The best books on the anthropology of parenting

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an anthropologist with a background in evolutionary biology, primate behavior, and cross-cultural approaches to parenting. I taught “The Anthropology of Parenting” for 20 years at Cornell University. The book grew from interviews with anthropologists, pediatricians, and child development experts taking a different stance about parents and babies—that we should look at how babies are designed by evolution and how cultures then interfere with those expectations. My book shows there is no perfect way to raise a child but there are styles in other cultures we can borrow to make our babies, and ourselves, more at ease.


I wrote...

Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

By Meredith Small,

Book cover of Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

What is my book about?

Should an infant be encouraged to sleep alone? Is breastfeeding better than bottle-feeding, or is that just a myth of the nineties? How much time should pass before a mother picks up her crying infant? And how important is it really to a baby's development to talk and sing to him or her?

In this ground-breaking book, anthropologist Meredith Small reveals her remarkable findings in the new science of ethnopediatrics. Professor Small joins pediatricians, child-development researchers, and anthropologists across the country who are studying to what extent the way we parent our infants is based on biological needs and to what extent it is based on culture - and how sometimes what is culturally dictated may not be what's best for babies.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Afterlife Is Where We Come from: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa

Meredith Small Why did I love this book?

This book is the only ethnography of infants, the Beng of Ivory Coast, West Africa. Gottlieb does a masterful job of explaining what is “normal” for the Beng and how very different their attitudes about parenting and babies are from Western Culture, and why the Beng believe their parenting ways are better. Gottlieb’s telling of the Beng baby story, like her writing, is engaging and life-changing.

By Alma Gottlieb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Afterlife Is Where We Come from as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When a new baby arrives among the Beng people of West Africa, they see it not as being born, but as being reincarnated after a rich life in a previous world. Far from being a tabula rasa, a Beng infant is thought to begin its life filled with spiritual knowledge. How do these beliefs affect the way the Beng rear their children?

In this unique and engaging ethnography of babies, Alma Gottlieb explores how religious ideology affects every aspect of Beng childrearing practices-from bathing infants to protecting them from disease to teaching them how to crawl and walk-and how widespread…


Book cover of Do Parents Matter?: Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don't Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax

Meredith Small Why did I love this book?

The Levines have studied the Gusii of Western Kenya for decades and in this book, they look at childhood in all its glory and compare Gusii parenting and parenting philosophy to Western culture.

By Robert A. LeVine, Sarah LeVine,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Do Parents Matter? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When it comes to parenting, more isn't always better,but it is always more tiringIn Japan, a boy sleeps in his parents' bed until age ten, but still shows independence in all other areas of his life. In rural India, toilet training begins one month after infants are born and is accomplished with little fanfare. In Paris, parents limit the amount of agency they give their toddlers. In America, parents grant them ever more choices, independence, and attention.Given our approach to parenting, is it any surprise that American parents are too frequently exhausted?Over the course of nearly fifty years, Robert and…


Book cover of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

Meredith Small Why did I love this book?

Perhaps the most important book ever written that compares what happens when parents come from one culture into another and have to deal with a different parenting belief system. In this case, it’s the story of immigrant Hmong parents into the US and a child with epilepsy. The parents seek help from pediatricians when their daughter is ill, but they are in conflict because they believe their child is a sacred and blessed being. Which advice do they follow? Medical or traditional spiritual?

Book cover of Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

Meredith Small Why did I love this book?

If you want to know the real story about “attachment theory” this is the book. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Blum, it’s the tale of psychologist Harry Harlow and his experiments with rhesus monkeys and how that changed parenting in America. Fabulous read.

By Deborah Blum,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Love at Goon Park as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the early twentieth century, affection between parents and their children was discouraged,psychologists thought it would create needy kids, and doctors thought it would spread infectious disease. It took a revolution in psychology to overturn these beliefs and prove that touch ensures emotional and intellectual health. In Love at Goon Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum charts this profound cultural shift by tracing the story of Harry Harlow,the man who studied neglect and its life-altering consequences on primates in his lab. The biography of both a man and an idea, Love at Goon Park ultimately invites us to examine ourselves…


Book cover of Childhood: A Multicultural View

Meredith Small Why did I love this book?

Konner is an anthropologist and physician who spent time with the !Kung hunters and gatherers studying children. This book is based on the PBS show Childhood, and it is everything you might want to know about childhood because it traverses both biology and culture. A dense read, but worth it.

By Melvin Konner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Childhood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Channel 4 TV tie-in book by anthropologist and psychiatrist Melvin Konner takes a journey through the childhood years - from conception and birth through adolescence - showing how children experience them, how parents and societies shape them and how science is beginning to understand them.


You might also like...

Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

By Leslie Tall Manning,

Book cover of Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

Leslie Tall Manning Author Of Maggie's Dream

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Mentor Laugher Research nut Avid reader

Leslie's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Winner of the Literary Titan Book Award

Bright but unassuming Marilyn Jones has some grown-up decisions to make, especially after Mama goes to prison for drugs and larceny. With no one to take care of them, Marilyn and her younger, mentally challenged brother, Carol, get tossed into the foster care system. While shuffling from one home to another, Marilyn makes it her mission to find the Tan Man, a mysterious man from her babyhood she believes holds the key to her family’s happiness.

But Marilyn’s quest is halted when her daddy, an ex-con she has never met, is chosen by…

Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

By Leslie Tall Manning,

What is this book about?

Bright but unassuming Marilyn Jones has some grown-up decisions to make, especially after Mama goes to prison for drugs and larceny. With no one to take care of them, Marilyn and her younger, mentally challenged brother, Carol, get tossed into the foster care system. While shuffling from one home to another, Marilyn makes it her mission to find the Tan Man, a mysterious man from her babyhood she believes holds the key to her family's happiness.

But Marilyn's quest is halted when her daddy, an ex-con she has never met, is chosen by the courts as the new guardian. Caleb…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in anthropology, medicine, and psychologist?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about anthropology, medicine, and psychologist.

Anthropology Explore 102 books about anthropology
Medicine Explore 99 books about medicine
Psychologist Explore 46 books about psychologist