“Eye-ball exercises” is a HUG Your Baby technique that we teach in order to see more of a baby’s behavior, to notice more of a parent’s interaction, to “Gaze and Engage” more intentionally with the lives before us. I am hopeful that my own vision will sharpen as my husband, Jim Henderson, and I travel from country to country this year and meet young families.
As Jim and I begin our travels, it seems prudent to read of the experiences of my greatest mentor, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, in his new memoir, Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children. As we fly toward Kona, Hawaii, I am delighted to read how Dr. Brazelton practiced what I call “eyeball exercises” while he and his family visited with Mayan (Zinacanteco) families in Chiapas, Mexico, in the early ‘70s. His fourteen-year-old daughter, Kitty, facilitated Dr. Brazelton's access to the lives of mothers and babies in a culture that restricted visits by non-family males to order to protect their child from a potential “evil eye.” Enjoying the local fashion in dress and head gear, Kitty was her father’s “ticket” into these home.
There he witnessed a Zinacantecon birth—along with sixteen relatives, chickens, and dogs, all “there for” the laboring mother. The mother was completely quiet, but with each labor pain, the attendants, and animals, all groaned, howled and crowed through each contraction. A healthy baby boy was born.
With intention to keep a newborn calm, the baby was put to the breast with every wiggle—up to 90 times in a day! The goal of a docile baby was further reinforced by being held in close proximity to the mother for several months and later wrapped in a robozo (effectively swaddled) for several more months to protect him “from losing his soul.” Never put to the floor to practice crawling or standing, the babies were noted to have a temporary delay in motor activity yet walked, as North American children did, by thirteen to fifteen months. However, the Zinacantecon children had REMARKABLE alerting ability and sensitivity to visual and auditory stimuli. With muscle activity restricted, Dr. Brazelton could get a newborn to visually follow a moving toy or his face for a full 30 minutes—a feat he had never experienced with a North American baby.
Here comes that perennial “chicken or egg” story. Do genetics convey characteristics needed for success in a culture, or do parents reinforce (beginning with the newborn) the values and needs of that culture? Dr. Brazelton writes, “We came to realize through our developmental research, that culture not only transmits the content of socialization, it transmits processes of learning and teaching that maximize cultural continuity and minimize deviation.”
Of course I must avoid making general assumptions from unique observations. But appreciating what behaviors are noticed by a parent, how that parent responds to her baby, and what those behaviors mean in different cultures will be of interest to Jim and me as we set eyes on foreign lands and engage with the families we will encounter.