Sunday, December 8, 2013

For a (American?) Birth Day

My mind and my studies are typically preoccupied with YA novels, but today my thoughts are wholly absorbed with the oncoming arrival of a new life; my best friend is in labor!  As I sit in the hospital waiting room, a brand-new desire to research literature for newborns and new parents has consumed me.

Most obvious is Debra Frasier's On the Day You Were Born. I know firsthand about its popularity- many parents love this book and it's commonly referred to as a "modern classic." The book, published in 1991, features lyrical declarations of the Earth's natural phenomenons occurring in tune with the birth of a baby, such as "On the day you were born the Moon pulled on the ocean below, and, wave by wave, a rising tide washed the beaches clean for your footprints..." The entire book is such a celebration, making the individual child the all-important subject of the text.  

Having seen both parents and children enjoy such an experience, I purchased the book as a gift for my fiance's expecting sister last year. My fiance, normally unconcerned with the critical realm of children's lit, flipped through it and exclaimed, "This book is terrible! It's all about the whole world revolving around the child!" I told my fiance that yes, indeed, is it about the world revolving around the infant-subject, hence its appeal: to a brand-new parent, the world does revolve around their baby. 

While most parents would relish the experience of the book, my fiance maintained that he would not want to teach his children that the world revolves around them. Of course I could counter with the argument that a newborn wouldn't be able to process this message, and that the subject of a text being read to newborns is entirely for the parent. However, this would be somewhat of a shallow examination of the relationship between newborns and the literature read to them. 

Looking beyond why it might be a good idea to read to newborns, the ideological underpinnings of the books we choose to read (and give as gifts) to newborns can reveal a lot about a region or a culture- or perhaps even a nation. For example, Americans tend to uphold individuality as a quality. On the Day You Were Born reflects that quality, insisting in artful ways that the infant-subject is...well, special. The message of individuality is enhanced by suggestions on the website to stamp baby's footprints in the pages and to ask doctors, nurses, and others present at the birth to sign the book. Surely some of you who are sick of idolizing parenthood are rolling your eyes- but there are others who would protest to On the Day You Were Born from a cultural standpoint. It may seem odd to Americans that anyone would want to tell their children that they are anything but special- and while my fiance is American, he is also Japanese. At the risk of essentializing, it's a common trait of Japanese culture to raise children to become in tune with their community- to not emphasize to the child what is so special about themselves as individuals, but to reveal what is so special about being part of a group and encourage behavior which allows for selfless unity. This is a difference noted by many, but I recommend reading Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited: China, Japan, and the United States for a more nuanced account of the ideological underpinnings of childrearing. 

As some bloggers have noted, the subject matter of what is read to newborns is fairly irrelevant for child development- which would mean must-have lists like these are not quite as essential as they may want expecting parents to think. But when it comes to looking at childrearing practices cross-culturally, well... I just wonder how many copies of On the Day You Were Born can be found in Japanese households! 

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