How do you feed a one-year-old baby?
Mind you this isn’t about what you feed him or when you feed him. This isn’t a trick question. It’s actually a quite profound cultural issue. Feeding a baby is an activity that takes planning. At this age they are like activated jelly with no hard bone structure to slow them down. Babies at feeding time are all waving arms and hands, and the mouth is a moving target. In other words, babies are pretty much the same around the world, but how we go about growing them into self-sufficient adults is highly dependent on the culture where they are born and raised.
In the West, parents use a highchair. This is because we eat at tables, and a baby can’t sit in a chair. Consumer Reports has reports to guide parents who are trying to get the best price with the expectation that the highchair won’t collapse under the weight of their child.
If you live in the West, you likely think that highchairs are universal.
They are not.
In Thailand, highchairs illustrate the great urban and rural cultural divide. If you live in Bangkok, you can find a baby’s highchair in the Emporium, Central Chidlom and other upscale Westernized department stores, according to my Montreal raised friend, Jim, father of Rylan, husband of Jan, who has gone through the highchair phase.
Outside of Bangkok, it is a different story. Yesterday, Aussie goat farmer, Gregory, my neighbor in Eel Swamp and I went into Pattaya to search of a highchair. Gregory is the proud father of Alexander who is eight months old. The father wanted a highchair for Alexander. None of the department stores had a chair that remotely looked like a baby’s highchair. That didn’t stop the sales clerk from trying to sell the next best thing: a plastic chair. The department stores are well stocked with a variety of plastic chairs, stools, low slung hunks of plastic that didn’t look all that baby friendly. These plastic chairs are the kind that vendors set out around roadside tables and because they are small, low to the ground.
The department store clerks assumed would be perfect for a farang father worried about his offspring. The problem with plastic chairs is there is none of those quasi-electric chair straps to restrain baby from doing a dive off the end. Visualize an eight-month-old baby balanced on a plastic chair. Hard to do, isn’t it? The clerks at Big C, Tesco, and Carrefour all had heard of Western highchairs but had no clue where one could be purchased.
My Eel Swamp friend, Gregory, decided to the best course was to find a blueprint of a highchair, give it to his handyman and ask him to build a highchair from scratch. That’s not something you hear too often in the West. “Can’t find a blasted highchair, I’ll get old Lek to slap one together with extra straps, cushions, crash airbag attached to the moveable tray.”
Why don’t the Thais, who adore children, use highchairs except in the fancy houses and condos of the Thai elite who live in the big city? Because the tradition of Thais from ancient times is to gather in a room with bamboo mats on the floor, set the food and plates out on the floor and sit around and share a communal meal with everyone eating with their hands. Baby is being held and fed. With a circle of relatives (not just mum and dad) and neighbors eating together, the baby is fed and passed around like a ball in slow motion rugby scrum. He needs no restraining straps. No airbags. No over anxious parents worrying that he will fall from a height and land on his head. He passes from hand to hand with ease.
For most of our hundred thousand year existence as a species, our ancestors sat on the ground until they figured out how to build floors and that was where they ate their meals. We’ve been eating a table, in contrast, for only a blink in the evolutionary eye. Tables used for dining turned up in ancient Greece and Roman ruins but virtually disappear again in Europe during the dark ages. After the dark ages, dining tables flourished again in noble households finally spreading to the Western middle-class a couple of hundreds years ago. The Chinese had tables early on but used them almost exclusively for painting and writing. They ate on the floor like in most rice-based cultures.
Upcountry, sitting on the floor together is a communal activity that bonds members of the family, friends and neighbors. Seated on the floor, everyone is at the same level. There is no head of the table. Everyone serves themselves from the assortment of dishes laid out. When meals are moved from the floor to a table, the dynamics of mealtime change. Seated in a chair, it is harder to move around. The chair pins you to the table. It is your space. And it invites elbows to be planted like $100 casino chips around your plate. One of those defensive, guarding moves that says, my plate, my food. It’s hard to pass a baby around the table without accidentally dragging him through the bowl of green curry or chili paste. Sitting at a table, not only do the adults and children stay anchored to their seat, baby, all of baby’s jerky hand and leg waiving appears to be an attempt to escape his wood framed straightjacket. The feeding mission designated to the mother (or father) or in the upper one-percentile households, the nanny. The rules and prohibitions are similar for all highchair cultures. A highchair baby’s world is focused from a top-down perspective. Floor babies see a different world.
Highchair and floor reared babies are two different worlds inside Thailand, where a political dispute exist between the urban and rural divide. The baby highchair is a metaphor for basis of how to govern people. The helicopter parent hovers over their baby while the floor parents pass their babies around the circle of relatives seated on the floor. The baby highchair is also a symbol of the modern, globalized world, a more fixed, formal world, where the baby effectively isolated inside a cage, secure, protected, fed and controlled. Such cocooned babies are safe from the dangers below. But they aren’t free to explore. They don’t have human contact. They are encased in wood and leather. In contrast, floor babies grow up being held and passed from person to person, do so eye level with the bugs, spiders, house lizards and dust.
In the baby highchair universe, one group of diners is expected to look up to the highchair raised better, while that group is entitled to look down on their more backward relations. Such attitudes are as unfortunate as they are prevalent. When the traditions of a culture shift, the first place to look is how babies are fed and by whom. The ancient communal ways of child rearing are fading. If 7-Eleven and Starbucks and McDonalds were able in a generation to become ordinary features in Thailand, it likely won’t be long until the new generation of upcountry parents will want to sit at a table and put their babies in highchairs. It will become a fashion. Proof that you are modern and sophisticated and not an upcountry bumpkin. That, in the West, is what many people call ‘progress.’
Perhaps we ought to consider what a baby’s sees and experiences life from the food trough. Because that will be the way he learns how the trough is organized in his life. It’s his first political lesson about nature of sharing. There must be dozen of studies on how the development of a child and her community is linked by the thread of where baby was fed and who did the feeding. Was he up high, alone, looking out at a table? Or was he held in the arms of a mother, relative or neighbor who were seated on the floor? Often foreigners will ask how is it that Thais are so attached to their family. They didn’t get that way growing up in a highchair is one answer. Another answer is that people who were raised dining on the floor with a group of people were also likely to have slept in a room with the family. In the West, a baby has his or her own room. They separated—at two powerful social points of contact—when they eat and sleep.
Where a person is seated and where he or she sleeps as a baby etches in his or her consciousness a different mental image of relationships, role, privacy, and space. And the rest of us live with that template, and over time, it becomes a norm. Only by remembering how others were raised, do we have a more complete understanding of the forces that shaped and continue to shape our capacity to share and feel empathy.