Open thread on parenting, fatherhood, childhood, and twins

I am so very proud to announce that in the past week I have become the father of two beautiful (nonidentical) twin boys. As you can imagine, this makes it hard to find time to blog. So instead I thought I would try an experiment and post an open thread and ask people to comment. If you were a new dad and an anthropologist — what should you be reading about all these exciting new topics? I have been reading a bunch of different things in between feedings, but this is a new literature that it is hard for me to find my way around in, and yo-yoing between Barbara Rogoff and What To Expect When You’re Expecting is an almost schizophrenic experience. Any recommendations and old stand-bys?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

25 thoughts on “Open thread on parenting, fatherhood, childhood, and twins

  1. Congratulations! Parenthood is a wild ride.

    I really enjoyed Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s “Mother Nature” — I found it compelling as both an anthropologist and a parent. I’ve had her recent book “Mothers and Others” in my to-read pile for a while though I haven’t had a chance to get to it yet (summer reading, I hope).

    My kid was a pretty atrocious sleeper as an infant so Meredith Small’s “Our Babies Ourselves” was a valuable read for me back then, too.

  2. Here are a few from my Zotero library.

    Boon, James. 1990. Twice-born twins times two: legendary marriage structures and gender in hierarchic versus asymmertic houses. Ch. 5 in Affinities and extremes: crisscrossing the bittersweet ethnology of East Indies history, Hindu-Balinese culture, and Indo-European allure, 94–114. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Jett, Stephen C. 2005. Navajo-modified living trees and cradleboard manufacture. Material Culture 37(1): 131–45.

    Lounsbury, Ruth Ozeki. 2006. The anthropologists’ kids. In Mixed: an anthology of short fiction on the multiracial experience, ed. Chandra Prasad. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

    Nichols, Lee Anne. 2004. The infant caring process among Cherokee mothers. Journal of Holistic Nursing 22(3): 226–53. doi:10.1177/0898010104266753.

    Park, Kristin. 2005. Choosing childlessness: Weber’s typology of action and motives of the voluntarily childless. Sociological Inquiry 75(3): 372–402. doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2005.00127.x.

  3. And I somehow managed to forget one of my favorites, “Jesus Christ’s half-brother is alive and well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” from Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto fistfight in Heaven.

  4. A book about behavior mod called _Don’t Shoot the Dog_. Amazingly effective as a child-rearing manual. You won’t need it in the immediate future, but as soon as you have ambulatory, verbal beings, you will find it useful.

    Not exactly an intellectual experience, I suppose, but you could start thinking about why a reasoned-out, experimentally-derived training method works better (better as in, elicits desired behaviors) than our primate instinct to punish.

  5. My suggestion is to step out of the anthropological frame and not intellectualize the experience. For heaven’s sake, let there be a space for freedom from anthropology! For practical advice on what to do about that mysterious rash, see the old standbys, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, and Dr. Mom.

    OK, fine. Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb’s A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies (Cambridge 2000)

  6. I really recommend the “childhood studies” literature. As a parent in the states you’ll be bombarded for 20 years or more by developmental psychological claims about what’s “normal” and what’s not — dev psych is this hugely institutionalized bastion of evolutionism, essentially, and it permeates all aspects of public education, not to mention medicine, child-rearing advice, etc. (I’m not a parent but I do study children and elementary schools, and my wife and I are expecting our first kid in the fall.)

    A nice place to start is the introduction to Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (1990). It distinguishes between “childhood” and “biological immaturity,” on the model of “gender” versus “sex” — though possibly this concedes too much, and sometimes I wonder what a Butler-esque critique of this would look like, but it’s still pretty compelling.

    At the core, I think the recognition that even infants are “persons” in the anthropological sense, not biologically determined, and socially indeterminate, creatures — you can’t but account for them socially, contextually, as agents with individual wills, goals, interests, pleasures, etc. — really helps make sense of all the changes that happen when people have kids and become “parents,” and the dev psych stuff is just completely incapable of dealing with that.

    So Gregory says to avoid intellectualizing it, which is great, except that the medical and educational establishments endlessly force their theories onto parents, and having an intellectually rigorous framework for countering these institutionally powerful ideas might be really useful.

  7. I enjoyed Meredith Small’s “Our Babies Ourselves.” Whether they support Hillary Clinton or not, Americans seem to take the “it takes a village…” idea pretty seriously. You will receive a tremendous amount of advice from your entire universe–including complete strangers. Everyone has pretty strong feelings about certain aspects of child-rearing. Small’s book reminds us that there are many paths to follow in raising a child. Your own internal compass is the primary guide you should follow. The reams of conflicting advice you will receive should come only second to that. That’s the only advice I’m going to give you 🙂

  8. The one parenting book we’ve come back to again and again is “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” by Marc Weissbluth. With twins the trick is to get them to sleep at the same time! I think I recall the author forwarding the argument that ADHD and all the medicalized behavioral disorders attributed to children now are in fact rooted in sleep patterns and lack of sleep. Interesting idea anyway.

    Anthropologically speaking, I enjoyed “Children in the Field” edited by Joan Cassell. And I’m pretty sure there’s a chapter about twins in James Fernandez’s “Beyond Metaphor”.

  9. Rex, congratulations. Twins, wow. You will have your hands full. For what its worth, I have always found what pediatrician Terry Brazleton writes extremely sensible. I got hooked on him more than three decades ago when my daughter was born and read in one of the books that he had already written back then the advice that babies form separate relationships with all of the adults in their lives. Since I had been reading a fair amount of anthropological stuff that assumed that parents or elders as a group had this or that effect on their children, this was thought-provoking.

  10. Twins, wow. You will have your hands full.

    A high school classmate of mine had twins shortly after we graduated. I remember running into her three or four years later at the laundromat as she was trying to fold clothes and keep track of her very high energy little boys. I asked her if having twins was that much harder than having one at a time. Every time I see a parent with twins I remember her reply and the look on her face as she gave it – “I wouldn’t know. I guess that’s actually a good thing.”

    On the plus side, I have observed that eventually twins tend to start helping out with childcare in the way that a slightly older sibling does.

  11. Thanks for the recs all — some of these I had heard before (Hrdy, which I teach, and Small, which I found a bit fluffy) and some I had not. One more I would add to the mix is James McKenna’s “Sleeping With Your Baby”, from the former head, iirc, of Notre Dame’s department. Anything else?

  12. Congratulations. I have 7-year-old twins now. You will survive, and in fact after they’re around 12 months, they really become easier than two children of different ages.

    You must be dictatorial about sleep and feeding — right now they sleep all the time, but by 2 months they will suck up every waking and non-waking moment if they are not on the same schedule. Fortunately, it is (usually) possible to sync them by controlling the feedings.

  13. You must be dictatorial about sleep and feeding — right now they sleep all the time, but by 2 months they will suck up every waking and non-waking moment if they are not on the same schedule.

    So… yeah, and umm… I am personally all kinds of against the little indigo free range children that are always trying to crawl into the booth with me at the local coop but I am a little taken aback at the notion that one can be dictatorial to a two-month-old. You can drug them or thrash them into submission but an eight-week-old can’t really take orders. Am I missing something?

  14. As I recall, according to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart they should already have been thrown into the spooky forest.

    My South Asian friends can’t figure out why toilet training is such a fuss for SuburbaEuros. They have it done by age one. Something to look into; time’s a-wastin’.

    As for the helpy lit, I quite like How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, which is also illuminating for teaching and committee meetings.

  15. As I recall, according to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart they should already have been thrown into the spooky forest.

    But are the twins chucked into the Forest because it is Evil or is it Evil because the twins have been chucked into it for ages? As Mintz and Price point out, the fact that twins are abominations to the Igbo and a cause for rejoicing among the Yoruba is a perfect example not of two opposing logics but a single logic with an inversion.

    My South Asian friends can’t figure out why toilet training is such a fuss for SuburbaEuros. They have it done by age one. Something to look into; time’s a-wastin’.

    I don’t think it would be very workable within the ecology of professional academic life. My understanding is that it needs all day every day attentive face-to-face with the trainees for a while.

  16. Michael Lewis’ Home Game is a great, and funny, father’s perspective on what actually happened immediately after the birth of each of his 3 kids.

  17. I enjoyed the suggestions; thanks everyone.
    About a year into mothering within the isolated nuclear family model, and in year 4 of 7 of my PhD program, I found ‘The Bitch in the House’ incredibly refreshing. Later the author’s husband published a response called ‘The Bastard on the Couch.’ Well, not sure either of these are useful to a new father, but you never know.

    On a gentler note, “And Baby Makes Three” by the Gottman crew is also helpful.

  18. Congratulations to the new parents!

    Instead of adding to your list of recommended readings, I’d like to add a few comments that may be of help, and, as a mother of three awesome young adults–two of whom are twins–my words may even prove useful.

    First, the best learning comes with the doing (i.e., experientially), so always be open to learning from (e.g., listening to) your children–even in the most trying of times, and teamwork matters (children know this, too, and they learn it at a very early age).

    Second, remember that nobody can read your children better than you two, so, whatever advice you receive (whether from doctors, friends, anthropologists, or other generators of “wise”dom), hold fast to the first rule.

    Third, appreciate that humor abounds (although you may not recognize it at first), so be sure to document your experiences, and then write, or co-author, your own book on the anthropology of child-rearing in the future.

    EnJOY, and be sure to give my best to the new mom!

  19. The first rule of parenting seems to be that people feel licensed to make all sorts of authoritative-sounding statements on the basis of nothing whatsoever (well, okay, not nothing–on the basis of a few personal experiences, cultural norms, armchair hypotheses, etc).

    I was so disgusted by the state of parenting advice–and the total lack of anthropological perspective–that I started publishing my own reviews of the literature on the web.

    So, if you’re interested, check out

    I’ve poured thousands of hours into it, and would love to hear from more anthropologists. My articles include full references, so if nothing else, you’ll find guides to the key research.

    In addition to Hrdy, I HIGHLY recommend David Lancy’s _Anthropology of Childhood_ (Cambridge Press). I’d go so far as to say this should be required reading for anthro undergraduates. 🙂
    He’s extremely insightful and slays many dragons, including romantic myths cherished by academics and laypeople alike.

    I also love Melvin Konner’s chapter in _Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods_. And Barry Hewlett has produced lots of fascinating research about hunter-gatherer family life.

    Konner’s just published a huge tome, _Evolution of Childhood_, which is the kind of thing I might assign in an upper division undergraduate or graduate course. It’s a major synthesis of everything… with an evolutionary perspective. It’s more encyclopedic and biological than Lancy’s book (e.g., whereas Lancy focuses on the cultural ecology of behavior, Konner covers topics like history theory, nonhuman primates, growth, and brains).

    For developmental psychology, Charles Fernyhough’s book is a pleasure to read.

    Alison Gopnik’s latest–the Philosophical Baby–is a good overview of research on the minds of kids through age 5. _

    _How babies talk_ is a bit old, but still an excellent, practical overview of language development.

    Congratulations to you, Mom, and the boys. And hello, John (if you read this).

  20. I have no advice, because I don’t have a kid, but my wife wants a kid soon. So, I wanted to ask if anyone knew the status of things like co-sleeping with a baby to reduce the incidence of SIDS? In my undergrad one of my professors was a medical anthro who specialized in cross-cultural aspects of the childhood of strategies of pregnant women, birthing and child rearing. She would always tell us that co-sleeping was becoming understood as an evolutionary strategy to reduce the risks of the 4th trimester.


  21. Co-sleeping is fine and normal. The deaths associated with it have occurred primarily in extremely low-income families where substance abuse was an issue.

    I’ve never had a kid, but one co-sleeping mother I know–who is a large lady, making me wonder about her crushing the infant–told me that when she co-sleeps, she sleeps differently and there is some sort of perpetual awareness that there is someone else in the bed beside her.

  22. The theory is that co-sleeping babies experience more frequent arousals, and since SIDS is caused by an impaired ability to arouse from sleep, co-sleeping is protective. Also, co-sleeping parents check on their babies more frequently during the night (e.g., Mosko et al 1997).

    Recent case-control studies (comparing reported SIDS cases with randomly-selected controls) have reported a link between bed-sharing and higher SIDS rates for babies under 20 weeks old.

    But these were studies of European populations who bed share in ways that introduce other risk factors. It’s not clear to me that the researchers were able to control for all these other risk factors. We didn’t evolve sleeping on soft mattresses, for instance. And when I checked with the lead author on one of the most influential case-control studies, he confirmed that the study didn’t control for how many people shared the bed with the infant, or illegal drug use by the adults sharing the bed.

    In some places where bed-sharing is traditional, SIDS rates are low.

    I’ve reviewed the latest stuff about SIDS here:

    And bed-sharing (which isn’t necessarily the same thing as co-sleeping) here:

    Mosko S, Richard C, McKenna J. 1997. Infant arousals during mother-infant bed sharing: implications for infant sleep and sudden infant death syndrome research. Pediatrics. 100(5):841-9.

  23. Well I was an anthropologist when I became a father, twice, but 20 years ago now. The boy’s mother is mainland Chinese, who’d come here to Australia in the first contingent of students allowed out under Deng’s ‘Open Door’ policy.

    At the time my first son was born I was busy writing my Honours dissertation on coming-of-age in the Western Desert, but I’d done some psychology as well and very interested in childhood development.

    So, we had a LOT of body contact, ‘co-sleeping’ if you want to call it that, a lot of talking and spending time together, deliberately reversing the standard Western Spock model supposing that children should be left alone in their own bed, not disturbed, blah blah blah . . . .

    Ultimately the marriage itself failed, for a number of reasons, so traveling back and forth between two households from age 6-7 made the boys further resilient and independent, dealing with their parents more as peers than authority figures. By puberty it was made clear to them that there was no such thing either as a teenager; yet another unfortunate invention, so from 13 or so they were treated as young men.

    The result was two young achievers. The eldest is now achieving High Distinctions in Geology while the second is a boilermaker at age 19 already purchased his own house. Their Dad is still today considered radical, eccentric, irreverent, but all the boy’s friends love to sit and chat, and wonder that society treats children so badly, so oppressively.

    But then, the child itself was a peculiarly Victorian invention in itself.

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