Penguins and Parenting

I just saw “March of the Penguins,” the extraordinary new film about penguin parenting practices, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels to our human ways.

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The most remarkable aspect to me was the shared parenting roles between mother and father penguin. The mother loses up to 1/3 of her body weight growing a single egg in subzero conditions, and then, when she must trek to find food for herself (and for her baby), lest she die, the father takes over. He holds the egg in a “brood patch” above his feet for up to 4 months, nurturing the newly hatched chick until mom returns home, and dad may lose up to 50% of his body weight in the process. He does not eat for the entire time; then, if and when mom returns, he goes to find food for himself, finally, 70 miles away. Their dedication to the chick is phenomenal, a truly life-or-death struggle that often succeeds against all odds and which repeats itself again and again, over generations and generations.

Human parenting in the U.S. has changed over time, of course. And while dads are usually more involved now than 20 to 30 years ago, we in America have not reached the level of the Emperor Penguin. Judith Warner, in her recent book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, blames in part a lack of male involvement in child rearing for the “mess” she believes moms are in today. I’m not sure we need to go this far, but the penguins’ arrangement is inspiring, to say the least.

So how can we be better parents? Parenting advice over the ages itself has changed; witness Ann Hulbert’s Raising America : Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, which I highly recommend if you’d like to understand the whimsy of the “proper advice” pediatricians and others dispense to parents about the “right way” to raise their children. We’ve gone from Spock to Sears to Ferber to Brazelton and back again. The Super Nanny is at the present time both idealized and demonized. What I think is that, of course, there’s no “right way” and that every family and every child deserves the individualized advice they so desperately need.

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