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Tola Okogwu tackles cultural appropriation in the parenting arena

From babywearing to Elimination Communication, not even parenting is free from cultural appropriation, says children's author Tola Ogokwu 


Parenting can be a real cultural appropriation minefield, particularly for proponents of ‘natural’ parenting. We are all guilty of it, I know I certainly am. You hear or read about the latest way to wean your child mouth-to-mouth and,  because the Inca did it, it MUST be natural, organic, gluten, dairy and BPA free. No one stops to think that maybe the Inca didn’t have food processors or dishwashers, and perhaps they might have done things differently if they had.

All cultures borrow from one another and this exchange can be very beneficial when it’s mutual and respectful. The problems arise when we completely re-brand or repackage another culture’s practices without acknowledging the origins, or take them outside of their cultural context and fetishise them into being superior. Because the ‘primitive natives’ do it, it must be more natural and thus better. In today’s world, where it seems parents are always on the lookout for a new way to feel superior to one another, appropriating the parenting techniques of other cultures has never been so rampant, dangerous or, frankly, expensive!

Babywearing is heavily marketed towards middle class white women as a ‘new’ phenomenon

Let’s take babywearing for example; it has seen a massive increase in popularity in the last decade due to more widely-available information about the practice.  It has many reported benefits, from reducing crying to creating baby geniuses. It has however, been heavily marketed towards middle class white women as a ‘new’ phenomenon that requires a load of complicated and expensive equipment, despite the fact that communities all over the world have been quietly and simply babywearing for centuries.

I grew up seeing all my cousins carried at some point on someone’s back, just as I was. All that was ever required was a long strip of fabric, a baby and a willing back. It allows a mother to keep her child close and get stuff done at the same time. It’s also really good at putting kids to sleep and can be done right up to the age of four. Yet when it came time for me to have my own child, I spent days agonising over a BabyBjorn or a Close Caboo. I settled on the Caboo and forked out £60 for a sling my child hated. The concept of babywearing has become so completely appropriated that it never once occurred to me to try another way, even one that is natural to my own native culture.

Another example is Elimination Communication/Infant Potty Training or the Nappy Free Technique. It’s basically a no-nappy approach that’s based on reading your child’s body language or cues and putting them on a toilet when they need it. It’s also a practice many non-industrialised, non-disposable nappy dependent cultures use (but without the silly names). I stumbled upon it after hearing anecdotes from my mother-in-law about my husband being potty trained at age one. As I’m not a big fan of changing nappies, so the idea of potty training early held massive appeal. I did my research and discovered the industrialised version of a no-nappy approach had become a whole philosophy that was just another log in the ever-burning flames of the potty training debate.

In non-industrialised societies, a no-nappy approach makes a lot of sense. Firstly, disposable nappies are expensive and not as widely available, while reusable nappies, though cheaper, are time-consuming. Parents are also much more able to keep their children with them for extended periods of time. Thus the use or of nappies and the timing of potty training is a matter of convenience and economics, as opposed to parenting ideals. While a no-nappy approach has many benefits, it’s actually very impractical for a great number of parents in Western society, in particular, working mothers. Yet without this context, many parents may find themself caught in the superiority trap and struggling to implement a practice that just isn’t meant for them. In the end I chose to use a mixture of reusable nappies and a lot of nappy free time - mostly because I was too chicken to let my child completely loose around the house without a nappy. Consequently, I was able to potty train her by 19 months.

When it comes to parenting, I try to ask myself a few simple questions to try and avoid the pitfalls of following unnecessary parenting trends.

  1. Why am I doing this?
  2. Does it make sense for my family to do it?
  3. Does it improve my family’s quality of life in some way?
  4. Has it been done before?

The final question in particular forces me to research and understand the origins of the things I choose to do and avoid appropriating a culture I know nothing about.