Shaking Up the Two-Parent Model: 3 Cultures That Do Parenthood Differently

Though Laurie Shrage’s New York Times Opinionator article on “forced fatherhood” has proved problematic for some, there’s no denying it does get readers thinking about the standard American model of parenthood. Do genes, monetary support, or care giving make someone a parent? What happens when questions of same sex parenting, surrogates, embryonic cloning, and adoption enter the conversation? As Americans, we struggle with these issues—but many societies simply don't. Check out three cultures that construct the parent-child relationship differently.

What really makes a parent?

Though Laurie Shrage’s New York Times Opinionator article on “forced fatherhood” has proved problematic for some, there’s no denying it does get readers thinking about the standard American model of parenthood. Do genes, monetary support, or care giving make someone a parent? What happens when questions of same sex parenting, surrogates, embryonic cloning, and adoption enter the conversation? As Americans, we struggle with these issues—but many societies simply don't. Check out three cultures that construct the parent-child relationship differently.

The Nuer (Southern Sudan, Western Ethiopia)

The Nuer are a herding people and one of the largest ethnic groups in Southern Sudan. In Nuer society, a man stays in his family home while a woman eventually leaves her birth home for their husband’s. The Nuer trace descent solely through socially sanctioned fathers. When a marriage occurs, a bridewealth payment (of cattle) to a woman’s family secures her fertility for her husband’s family. A Nuer woman can divorce and shack up with another man, but any kids she may have subsequently are still considered the children of her original husband.

In Nuer society, all men must have sons. If a husband is infertile he will turn a blind eye while his wife ensures pregnancy elsewhere. The “other man” in said union has no rights or claims to offspring. Nuer fathers are heavily invested in their children, even more so than mothers (who must be prepared to relinquish them even after divorce).

The Iñupiat (Northern Alaska)

The Iñupiat are part of the Inuit of Canada, Greenland, the United States, and Russia. In traditional Iñupiat society, lineage is traced through both fathers and mothers, and a husband and wife will start their own household once married. The closest Iñupiat word for “family” is ilya, which is similar to the English term “relative,” but literally translated means “addition.” For the Iñupiat, genetics can be a part of ilya, but continual, shared actions, rather than biology, are the real cornerstone of relatedness. Therefore it is possible for an Iñupiat individual to say, “He used to be my cousin,” if the cousin has in fact stopped performing the duties of ilya.

When applied to the parent-child relationship, the Iñupiat concept of ilya means the act of giving birth alone does not establish parental rights to a child, as it does in the United States. Children can chose to live with other parents besides their birth parents, or a household can place a boy baby with one that has only girls. Adoption rates are high among the Iñupiat, and rarely precipitated by infertility. Additionally, adoption does not typically mean the birth parents are absent. For the Iñupiat, the primary indicator of parenthood is love, which can come both from adults who live with you and those that don’t.

The Nayar (Kerala, India)

The Nayar are a grouping of multiple castes residing in southwest India in what is now the state of Kerala. Nayar society is organized into taravad, family units consisting of all the matrilineal descendants of a female ancestress. Members of a taravad hold property collectively, are managed by their senior-most male member, and live with the taravad until death. Husbands and wives visit each other, but always return to their separate households.

Until the middle of the 20th century, the Nayar were polygenous and polyandrous—both men and women took multiple wives and husbands. Children were born into their mother’s taravad, which retained complete rights over them (i.e. kids were not considered to be socially or legally related to their father’s kinsmen). With no way besides shared physical appearance to determine whether he was the biological father of a wife’s newborn, a Nayar husband would regard all his wives’ children as his own with equal affection. Children, in turn, could have multiple fathers with whom to cultivate bonds. When a man’s wife died, he had the choice to continue relations with her children or sever the connection. Thus, in Nayar society, motherhood was an obvious and permanent state, while fatherhood was ambiguous, flexible, and even terminable.