfuscate the reality of our social nature and how we are implicated in the behaviors of other people. Our horror of dependency and vulnerability is wrong. John Bowlby repeatedly resisted the notion of “dependence” as a negative quality acceptable only in small children and a regrettable form of “regression” later in life.

In truth, we are dependent creatures from birth to death, although we strive to conceal from ourselves both our own dependency (and the vulnerability it implies) and the harm we cause others by not providing them with the support they need. Parents need help to raise their children, and we all have an interest in who other people’s children turn out to be. Everyone we know is someone else’s child. Even your child is not only your child.


  1. Dee

    I think this post is weird. I live in the west, having immigrated over 20 years ago from West Africa. What I’ve found is that, contrary to this article’s main thrust, western (American) parents are overindulgent of their children. Thus, they tend to raise educated savages. The prevalent psychological influence on child rearing is to be permissive rather than to lovingly provide boundaries. That’s the problem here.

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