In Part 1 of our coverage of Mei-Ling Hopgood’s terrific new book on global parenting, we told readers about her life and we shared some surprising examples from her book about parenting ideas, unusual foods and popular toys around the world. TODAY, we introduce Mei-Ling in our weekly author interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.
Note on photos, today: We asked Mei-Ling to provide us with more than the typical author photos. Since she’s now the author of what critics are calling the kinder-gentler global parenting book, we asked for family snapshots—so we could see her in action. Above, today, Mei-Ling and her husband Monte toted Sofia in a backpack during an Asian trip. Below, you’ll see that, as the family lived in Buenos Aires for a number of years, they regularly cheered on the home team—like families around the world. Sofia wanted her Mom to deck her out in Argentina soccer regalia during a world cup competition. The blue-and-white banner they’re displaying is a headband that Sofia proudly wore around the apartment.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH MEI-LING HOPGOOD
ON ‘HOW ESKIMOS KEEP THEIR BABIES WARM’
DAVID: Your book appears at a perfect time, because newspapers and magazines nationwide are paying front-page attention to the Tiger Mom and Bebe books. Now, top publications are saying that your book is the kinder-gentler alternative to learning about global parenting. What did you think of the Tiger Mom book?
MEI-LING: I thought it was entertaining and funny. I read it when I was finished writing my own book, so it didn’t affect anything I wrote. I considered writing about it in my book, but then I thought: No, that’s not what I’m doing in my book. Her book reflects some of what I found in Asian parents, too, but she wrote about this in her own memoir-ish voice. Now, I know, people either love her book or hate her book. I think that’s because she took these things that do happen in Asian culture and showed them going to extremes. She was concerned that her own children weren’t right in their own mother culture. I like her book, and I think a lot of people who are debating it probably haven’t read it.
DAVID: How about the Bebe book? Your thoughts?
MEI-LING: The difference between their books and what I’m trying to do is that their focus is on asking: Who is the better parent? What kind of parenting is superior? As a result, those are the headlines that jump out of their books. That doesn’t mean their actual books, if people stop and actually read them, say that the French are the only superior parents or the Chinese are superior. in fact, Amy Chau says that it was the headline, not the book, that touched off this firestorm about what she wrote.
In my book, I tried to look at how parents around the world do these things and my question is: What can we learn from each other? It’s way too short sighted and unhealthy to say that one culture has it nailed when it comes to parenting because we’re talking about a lot of factors that form our styles of parenting—society, culture and history. That’s one reason my book is very different than the other two. In my journeys and investigations, I learned that there are a million ways to raise a happy and healthy child. We don’t have to claim that one culture is superior. We can learn from each other.
DAVID: The Washington Post wrote that parents today face “a minefield of insecurity and doubt.” Your book “should put any uptight mom at ease and convince her once and for all that there is no one right way to raise children.” Your book, in that sense, is the “no guilt” parenting book. Do you agree?
ONE-WAY APPROACHES TO PARENTING ARE NOT HEALTHY
MEI-LING: I was very conscious as I was working on this book that there were people who wanted me to write a book that said: This is the best way to do things. In marketing a parenting book, that makes things easier. A lot of parenting books do say: This is how to put your baby to bed. There’s one way. Or, this is why the French do better. Or, this is how to make your family life better. But I think that’s just too simplified in our complex world. Each family and each culture has a different belief system and environment. Sweeping statements about a single way to do things are not healthy.
DAVID: But your book certainly isn’t just a lot of colorful stories. You do draw some conclusions and share some pointed critiques, right?
MEI-LING: By turning a critical eye on my own parenting and parenting ideas, I’m also turning a critical eye on the larger American dialogue on parenting. I wouldn’t say that my book is all that “kind.” I’m not trying to give us a touchy-feely picture of everyone linking hands and singing: We are the world! I’m arguing that we should put our experiences into a global context. No, I’m not up there at the level of Tiger Mom in the tone of what I’m writing, but you will find a real critique of the American culture of parenting.
MARCH OF U.S. PARENTING: DIAPERS IN CHINA, TOYS IN AFRICA
DAVID: One of those critical points you raise—and readers will find this conclusion drawn in other press coverage of your new book, as well—is about the dominance of American culture around the world. Readers may think that our culture is somehow on the ropes, especially after the other books have made headlines, but the truth is that American culture and products and parenting assumptions are marching their way all around this planet.
MEI-LING: American voices and ideas and products related to parenting are resonating everywhere, as I say in my book. One of the most striking conclusions I draw after all of my research is that this idea of a globalization in parenting is very, very real. At this point, it’s mostly driven by American voices and Western marketing—and it’s reaching every corner of the globe. Our products, our advice, our diapers—all of it is reaching places you couldn’t imagine. In China, for example, I was struck by how Chinese parents traditionally handle potty training. In the past, they’ve handled all of that differently than American families, but now? Western-style diapers are booming and China is becoming one of the world’s biggest markets for diapers. Strollers now are popular in places that have never had strollers. Little tribes in Africa now have manufactured children’s toys.
DAVID: I recall a reporting trip I made to Bangladesh some years ago. I was part of a group of journalists who went way up the main river to visit a world heritage site—a village that produces a beautiful, traditional fabric on hand-operated looms. This place was a little Eden. But, when we talked informally with parents there, they immediately said that they hope for a day when they can own microwaves and TV sets. And I assume disposable diapers, too.
MEI-LING: That’s it exactly! People around the world still have distinct, traditional views about parenting, but those assumptions and practices are changing. People everywhere are willing to listen to other voices, to try other products.
AMERICA’S OWN PATCHWORK QUILT OF PARENTING
DAVID: This diversity of parenting styles isn’t simply in remote villages in Africa and Asia. It’s right here in our American communities, right?
MEI-LING: Yes. I was doing a radio interview about the book and they opened the phone lines to listeners. The callers were wonderful and some of those calls came from immigrants to the U.S. and the next-generation sons and daughters of immigrants, too. They shared with us some of the things they do differently in their homes. When we talk about different global perspectives on parenting, we’re talking about millions of families right here in our own country, as well.
DAVID: Our readers know this, if they pause for a moment to think about it. We just published a new story about the Amish, for example. That’s a fairly extreme example of a different culture within the U.S. But, stop to think about all of the religious and ethnic communities across our patchwork quilt of a country.
MEI-LING: Even within a single small city in America, there are so many different populations if we look closely. I’m living in Evanston north of Chicago now, and in my building two Israeli families live above me and an English family lives beneath me. There are people of nearly every ethnicity in my daughter’s preschool. Lots of different languages are spoken. Our country is extremely diverse—more diverse than most of us realize. This new book isn’t just about exploring the world; it’s also about appreciating the diversity all around us.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.