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Babies toys ecology Notes on “Anthropology of Childhood”

Babies toys ecology

I read David Lancy’s “The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, and Changelings” and highlighted some passages. A lot of passages, it turns out.

[content note: discussion of abortion and infanticide, including infanticide of children with disabilities, in “Life and Death” section but not elsewhere]

I was a sociology major and understood anthropology to be basically “like sociology, but in Papua New Guinea.” This is the first cultural anthropology book I’ve read, and that was pretty much right. I found it very accessible as a first dive into anthropology. The first chapter summarizes all his points without the examples, so you could try that if you want to get the gist without reading the whole book.

I enjoyed it and would recommend it to people interested in this topic. A few things that shifted for me:

  • I feel less obliged to entertain my children and intervene in their conflicts. We don’t live with a tribe of extended family, but my two children play with each other all day, which is how most people throughout time have spent their childhoods. Lancy isn’t a child development expert, but I buy his argument that handling conflict (for example about the rules of a game) is a skill children need to learn, rather than having conflicts always mediated by adults.
  • Even though it doesn’t change anything concrete, I feel some relief that not having endless patience for toddlers seems to be normal. Except where families were very isolated, it’s not normal in traditional societies for one or two adults to watch their own children all day every day. And childcare has traditionally looked mostly like “being sure they don’t hurt themselves too badly.” 
  • It surprised me that childcare by non-parents was so common. Some more modern views treat women’s childcare work as basically free, traditional cultures have valued women’s labor enough that the society wants to free up their time from childcare. It was striking to me that the expectation that stay-at-home mothers will be responsible for all childcare was a relatively short historical blip. But of course, having childcare done by teenagers and grandmothers requires that those people’s time be available, which usually isn’t the reality we live in.
  • I was surprised at how apparently universal it is for fathers to be uninvolved. I expect they’re typically involved in providing food and other material resources, but that wasn’t emphasized in this book.

I’m a little unclear on how valid Lancy’s conclusions are or how much data they’re based on. It seems like an anthropologist could squint at a society and see all kinds of things that someone with a different ideology wouldn’t see.

Big caveat that what Lancy is describing is traditional, non-industrialized societies where children are expected to learn how to fit into the appropriate role in their village, not to develop as an individual or do anything different from what their parents and ancestors did. He stresses that traditional childrearing practices are very poor preparation for school. Given that I want my children to learn things I don’t know, to think analytically, etc, the way I approach learning is very different from how traditional societies approach it.

One complaint is that Lancy periodically complains about how much money Western families spend on fertility treatments, medical care for premature infants, etc. He argues that the same money could be used to provide adequate nutrition for many more children in the societies he’s studied. I’m sympathetic, but assuming that families would donate this money if they weren’t spending it to have a baby is not realistic. I see cutting luxury spending as a much more feasible way that people might do some redistribution.

And now, my notes:

Views of childhood

As in many areas of research, the children who have been studied by academics are mostly from WEIRD (“Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic”) populations. Thus our understanding of good or normal childrearing practices is very different from how children have typically been raised. Lancy contrasts modern childrearing norms with those of traditional agrarian or forager societies.

Lancy contrasts neontocracy (where babies and children are most valued) with gerontocracy (where elders or ancestors are most valued). I can think of ways our society isn’t very good for children, but I agree that compared with traditional societies, we spend a lot of attention and money on children. (Albeit sometimes by micromanaging them, while Lancy would rather have them figure out more for themselves as children have historically done.) 

Even studying children is a strange thing to do in most societies. “Examples of children treated as lacking any sense, as being essentially uneducable, are legion in the ethnographic record.” “Anthropologists interested in children are treated in a bemused fashion; after all, why bother to observe or talk to individuals who ‘don’t know anything’?” (Lancy 1996: 118; also Barley 1983/ 2000: 61)“

“Infants were widely seen as insensible. Almost like plants, their care could be rudimentary”

Traditional societies have two broad patterns toward young children: “One response is ‘benign neglect’– everyone waits until the child can talk sensibly before acknowledging its existence. A second typical response is to aggressively humanize the child, including ruthless suppression of all ‘sub-human’ tendencies (e.g. bawling, crawling, thumb-sucking).”

Europeans were of the second view:

“Like wild men [or beasts], babies lacked the power to reason, speak, or stand and walk erect. [They were] nasty, brutish, and dirty, communicating in wordless cries, grunts, and screams, and were given to crawling on all fours before they could be made to walk like men … Left to their own devices, they would remain selfish, animalistic, and savage. Parents believed they had to coerce their babies into growing up, and they expected protests and resistance. (Calvert 1992: 26, 34)”

“The Puritans were perhaps the first anxious parents, fearing they might fail and their children would turn out badly.”

“We now take for granted the “need” to stimulate the infant through physical contact, motherese, and playing games like peek-a-boo to accelerate physical and intellectual development. Contrast these assumptions with the pre-modern objective of keeping babies quiescent so they’d make fewer demands on caretakers and not injure themselves (LeVine et al. 1994).”

“Much of what we think of as the routine duties (e.g. reading bedtime stories; cf. Lancy 1994) or expenses (e.g. orthodontics) of modern parents are completely unknown outside modern, mainstream societies.”

“150 years ago, the idea of the useful child began to give way to our modern notion of the useless but also priceless child (Zelizer 1985). Children become innocent and fragile cherubs, needing protection from adult society, including the world of work. Their value to us is measured no longer in terms of an economic payoff or even genetic fitness but in terms of complementing our own values – as book lovers, ardent travelers, athletes, or devotees of a particular sect.”

“Known as the “largest children’s migration in history,” so-called “orphan trains” carried about 200,000 children (Warren 2001: 4) from orphanages and foundling homes in eastern coastal cities to families in the Midwest (Kay 2003: iii) and West. The orphan trains continued until 1929 (Warren 2001: 20), which indicates how very recently our fundamental conception of children as chattel changed to viewing them as cherubs.”

Anne of Green Gables is a story about this dynamic in Canada — the family was expecting to adopt a boy who could serve as an unpaid farmhand, but got a girl orphan by mistake.

Who cares for children?

Surprisingly to me, in traditional societies it’s usually not mothers.

In the early days of infancy, of course, breastfeeding necessitates keeping mother and baby convenient to each other. “Nearly all societies hold very strict views on the necessity for almost constant contact between a mother or other nurturing adult and the infant. Infants are fed on demand, carried constantly, and sleep with their mother. Young mothers are severely chastised for any lapse in infant care. However, once the infant begins to walk, it immediately joins a social network in which its mother plays a sharply diminished role – especially if she’s pregnant – and its father may play no role at all.”

On the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”: “If one actually looks at real kids in real villages, either one sees infants and young children in a group of their peers, untended by an adult, or one sees a mother, or a father, or an older sister, or a grandmother tending the child. These helpful family members are referred to in anthropology as ‘alloparents.’ The rule governing their behavior would not necessarily be ‘Everyone’s eager to have a hand in caring for the child,’ but, rather, ‘Whoever can most easily be spared from more important tasks will take care of the child.’ And the next rule we might derive from our observations might be, “The mother is often too busy to tend to the child.” At the same time, babies are not simply passive recipients of care. They not only look cute, they beguile caretakers with their gaze, their smiling and their mimicry (Spelke and Kinzler 2007: 92). While alloparents may want to minimize their effort (Trivers 1974) in caring for the child, the very young have an arsenal of tactics they can deploy to secure additional resources (Povinelli et al. 2005).”

“Weisner and Gallimore examined hundreds of ethnographies in the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) archive and found that, in accounts of childcare, 40 percent of infants and 80 percent of toddlers are cared for primarily by someone other than their mother, most commonly older sisters (Weisner and Gallimore 1977).”

“Three-year-old children are able to join in a play group, and it is in such play groups that children are truly raised” (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989: 600).”

“Once the infant has been judged worthy of rearing, it will be displayed to a community eager to interact with it. In particular, its older sisters will be in the forefront of those wanting to share in the nurturing process. The circle of caretakers may gradually widen to include aunts, grandmothers, and, occasionally, the father. Even more distant kin can be expected to cast a watchful eye on the child when it is playing on the ‘mother-ground’ (Lancy 1996: 84). Indeed, the toddler must seek comfort from relatives as it may be abruptly weaned and forcibly rejected by its mother as she readies herself for the next child.”

In a large polygynous household where the author visited, even after a few weeks he was unable to figure out which children belonged to which mothers: “I was stymied because the children, once they were no longer attached marsupial-like to their mother’s body with a length of cloth, spent far more time in each other’s company and in the company of other kin, particularly grandmothers and aunts in nearby houses, than with their mothers. And as far as the chief was concerned, I just had to assume that since these were his wives, the majority of the children in the vicinity must be his as well. Aside from dandling the occasional infant on his knee during the family’s evening meal, I never saw him enjoy more than the most fleeting interaction with a child.” Later, “I began to see their family arrangements and childcare customs as neither unusual nor exotic, rather as close to the norm for human societies, and, simultaneously, to see the customs of the middle-class Utah community I live in now as extraordinary.”

Older sisters are often alloparents:

“Across the primate order, juvenile females show great interest in infants (Hrdy 1999: 157), and it is not hard to sustain an argument that their supervised interaction with younger siblings prepares them for the role of motherhood (Fairbanks 1990; Riesman 1992: 111). The weanling’s need for mothering corresponds to the allomother’s need to mother.”

This seems to be true in other primates as well (though I do imagine researcher bias could interpret some kinds of carrying around a stick as ‘doll play’ depending on the gender of the young chimp.)

Several studies have documented the gender bias in “baby lust” (Hrdy 1999: 157). Females show far more interest in babies, images of babies, and even silhouettes of babies than do males. In fact, there’s some evidence that young chimp females will cradle, groom, and carry around a “doll” (a stick or a dead animal) in the absence of a live infant (Kahlenberg and Wrangham 2010: 1067).

“In Uganda in 2003, I observed and filmed numerous primate species and, after resting, eating, and play, “baby-trading” is the most common occupation. Often I observed what amounted to a “tug-of-war” between the nursing mother and her older daughters for possession of the infant, which may lead to what Sarah Hrdy (1976) referred to as “aunting to death.” By contrast, mothers tend to discourage interest shown by juvenile males in their offspring (Strier 2003).12

“Aunting to death” sounds familiar to me. When Lily was born, we lived with Jeff’s family including his two sisters. They would literally race each other to the baby each morning when I came downstairs with Lily, as each aunt tried to arrive first for baby cuddles.

Boys are not seen as good caregivers:

“Dozens of studies have documented the heightened likelihood of sensation-seeking (Zuckerman 1984) or risk-taking by adolescent primate males in groups. Demographers have identified an “accident hump” in mortality curves for male primates, including humans, during puberty (Goldstein 2011).”

“I had a personal epiphany regarding the inadvisability of assigning boys as sibling caretakers in May 2007 as I stood on a busy street in front of the Registan in Samarkand. Two boys were pushing baby carriages in the street, just barely out of traffic. The street sloped downward and the lead carriage-pusher began a game of chicken, releasing his grip on the bar, then rushing after to grab it as the carriage rolled away on its own. This game was repeated with longer intervals between the release and retrieval.”

Children need less oversight in less dangerous environments:

“Tether-length is definitely a useful concept in observing human mother– toddler interaction (Broch 1990: 71–72). As Sorenson discovered in a Fore village, the infant’s “early pattern of exploratory activity included frequent returns to the mother. She served as the home base, the bastion of security but not as director or overseer of activities” (Sorenson 1976: 167). For the forest-dwelling Chewong, the tether is shorter. Toddlers are discouraged from wandering away from proximity to adults with “loud exclamations …‘it is hot,’ or ‘it is sharp,’ or ‘there are … tigers, snakes, millipedes’” (Howell 1988: 163).”

Swaddling makes children easier to watch:

“A swaddled baby, like a little turtle in its shell, could be looked after by another, only slightly older child without too much fear of injury, since the practice of swaddling made … child care virtually idiot proof. (Calvert 1992: 23–24)”

There is a chain of oversight:

“toddlers are managed by slightly older siblings, who are, in turn, guided by adolescents, while adults serve as rather distant “foremen” for the activity, concentrating, primarily, on their own more productive or profitable activity.”

The stereotype of grandmothers “spoiling” children is not unique to the West:

“[I]n the Mende view, grannies are notoriously lax with children. They are said to feed children upon demand and do not beat them or withhold meals from them for bad behavior or for failing to work … Children raised like this are said to grow up lazy and dishonest …”

In Rome, nurses were responsible for childcare in wealthy families:

“It was the nutrix [nurse] who … took responsibility for … early infant care: breast-feeding, powdering and swaddling, bathing and massaging, rocking and singing the child to sleep, weaning the child from milk to solid food … The nutrix, in fact, was only one of a sequence of child-minding functionaries who influenced the early lives of children.”

“Public attitudes in Europe reflect a view of the family that echoes the utopian ideals of the Israeli kibbutz from the mid-twentieth century. While the mother might be the primary caretaker during infancy, shortly afterward the child should be placed in a nursery with trained staff as she returns to her job. This policy is seen as beneficial to the mother’s self-esteem, the economy, and the child itself (Corsaro 1996; Dahlberg 1992; Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1983: 181). Publicly supported pre-school or daycare in the US has been blocked by the politically powerful religious right, which insists on keeping wives tied full-time to the kitchen and nursery.”

When childcare is a collective task, discipline is also collectivized:

“The mother must, however, accept the consequence that virtually anyone older than her child can scold or even discipline them (Whiting 1941). In societies like our own, where childcare is handled within the nuclear family and/or by professionals, the necessity for learning manners and kinship arcana is reduced. At the same time, we are often reluctant to concede to outsiders, even “professionals,” the right to discipline our young.”

Why do mothers outsource childcare?

In a majority of the world’s diverse societies, women continue as workers throughout pregnancy and resume working shortly after the child is born. This work is physically demanding, so, for many, there is a peak period in their lives when they have the stamina and fat reserves to do their work and have babies. How many babies they successfully rear will depend heavily on their access to a supportive community of relatives who can help with household work, assist with childcare, and provide supplementary resources.”

How children are taught to relate to others

Contrasted with the emphasis on the mother-child bond in WEIRD society generally and especially in “attachment parenting”, traditional cultures may emphasize finding other caregivers:

“The baby’s cherub-like features aid the mother in her quest for helpers. Young mammals, generally, but especially humans, display a suite of physical features that seem to be universally attractive to others, and these features are retained longer in humans than in other mammalian species (Lancaster and Lancaster 1983: 35; Sternglanz et al. 1977). Also critical is the fact that human infants vocalize, make eye contact, and smile from very early on (Chevalier-Skolnikoff 1977) – unlike chimps, for example, whose mothers make more limited use of helpers. Mothers may not always rely on the inherent cuteness of their babies; they may take pains to showcase the baby – at least among close kin. The Kpelle mothers I observed didn’t stop at frequently washing and cleaning their babies. They oiled the babies’ bodies until they gleamed – an ablution carried out in public view with an appreciative audience. The Kaluli mothers studied by Bambi Schieffelin in Papua New Guinea not only hold their infants facing toward others in the social group – a practice often noted in the ethnographic record – but treat the baby as a ventriloquist’s dummy in having him or her speak to those assembled (Schieffelin 1990: 71). The Beng advise young mothers: Make sure the baby looks beautiful! … put herbal makeup on her face as attractively as possible … we Beng have lots of designs for babies’ faces … That way, the baby will be so irresistibly beautiful that someone will feel compelled to carry her around for a while that day. If you’re lucky, maybe that person will even offer to be your leng kuli. (Gottleib 1995: 24) When [Guara] neighbors visit … relatives – identified by kinship terms – are repeatedly indicated to the child. (Ruddle and Chesterfield 1977: 29) [Marquesan mothers] … spent much time calling the baby’s name, directing him to look and wave at others … directing three- to six-year-old siblings to play with him. (Martini and Kirkpatrick 1981: 199)”

“Samoan …toddlers were fed facing others and prompted to notice and call out to people. (Ochs and Izquierdo 2009: 397) From the moment a [Warlpiri] child is born … she will hear every day … for the next few years; “Look, your granny,”‘That’s your big sister, your cousin, your auntie.” In fact, they make up the bulk of verbal communication with babies and little children. (Musharbash 2011: 72)”

“There were numerous constraints put on young [Orissa India] mothers to prevent them from focusing too much attention on a new infant. Close, intimate mother-child bonds were viewed as potentially disruptive to the collective well-being of the extended family … In such families, much early child-care was organized so as to subtly push the infant away from an exclusive dependence on its mother toward membership in the larger group. (Seymour 2001: 15)”

In contrasting to WEIRD parenting, Lancy describes  “casual nurturance [where] … mothers carry their babies on their backs and nurse them frequently but do so without really paying much direct attention to them; they continue working or … socializing” (Erchak 1992: 50).

The author may be comparing to American mothers in the 1980s and 1990s, when many women were learning how to breastfeed from books after a couple of generations of formula-feeding. The materials emphasized sitting in rocking chairs staring at your baby. Once I learned to feed hands-free in a carrier, I expect I more closely resembled the village mothers Lancy describes. I’ve breastfed my children while cooking, writing emails, riding the subway, and contra dancing, and I certainly wasn’t giving them eye contact the whole time.

How do parents learn to parent?

Partly through alloparenting as described above. Among other primates:

“While the benefits to the mother are obvious, allomothering daughters also clearly benefit by learning how to care for infants (Fairbanks 1990). A study of captive chimpanzees showed that females prevented from interacting with their mothers and younger siblings were themselves utterly incompetent as mothers (Davenport and Rogers 1970).”

Also through guidance from other parents. I was surprised at how hard it was to feed a newborn – in my case I got help from various lactation consultants and the pediatrician, but traditionally this would come from family and neighbors:

“Field and colleagues, working with Haitian immigrant mothers in Miami, find these mothers often have difficulty feeding their offspring, who are therefore hospitalized for dehydration and malnutrition at a high rate (Field et al. 1992: 183). I think it’s possible these young women immigrants lost the opportunity to learn how to care for infants from older women.”

Among the Fulani of West Africa:

“All women caring for their first babies will have had years of experience taking care of babies … under the watchful and sometimes severe eyes of their mothers, aunts, cousins or older sisters. The other women … will immediately notice, comment on, and perhaps strongly criticize any departure from customary behavior on the part of mothers. (Riesman 1992: 111)”

(Anthropologists traveling with their own children also get a lot of advice from locals.)

Nutrition

I hadn’t really thought about how much of life in traditional societies revolved around the essential, never-ending task of getting calories. There is often not enough to go around, and social differences can be observed through which children’s growth is stunted.

“A study of the Mende found that senior wives did have higher fitness while junior wives had fewer surviving children than their counterparts in monogamous unions (Isaac and Feinberg 1982). Similarly, in Botswana, children of more senior wives enjoyed nutrition and school attendance advantages (Bock and Johnson 2002: 329).”

The author recalls seeing “a picture of a mother holding on her lap a boy and girl of about the same age, possibly twins. The girl was skeletal, obviously in an advanced state of malnutrition, the boy robust and healthy. He sat erect, eyes intent on the camera; she sprawled, like a rag doll, her eyes staring into space. That picture and what it represented has haunted me ever since.”


Babies of the preferred sex are likely to be nursed longer and have higher survival rates:

“One thorough study compared Hungarian Gypsies (matriarchal) with mainstream Hungarian (patriarchal) society. Gender preferences were as expected and behaviors tracked preferences. Gypsy girls were extremely helpful to their mothers and tended to remain at home longer than their brothers, helping even after marriage. They were nursed longer than their brothers, while Hungarian boys were nursed longer than their sisters. “Gypsy mothers were more likely to abort after having had one or more daughters, while Hungarians are more likely to abort pregnancies when they have had sons” (Bereczkei and Dunbar 1997: 18).”

Many folk traditions recommend foods for children, or diets for sick children, that are undernourishing or likely to be contaminated:

“Meat is usually among the foods kept from children. This is probably harmful, as a protein shortage, in particular, is often found in recently weaned children. However, malnutrition is rarely identified by parents as the root of a child’s illness. Katherine Dettwyler pointedly titled her study of the Dogon Dancing Skeletons, describing, in graphic detail, the horrific sight of severely malnourished children. She finds that, while the mothers are aware of something amiss, they attribute the problem to locally constructed folk illnesses and seek medicine from the anthropologist to effect a cure. When she tells them to provide the child with more food, they are skeptical. Children can’t benefit from good food because they haven’t worked hard to get it, and they don’t appreciate its good taste or the feeling of satisfaction it gives. Anyway, “old people deserve the best food, because they’re going to die soon” (Dettwyler 1994: 94–95). Yoruba mothers feed children barely visible scraps compared to the portions they give themselves. Good food might spoil the child’s moral character (Zeitlin 1996: 418; also true for the Tlingit – cf. de Laguna 1965: 17). The prescription for a sick child among the Gurage tribe in southwest Ethiopia is often the sacrifice of a sheep: “The flesh of the sacrificial animal is eaten exclusively by the parents of the sick child and others who are present at the curing rite; no portion of the meat is consumed by the patient, whose illness may well stem from an inadequate diet” (Shack 1969: 296).”

“Aside from a demonstrable shortage of food (Hill and Hurtado 1996: 319), under-nutrition may be attributable to customs that support a shortening of the nursing period, such as the belief by some East African pastoralists that certain babies nurse “too much” and should, therefore, be weaned early (Sellen 1995). On Fiji, nursing beyond one year is condemned as keeping “the child in babyhood [, leading to] a weak, simpering person” (Turner 1987: 107). The Alorese use threats to discourage nursing: “If you continue nursing, the snakes will come … the toad will eat you” (Du Bois 1941: 114).”

While medical science considers the first milk (colostrum) to be especially beneficial to the newborn because of the antibodies it contains, folk tradition often withholds it from newborns: “In a survey of fifty-seven societies, in only nine did nursing begin shortly after birth (Raphael 1966).”

Spacing children

Contrasted with agricultralists who go for large families, “foragers adopt a “survivorship” reproductive strategy. Around-the-clock nursing and a post-partum sex taboo combine to insure long intervals between births, leading to lower fertility. Low fertility is offset by the attention bestowed on the few offspring, enhancing their chances of survival (Fouts et al. 2001).” Breastfeeding suppresses women’s fertility.

“Another way in which nature contributes to increasing IBI [inter-birth interval] is through post- partum depression following a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death. Binser notes that depression elevates cortisol and leaves the mother lethargic and sleepy, which may just serve to put off the next pregnancy until she has had a chance to recoup her vigor (Binser 2004). Nature is aided by culture in promoting longer IBIs through injunctions that militate against long intervals between nursing bouts. Frequent, round- the- clock nursing maintains high prolactin levels. The post- partum taboo on intercourse between husbands and wives also plays a critical role in spacing births.”

In other cases the mother is physically separated from her husband: “The wife may be lodged in a birthing or “lying-in” house (Lepowsky 1985: 64), or secluded in her own home, until, in the Trobriands, “mothers lost their tans and their skin color matched that of their infants” (Montague 1985: 89).” 

In traditional societies, early sexual activity was less likely to result in pregnancy because adolescents were often malnourished and their fertility lower than we’d expect.

Which children are preferred

The gender preference, or lack therof, is influenced by parents’ expectations for help their children will provide them with.

“There is a world in which children almost always feel “wanted” and where “there is no cultural preference for babies of either sex” (Howell 1988: 159). Infants are suckled on demand by their mothers and by other women in her absence. They are indulged and cosseted by their fathers, grandparents, and siblings. Children wean themselves over a long period and are given nutritious foods (Robson and Kaplan 2003: 156). They are subject to little or no restraint or coercion. Infants and toddlers are carried on long journeys and comforted when distressed. If they die in infancy, they may be mourned (Henry 1941/1964: 66). They are rarely or never physically punished or even scolded (Hernandez 1941: 129–130). They are not expected to make a significant contribution to the household economy and are free to play until the mid to late teens (Howell 2010: 30). Their experience of adolescence is relatively stress free (Hewlett and Hewlett 2013: 88). This paradise exists among a globally dispersed group of isolated societies – all of which depend heavily on foraging for their subsistence. They are also characterized by relatively egalitarian and close social relations, including relative parity between men and women (Hewlett et al. 1998).”

“Names such as “Boy Needed” (Oghul Gerek) or “Last Daughter” (Songi Qiz) are common for girls. (Irons 2000: 230)”

Family structure

“We now realize that mothers, fathers, and children have differing agendas. The nursing child wants to be the last child his mother will ever have so that he can enjoy her care and provisioning exclusively. The father will be opportunistic in seeking mating opportunities and display a similar fickleness toward the provisioning of his offspring. He will, in other words, spread his investment around to maximize the number of surviving offspring. The mother has the most difficult decisions of all. She must weigh her health and longevity and future breeding opportunities against the cost of her present offspring, including any on the way. She must also factor in any resources that might be available from her children’s fathers and her own kin network.”

(Of course I can think of many loving and capable fathers, not least my own partner. But I was surprised that they seem to have historically played so little role in childrens’ lives.)

Polygyny is a common traditional way of structuring families, “the great compromise” between these competing interests.

“Estimates range from 85 percent (Murdock 1967: 47) to 93 percent (Low 1989: 312) of all societies ever recorded (about 1,200) having practiced polygyny.”

“Women in a polygynous relationship gain access to a higher-ranking, reliable provider at the cost of emotional strain in sharing resources (including the husband’s affection) with others. In one study, children of senior wives were better nourished than children in monogamous unions, who were, in turn, better nourished than children of later wives (Isaac and Feinberg 1982: 632). A woman must weigh the trade-offs between marrying a young man in a monogamous union or marrying an older man and joining a well-established household as a junior wife. Studies show that, if they choose monogamy, they enjoy slightly higher fertility (Josephson 2002: 378) and their children may be somewhat better nourished (Sellen 1998a: 341). However, they are, perhaps, more likely to be abandoned or divorced by their husbands.”

Both polygyny and monogamy have their pros and cons:

“In my fieldwork in Gbarngasuakwelle, I lived (as a guest) in a large, polygynous household and the tensions were palpable. This was seen as harmful to children. The shaman (village blacksmith in this case) came often to divine the cause and, using appropriate rituals (inevitably involving the sacrifice of a chicken), would attempt to ameliorate it (Lancy 1996: 167).”

“In Uganda, monogamy has led to less stable marriages. A man, rather than bringing a second wife into the household, now abandons the first wife and her children to set up a second separate household with his new mate (Ainsworth 1967: 10–11). A typical case among the Nyansongo in Kenya describes a mother, whose childhood was spent in a large polygynous compound where multiple caretakers were always available, who must cope alone in a monogamous household. She leaves her three-year-old to mind her six-month- and two-year-old infants as she performs errands like bringing the cow in from pasture. Unfortunately, the three-year-old is simply not mature enough for this task and is, in fact, ‘rough and dangerously negligent’ (Whiting and Edwards 1988a: 173).”

As societies become more mobile and men migrate seeking employment, the likelihood that the male will abandon (or neglect) his family in the village in order to establish a new family in the city is increasingly high (Bucher and d’Amorim 1993: 16; Timaeus and Graham 1989). And, perhaps most common of all, women whose fertility is on the decline are replaced by younger wives in peak breeding condition (Low 2000: 325)”

“The abandoned spouse and her children may face severe difficulties. One might think that an obviously fertile woman would be a ‘catch,’ but ‘Having a child towards whom a new husband will have to assume step-parental duties diminishes rather than enhances a woman’s marriageability’ (Wilson and Daly 2002: 307). “

“In the case of a young, pregnant widow, ancient Roman law permitted both annulment and the exposure of the infant in order to enhance her chances of remarriage (French 1991: 21). Raffaele describes an unfortunate case in a Bayaka13 foraging band in Central Africa: 

Mimba had been in a trial marriage … her partner’s father had refused to pay the bride price and she had just been forced to return to her own family. She is two months’ pregnant, and it is a disgrace for an unmarried Bayaka woman to give birth” (Raffaele 2003: 129). Fortunately for Mimba, the tribe’s pharmacopoeia includes sambolo, a very reliable and safe herbal abortifacient, which she will use. Mimba will return to the pool of eligible mates and, hopefully, will find a family willing to pay the bride-price so their son can join her in raising a family – something she could not accomplish by herself.’”

“Studies in the USA indicate that living with a stepfather and stepsiblings leads to elevated cortisol levels, immunosuppression, and general illness (Flinn and England 1995)31 as well as poorer educational outcomes (Lancaster and Kaplan 2000: 196). Daly and Wilson find that a child is a hundred times more likely to be killed by a stepparent than by a biological parent (1984: 499).

Some form of fostering, adoption, or “child circulation” is practiced in many societies:

“Most commonly the child is transferred ‘to fulfill another household’s need for labor’ (Fée – Martin 2012: 220) as a ‘helper’ (Inuit – Honigmann and Honigmann 1953: 46). The request may be for a girl in families with a shortage of female labor (Kosrae – Ritter 1981: 46; Bellona – Monberg 1970: 132). On Raroia boys are requested as they can work in copra processing (Danielsson 1952: 120). On the other hand, the impetus may begin with a family that has a surplus of children (Bodenhorn 1988: 14), or children too close in age, or discord within the family; or as the means to defray a debt. Stepchildren are often moved out of the natal home to make way for the new parent’s biological offspring.”

Life and death

The topic that most surprised me in the book was traditional attitudes toward abortion and infanticide. I thought of life before birth control as “the bad old days” when mothers, perhaps not even understanding how babies are conceived, might be sentenced to a lifetime of childbearing and rearing against their wishes. I had never thought about how traditional a view this actually was.

“Data from a range of societies past and present suggest that from one-fifth to one-half of children don’t survive to five years (Dentan 1978: 111; Dunn 1974: 385; Kramer and Greaves 2007: 720; Le Mort 2008: 25). The first-century CE philosopher Epictetus cautioned, “When you kiss your child, say to yourself, it may be dead in the morning” (Stearns 2010: 168). 

Extrapolating from these figures I’d guess that miscarriages and stillbirths were also common by comparison with modern, post-industrial society. And I’d expect that if half the children died, then the majority were seriously ill in childhood. Indeed, in many villages studied by anthropologists the level of clinical malnutrition is 100 percent, as is the level of chronic parasite infestation and diarrhea. There are, then, ample reasons for withholding investment in the infant and maintaining a degree of emotional distance.”

“Humans have always had to cope with the loss of infants, and societies have developed an elaborate array of “cover stories” to lessen grief and recrimination (Martin 2001: 162; Scrimshaw 1984: 443). As discussed in the previous chapter, the primary strategy is to treat the infant as not yet fully human. Most importantly, if the baby is secluded initially and treated as being in a liminal state, its loss may not be widely noted.”

Some societies believed repeated miscarriages or stillbirths were caused by demons, and treated them with various attempts at exorcism. “It should be understood that these folk theories and treatments not only serve to dampen the sense of grief or loss but, more importantly, they deflect blame from the living. The Nankani have constructed an elaborate myth of the “spirit child not meant for this world” to explain away the tragedy of mother or infant death in childbirth and/or chronic infant sickness and, eventually, death (Denham 2012: 180). The alternative to, in effect, blaming the deceased child or “evil forces” is to blame the parents or other family/community member.”

“While new mothers may be evaluating the actuarial odds, we know that many are also suffering from post-partum depression or, less severely, detachment from and indifference toward their offspring. An argument can be made that this failure to bond immediately with the infant is adaptive in that it permits the mother to keep her options open, and also shields her emotionally from the impact of the infant’s death – often, a likely outcome (de Vries 1987a; Eible-Eibesfeldt 1983: 184; Hagen 1999; Konner 2010: 130, 208; Laes 2011: 100).” 

“In the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, high-altitude living imposes an extra cost on the expectant mother who does farm-work throughout her pregnancy. Her infant’s life chances, owing to inevitably low birth-weight and other complications, are sharply reduced (Wiley 2004: 6). The worth of a new child in Ladakh will always be calculated as a tiny fraction of that of his fully mature, productive mother. While the mother’s health is closely monitored and she is treated with great solicitude, her infant’s fate is of less concern. Its death will be “met with sadness, but also with a sense of resignation … they are buried, not cremated like adults” (Wiley 2004: 131–132).”

“It is not unusual for the [Ayoreo] newborn to remain unnamed for several weeks or months, particularly if the infant is sickly. The reason given is that should the child die, the loss will not be so deeply felt. (Bugos and McCarthy 1984: 508)”

“Being a “calculating” mother is not synonymous with wickedness; on the contrary, it is adaptive behavior. While the well-to-do mothers in the first section seem to “live for their children,” in the next section, we discover just how recently these attitudes have become incorporated in Western society. We will trace the fluctuating value of infants in history and see that what we now consider horrible crimes were, in earlier periods, the principal means of birth control.”

In ancient Greece, “Illegitimacy was usually a death sentence. “Identity was given by the family, and without a recognized father and family, the child had no proper guardian (kurios) since its mother could not legally fulfill such a function. Without a father, the child had no true place in the patrilineal kin structure, no right to the family name” (Patterson 1985: 115). Until at least the end of the eighteenth century, any Venetian infant of questionable parentage would have been abandoned or destroyed (Ferraro 2008).”

“While the termination of the fetus or of the infant’s life is most often the parents’ decision and we’ve seen numerous possible reasons for this behavior, societies often legitimize that decision. Overpopulation, the burden on the community of a hard-to-raise child, the social disharmony created by illegitimacy: all give the society a stake in this critical decision. Ultimately, also, the community must value the life and emotional wellbeing of its experienced, productive adult females over any potential value a tiny infant might have.”

In foraging societies, “Both men and women face significant health and safety hazards throughout their relatively short lives, and they place their own welfare over that of their offspring. A survey of several foraging societies shows a close association between the willingness to commit infanticide and the daunting challenge “to carry more than a single young child on the nomadic round” (Riches 1974: 356).”

“The Inuit, among others, were known to cull females in anticipation of high mortality among males through hunting accidents, homicide, and suicide (Dickemann 1979: 341).”

Twins, being hard to nourish, were often discarded: “Mothers are unable to sustain two infants, especially where both are likely to be underweight. As Gray (1994: 73) notes, “even today, with the availability of western medical services it is difficult to maintain twins.” On Bali, which is otherwise extraordinary in its elevation of babies to very high esteem, giving birth to more than one child at a time is seen as evidence of incest. Priests consider the birth of twins as sub-human or animal-like (Lansing 1994; Barth 1993; Belo 1980). Similarly, the Papel (Guinea-Bissau) believe that it is mufunesa to give birth to many children at the same time like animals. Pigs have many offspring. Human beings give birth to only one each time. Therefore twins have to be thrown away. If not, the father, the mother, or somebody in the village may die. (Einarsdóttir 2004: 147). 

Among the !Kung, Nancy Howell found that mothers whose toddlers had not been weaned might terminate the life of their newborn. In a society with high infant mortality (IM), an unweaned but otherwise thriving child is a better bet than a newcomer of unknown viability. The mother is expected by the band to kill one of a pair of twins or an infant with obvious defects. She would not be committing murder because, until the baby is named and formally presented in camp, it is not a person (Howell 1979: 120). 

We can juxtapose this picture – paralleled in pre-modern communities the world over – with the almost legendary affection and love the !Kung show their young (Konner 2005). Similarly, Trobriand Island (Papua New Guinea) women, who also shower affection on their children, “were surprised that Western women do not have the right to kill an unwanted child … the child is not a social being yet, only a product manufactured by a woman inside her own body” (Montague 1985: 89).”

“In farming communities, additional farmhands are usually welcomed. Still, in rural Japan, a family would be subjected to considerable censure for having “too many” children and might find themselves ostracized if they failed “to get rid of the ‘surplus’” (Jolivet 1997: 118; see also Neel 1970). Bear in mind that breastfeeding is more costly – metabolically – than pregnancy (Hagen 1999: 331). In the impoverished northeast of Brazil, women can count on very little support from their child’s father, and their own resources are meager. Hence, “child death a mingua (accompanied by maternal indifference and neglect) is understood as an appropriate maternal response to a deficiency in the child. Part of learning how to mother … include[s] learning when to ‘let go’” (Scheper-Hughes 1987b: 190). Early cessation of nursing – one manifestation of the mother’s minimizing her investment – is supported by an elaborate folk wisdom that breast milk can be harmful, characterized as “dirty,”“bitter,”“salty,” or “infected.” Another folk illness category, doença de crianca, is used flexibly by mothers in justifying a decision to surrender the child into the hands of God or, alternatively, raise it as a real “fighter.” Of 686 pregnancies in a sample of 72 women, 251 infants failed to reach one year of age (Scheper-Hughes 1987a).”

“Long before the “one-child policy,” abortion was common in China. The oldest Chinese medical text found so far, some 5,000 years in age, includes reference to mercury as an abortifacient.”

I also hadn’t thought about traditional attitudes toward children with disabilities, or children (perhaps with autism) who don’t engage in eye contact, smiling, and other behavior that charms adults. “Hrdy (in press) suggests that the infant’s gaze-following and close attention to facial expressions and moods – along with a plump body and other neotenous features – are designed to send a clear signal to its mother and other caretakers: “Keep me!””

“In earlier times, the “difficult” or unwanted child might be dubbed a “changeling” or devil-inspired spirit, thereby providing a blanket of social acceptability to cloak its elimination (Haffter 1986). In cases where mothers are forced to rear unwanted children, the young may suffer abuse severe enough to end their life. While our society may treat such behavior by the parent as a heinous crime, “This capacity for selective removal in response to qualities both of offspring and of ecological and social environments may well be a significant part of the biobehavioral definition of Homo sapiens” (Dickeman 1975: 108).”

“Changelings represent a special sub-group of “demon” children who provoke a negative response from caretakers. The changeling was an enfant changé in France, a Wechselbag in Germany, and, in England, a “fairy child.” Strategies to reverse the switch included tormenting the infant or abandoning it in a lonely spot (Haffter 1986). A Beng mother-to-be who breaks a taboo may have her uterus invaded by a snake. The snake takes the fetus’s place and, after birth, is gradually revealed by the infant’s strange behavior. “The child may be harassed and hit by stones; however, being boneless like a snake, the snake-person is thought to feel no pain” (Gottlieb 1992: 145). A Papel infant deemed abnormal may be a spirit that’s entered the mother’s uterus. Two procedures are available to determine whether the child is human, but surviving either procedure seems improbable (Einarsdóttir 2008: 251). Dogon children thought to be evil spirits are taken: Out into the bush and you leave them … they turn into snakes and slither away … You go back the next day, and they aren’t there. Then you know for sure that they weren’t really [Dogon] children at all, but evil spirits. (Dettwyler 1994: 85–86) Among the Nuer, it is claimed, a disabled infant was interpreted as a hippopotamus that had mistakenly been born to human parents; the child would be returned to its proper home by being thrown into the river. (Scheer and Groce 1988: 28) In … northern Europe, changelings were left overnight in the forest. If the fairies refused to take it back, the changeling would die during the night – but since it was not human, no infanticide could have occurred. (Hrdy 1999: 465) [For Lurs] Djenn are said to be … jealous of the baby, especially during the first ten to forty days; they might steal the baby or exchange it for their own, sickly one. A baby indicates that it might be a changeling by fussiness, weakness, or lack of growth. (Friedl 1997: 69)”

Foragers vs. agriculturalists

Attitude toward children in general seems to vary by livelihood.

“In Central Africa, systematic comparisons have been drawn between foragers and farmers in the same region. Bofi-speaking foragers follow the !Kung model. Babies are carried or held constantly, by mothers and fathers, are soothed or nursed as soon as they cry, and may wean themselves after three to four years. Children are treated with the affection and respect consistent with preparing them to live in an egalitarian society where the principal subsistence strategy is cooperative net-hunting. Bofi-speaking farmers, on the other hand, tend not to respond as quickly to fussing and crying, are likely to pass the infant off to a slightly older sibling, and are verbally and physically abusive to children, who are treated like the farmhands they are soon to be.”

“The Garo, who live in the forests of Bengal, all share in infant and childcare, and parents “seldom roughhouse with their children, but play with them quietly, intimately, and fondly” (Burling 1963: 106). In the Northwest Territory of Canada, the Inuit (aka Eskimo) would never leave a child alone or let it cry for any length of time. Infants receive a great deal of solicitous care and lots of tactile comfort, anticipatory of “the interdependence and close interpersonal relations that are an integral part of Inuit life” (Condon 1987: 59; Sprott 2002: 54).

Draper observed a similar mindset operating among !Kung foragers in the Kalahari: Adults are completely tolerant of a child’s temper tantrums and of aggression directed by a child at an adult. I have seen a seven-year-old crying and furious, hurling sticks, nutshells, and eventually burning embers at her mother … Bau (the mother) put up her arm occasionally to ward off the thrown objects but carried on her conversation nonchalantly. (Draper 1978: 37)”

Different ways children are expected to speak

“Clearly Euroamerican and Asian parents are preparing children to be more than merely competent native speakers. They encourage the development of narrative ability through frequent queries about the child’s activity, including their subjective assessments: “mothers pick up on children’s … topics, repeat and extend what their children say, and adjust their language … to support the child’s projects” (Martini 1995: 54). Toddlers are expected to hold and to voice their opinions! As parents seek “explanations” from their children, they also tolerate interruptions and contradiction (Portes et al. 1988). And this entire package of cultural routines is almost completely absent in the ethnographic record (Robinson 1988).

“In a Mayan community … children are taught to avoid challenging an adult with a display of greater knowledge by telling them something” (Rogoff 1990: 60). West African Wolof parents never quiz their kids by asking known-answer questions (Irvine 1978) – a favorite trick of Euroamerican parent-teachers. Fijian children are never encouraged to address adults or even to make eye contact. Rather their demeanor should express timidity and self-effacement (Toren 1990: 183).”

“Qualities we value, such as precocity, verbal fluency, independent and creative thought, personal expression, and ability to engage in repartee, would all be seen by villagers as defects to be curtailed as quickly as possible.25 These are danger signs of future waywardness. “Inquisitiveness by word or deed is severely censured, especially in [Kogi] women and children” (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1976: 283). “A [Sisala] child who tries to know more than his father is a ‘useless child’ (bichuola), for he has no respect” (Grindal 1972: 28). In rural Turkey the trait most valued by parents (60 percent) was obedience; least valued (18 percent) was independence (Kagitçibasi and Sunar 1992: 81).”

How do children learn?

“I discuss the prevailing view in WEIRD society – among most scholars as well as the public at large – that children’s development into mature, competent members of society depends critically on the guidance and lessons, beginning in infancy, provided by an eager parent who’s a “naturally gifted” teacher. Based on unequivocal evidence of the relative unimportance of teaching in the ethnographic record, I question that assumption as well as its evolutionary foundation.”

“De León (2012) records an episode from her Zinacantecan site where a three-year-old boy nearly runs, barefoot, through a fire. Adults do not react sympathetically. Instead, they comment that the child is flawed in not developing awareness of its surroundings, not paying close attention, and not figuring things out. There is an uneasy trade-off here. On the one hand, by indulging their curiosity about the environment and the things in it, parents insure that children are learning useful information without the necessity of parental intervention. This efficiency comes at a cost of the occasional damage to or loss of one’s offspring (Martini and Kirkpatrick 1992).”

“Active or direct teaching/instruction is rare in cultural transmission, and that when it occurs, it is not aimed at critical subsistence and survival skills – the area most obviously affected by natural selection – but, rather, at controlling and managing the child’s behavior.”

“Outside WEIRD or post-industrial society, this suite of parent–infant interaction patterns is rare. Mothers don’t often engage cognitively with infants, they may only respond contingently to their distress cues, and they probably do not gaze at them or engage in shared attention to novel objects (de León 2011: 100; Göncü et al. 2000; LeVine 2004: 161).”

In most traditional societies, children and young adults are expected to learn by observation rather than direct teaching. 

In a Guatemalan indigenous community where people use a traditional learning style to approach factory work: “The newly hired worker performs menial tasks33 such as bringing material to the machine or taking finished goods off of it, but most of the time is spent observing the operations of the person running the machine. [The new worker] neither asked questions nor was given advice. When the machine snagged or stopped, she would look carefully to see what the operator did to get it back into motion … This constituted her daily routine for nearly six weeks, and at the end of this time she announced that she was ready to run a loom … and she operated it, not quite as rapidly as the girl who had just left it, but with skill and assurance … at no time during her learning and apprentice period had she touched a machine or practiced operating … She observes and internally rehearses the set of operations until she feels able to perform. She will not try her hand until she feels competent, for to fumble and make mistakes is a cause for verguenza – public shame. She does not ask questions because that would annoy the person teaching her, and they might also think she is stupid. (Nash 1958: 26–27)”

“I provide an extended example, of mother Sua and daughter Nyenpu each weaving a fishnet. As the vignette unfolded, the main point seemed to be how little interest Sua had in getting involved in Nyenpu’s weaving. Sua claimed that her stance was typical and replicated her own mother’s attitude when she was learning net-weaving. Several other informants told me of approaching experts for help and being rebuffed (Lancy 1996: 149–150). Other ethnographers report similar tales. Reichard describes a Navajo girl who learned to weave in spite of her mother’s repulsing her interest (1934: 38), which paralleled a case from Truk of a weaver/basket-maker whose kin were unsupportive of her efforts to learn their skills (Gladwin and Sarason 1953: 414–415), and a case from the Venda tribe where a potter is vehement that “‘We don’t teach. When women make pots some (children and others) come to watch, then go and try’” (Krause 1985: 95).”

A Javanese shellfish diver responds to the question of whether she learned the practice from her mother:

“My mother! she said loudly, She drove me away! I tried to follow her to the bottom to watch, but she shoved me back. When we were on the surface again, she practically screamed at me to move OFF and find my danged abalone BY MYSELF. So we had to discard [one] cliché about how artisans learn. (Hill and Plath 1998: 212)”

There are a few cases of explicit teaching:

“There are a few cases in the literature of grandmothers conducting educational tours through the bush to acquaint their younger kin with medicinal plants (Ngandu – Hewlett 2013: 76; Tonga – Reynolds 1996: 7).”

“An interesting “work-around” for the prohibition on teaching is provided by the Fort Norman Slave [Canada], who hunt during severe winter weather and must traverse ice-fields. Fathers “instruct” sons about this dangerous environment (which comprises thirteen kinds of ice and multiple modes of travel) via a game-like quiz (Basso 1972: 40).”

Analytic thinking

While there’s a lot of knowledge being transmitted in traditional societies, like how to make and use a blowgun for hunting or how to hollow a canoe, analysis and taxonomy seem to be absent in societies where people haven’t gone to school. Lancy cites Alexander Luria’s 1930s interviews with peasants in Central Asia:

“In the first example we can see the villager reasoning from personal experience (or lack thereof) and inability or unwillingness to apply a general rule. ‘Problem posed: ‘In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the far north and there is always snow there. What color are the bears?’ Response: ‘We always speak of only what we see; we don’t talk of what we haven’t seen.’ (Luria 1976: 108)

In another problem, men and women were asked to sort and group various kinds and colors of weaving yarn (Uzbekistan is noted for its carpets). The male response was ‘men [not being weavers] don’t know colors and call them all blue.’ The women refused to impose any grouping or organization – something educated Uzbeks did quite easily – exclaiming that ‘none of these are the same’ (Luria 1976: 25, 27).

In a fishing community in Sulawesi, Vermonden found directly parallel results, with fishers resistant to discussing marine life more generally; they eschewed speaking of types of fish or of considering different ways of grouping them. Their thinking was governed by their practice (true also for Penan hunters – Puri 2005: 280 – and South American and African subsistence farmers – Henrich et al. 2010: 72). . . Had Vermonden’s informants been schooled, they might have used broader and more inclusive organizing principles and been able to display a more encyclopedic knowledge of fish.” I assume that these people did in fact know a lot about fish, yarn, etc, which were their daily livelihood, but were used to thinking in practical terms.

(I was telling Jeff the bear example at dinnertime. “It’s white,” piped up our four-year-old without prompting. She’s used to “known-answer questions” where grownups ask you things they already know, like “how many fingers am I holding up?” In traditional societies, these questions are apparently not used and would be considered absurd.)

Learning to be street-smart

While children in some societies need to learn to avoid predators and poisonous plants, Lancy also briefly covers urban environments where children must be equipped for other dangers. “A mother in a favela of Rio de Janeiro knows “intuitively that in order for her children to survive, toughness, obedience, subservience, and street smarts are necessary; otherwise, the child can end up dead” (D. Goldstein 1998: 395).”

Charles Dickens depicts a similar strategy in 19th-century London, with a father describing how he’s trained his son: “I took a good deal o’ pains with his eddication, sir; let him run in the streets when he was very young, and shift for hisself. It’s the only way to make a boy sharp, sir” (Dickens 1836/1964: 306).”

Learning through play

“Play is a truly universal trait of childhood. The one thing that children can appropriate for themselves, without the sanction of culture or explicit blessing of parents, is play. It is ubiquitous. A baby will play with its mother’s breast. The first glimmer of understanding about the natural world and how it works comes through play with objects. After its nurturing mother, the child’s first close relationships are with its playmates – usually siblings. The child’s first active engagements with the tasks that will occupy most of its adult life – hunting, cooking, house-building, baby-tending – all occur during make-believe.”

“Many of the child’s most basic needs seem to be fed by play – their need to socialize with peers and their need for physical, sensory, and, to a lesser extent, cognitive stimulation (Lancy 1980a). The demands of earning a living and reproduction gradually extinguish the desire to play. This happens earlier in girls than in boys – almost universally.”

Modern children:

“To encourage object play, we provide lots of toys, including safe, miniature tools, in various sizes, along with the dolls to use them. We also provide objects to play with that are specifically designed to facilitate the kind of cognitive complexity and flexibility that many assert is the raison d’être of object play (Power 2000). And, what is perhaps most remarkable, we sometimes intervene to “teach” our children how to use their toys or nudge them into more complex uses (Gaskins et al. 2007). I have found only one example of this in the ethnographic literature – a Wogeo father assisting his son with a miniature canoe (Hogbin 1946: 282) – and I am confident it occurs rarely. In research where the investigators created conditions designed to facilitate their involvement, East Indian and Guatemalan villagers would not intervene in their toddlers’ play (Göncü et al. 2000). It’s hard to escape the conclusion that our “micro-management” of children’s toys and play is driven by the inexorable demands of schooling.”

In contrast to play with specially provided objects, social play and pretend play are ubiquitous.

“Comparing across fifteen species of primates, observers found a statistically reliable relationship between cerebellum size and time devoted to social play (Lewis and Barton 2004; see also Fisher 1992).”

“This rapid growth in understanding – correlated with a rapidly growing brain – emerges in early childhood as two powerful motives. These are, first, to “fit in,” to be liked, appreciated, and accepted. The second motive force is a drive to become competent, to replicate the routine behaviors enacted by those who’re older and more capable. The presence of these drives accounts for the child’s ability to learn through observation, imitation, and, by extension, playing with objects and ideas in make-believe.”

“Esther Goody describes the richness and complexity of make-believe cooking in a village in north Ghana. Miniature kitchens are constructed, ingredients gathered, and soup made, all the while accompanied by singing and the construction of play scripts that mimic adult discourse. And, of course, the girls must insure that their play enfolds the younger siblings who are in their care. Boys have bit parts in these playlets as “husbands,” and are limited to commenting on the flavor of the soup (Goody 1992).”

My kids and their cousins are avid mud-soup cooks. Full participation for boys in this case

“Make-believe reveals children’s insight into the adult world. Araucania boys accurately mimic the speech and movements of drunken males celebrating fiesta (Hilger 1958: 106). Yanamamo boys pretend to “smoke” hallucinogens and then stagger around in perfect imitation of their stoned fathers acting as shamans (Asch and Chagnon 1974).”

Of course, an anthropologist in the village provides an interesting topic for pretend play: “Parenthetically, many an anthropologist has seen herself or himself reflected (unflatteringly) in the play of erstwhile subjects (Bascom 1969: 58).”

“The doll is arguably the most widely found toy and the range of materials used and designs employed is immense (Ruddle and Chesterfield 1977: 36).16 From rags tied into a shapeless bundle to high-tech baby dolls that produce a babble of baby-talk, wet themselves, and eagerly move their limbs, the variety is fascinating. While baby dolls seemed to have been a universal adjunct to Roman girls’ play, lower-class girls had infant dolls that they mock-nursed, comforted, and cleansed while upper-class girls, whose future as adults would not include childcare, dressed and primped the ancient equivalent of Barbie (Wiedemann 1989: 149–150).”

For a while, Anna had a lopsided gait when running because she carried this doll so constantly clamped under her left arm that she moved differently even when not holding it.

Not all cultures encourage play

“Play may be seen as a sign of waywardness. Bulusu’ view play as naughty (jayil) and those who play “too much” as crazy (mabap) (Appell-Warren 1987: 160). Children may be scolded for getting dirty or telling stories they know aren’t true (e.g. fantasizing) (Gaskins et al. 2007: 192). On Malaita Island, where children are expected to carefully observe and report on newsworthy events in the village, children’s fantasy constructions are discouraged; they “are mildly reprimanded with ‘you lie’” (Watson-Gegeo and Gegeo 2001: 5).

Following the Protestant Reformation, many influential authorities condemned play in general as well as specific kinds of play, such as solitary play or contact sports. Morality came to be equated with decorum and emotional restraint; “indulging children was a cardinal sin” (Colón with Colón 2001: 284). 

Similar sentiments were expressed by Chinese sages: Huo T’ao had no tolerance for play … as soon as a child is able to walk and talk, it must be taught not to play with other children. Children must practice treating one another as adults … When [children] see each other in the morning, they must be taught to bow solemnly to each other. (Dardess 1991: 76)”

When do parents play with young children?

Parents playing with babies varies a lot:

“An analysis of 186 archived ethnographies of traditional societies indicated wide variation in the amount of mother-infant play and display of affection (Barry and Paxson 1971). In a more recent comparative observational study, “Euro-American adults were much more likely than Aka or Ngandu adults to stimulate (e.g., tickle) and vocalize to their infants. As a result, Euro-American infants were significantly more likely than Aka and Ngandu infants to smile, look at, and vocalize to their care providers” (Hewlett et al. 2000: 164).21 Play with infants also seems generally less common among agrarian societies; for example, an Apache (North American agro-pastoralists) “mother sometimes plays with her baby … A father is not likely to play with a baby” (Goodwin and Goodwin 1942: 448). In hundreds of hours of close observation of parent–child interaction among Kipsigis (Kenyan) farmers, Harkness and Super (1986: 102) recorded “no instances of mothers playing with their children.””

“Among the !Kung, parents not only don’t play with their children post-infancy, they reject the notion outright as potentially harmful to the child’s development. They believe that children learn best without adult intervention (Bakeman et al. 1990: 796). The mother of a toddler not only faces potential conflict between childcare and work, she’s likely pregnant as well. I would argue that the mother’s greatest ally, at this point in the childrearing process, is the magnetic attraction of the sibling or neighborhood play group (Parin 1963: 48). The last thing a pregnant mother wants is for her child to see her as an attractive play partner. Even verbal play is avoided.”

I found this such a relief to read. The hardest stage of parenting for me was caring for an infant while being my two-year-old’s only regular playmate. She had an insatiable desire for stories, and I just wasn’t up for it.

Young monkeys play with each other, but chimpanzee mothers play with and tickle their babies. 

“Why is the chimpanzee mother providing her baby with what monkey infants get from their peers? One clue in the direction of an answer may be the group structure of chimpanzees. I observed that chimpanzee mothers spend most of their time alone with their babies. As a consequence it is the chimpanzee mother who has to give her baby this sort of interaction if he gets it at all. (Plooij 1979: 237) “

Similar forces may promote mother–child play among humans. The small band of “Utkuhikhalingmiut [Inuit are] the sole inhabitants of an area 35,000 or more miles square” (Briggs 1970: 1). Aside from the almost total lack of other children to play with, the mother–child pair is isolated inside their igloo for days on end during the worst weather. Jean Briggs observed mothers talking to their children, making toys for them, playing with them, and encouraging their language development. Further, there is every reason to believe that modern living conditions in which infants and toddlers are isolated from peers in single-parent or nuclear households produce a parallel effect. That is, like chimps in the wild, modern, urban youngsters only have access to their mothers as potential play partners. In Japan, the mother–child pair has become quite isolated, sequestered in high-rise apartment buildings.”

This sounds very familiar to me.

Learning through chores

Learning to do the chores of adult daily life is of great interest to children everywhere.

“In the Giriama language the term for a child roughly two through three years in age is kahoho kuhuma madzi: a youngster who can be sent to fetch a cup of water … A girl, from about eight years until approximately puberty, is muhoho wa kubunda, a child who pounds maize; a boy of this age is a muhoho murisa, a child who herds. (Wenger 1989: 98)”

“Generally speaking, a girl’s working sphere coincides with that of her mother: the household, kitchen, nursery, laundry, garden, and market stall. (Paradise and Rogoff 2009: 113) depict a five-year-old Mazahua girl closely following her mother’s lead in setting up an onion stand in the market – trimming, bunching, and arranging their onions. When invited to establish a satellite onion stand, “her excitement is unmistakable and she quickly takes the initiative in finding an appropriate spot and setting it up.””

“In WEIRD society, parents and adults generally take every opportunity to instruct children, even when they are patently unmotivated or too awkward and immature. The term “scaffolding” may be used to describe the process whereby the would-be teacher provides significant assistance and support so that the novice can complete a task that is otherwise well beyond his grasp (McNaughton 1996: 178). Elaborate scaffolding is rarely seen elsewhere (Chapter 5). No one wants to waste time teaching novices who might well learn in time without instruction.”

“Little girls strap bundles of leaves on their backs as babies, boys build little houses … A little girl accompanying her mother to the fields practices swinging a hoe and learns to pull weeds or pick greens while playing about … Playing with a small gourd, a child learns to balance it on his head, and is applauded when he goes to the watering-place with the other children and brings it back with a little water in it. As he learns, he carries an increasing load, and gradually the play activity turns into a general contribution to the household water supply. (Edel 1957/1996: 177)”

“In the Sepik region of Papua New Guiena, Kwoma children eagerly embrace the piglets they’re given to protect, raise, and train (Whiting 1941: 47). Talensi boys are said to possess “a passionate desire to own a hen” (Fortes 1938/1970: 20).”

“The Touareg boy progresses from a single kid (at three years of age) to a herd of goats (at ten) to a baby camel (at ten) to a herd of camels (at fifteen) to managing a caravan on a trek across the Sahara (at twenty). Preferentially, the aspirant herder interacts with and learns from herders who are slightly older, not adults. Adults are too forbidding to ask questions of or display ignorance in front of. Above all, it is a hands-on experience, as “The abstract explanation so typical of our schooling is completely absent” (Spittler 1998: 247).”

“Four-year-old Bafin has already grasped the meaning of sowing and is able to perform the various movements … he is entrusted with an old hoe as well as with some seeds so that he can gain some practice in this activity. However … he has to be allocated a certain part of the field where he neither gets in the way of the others nor spoils the rows they have already sown … As a rule, his rows have to be re-done. (Polak 2003: 126, 129)”

This is one of the few passages that got at my concern about children’s involvement in chores: it usually creates more work for the parents. It did persuade me to let Anna load the dishwasher, which she does ineptly but avidly.

Chores vs. crafts

“I was surprised to discover that, in Gbarngasuakwelle, there is a gulf between the chore curriculum and what we might call the craft curriculum. The former is often compulsory – a child may be severely chastised or beaten for failure to complete appropriate chores satisfactorily. The latter is not only entirely voluntary, but children seem to be offered little encouragement in it. Indeed, they may be actively discouraged from trying to learn a craft or otherwise complex trade.”

“Somewhat later, the child may elect to move beyond the core skills expected of everyone to tackle more challenging endeavors such as learning pottery or weaving. She or he must demonstrate adequate strength, physical skill, and motivation before anyone will deign to spend time on his or her instruction.”

Rites of passage

Most traditional societies involve some initiation ceremony to mark the transition to adulthood, may involving “days of hazing, fasting, beating, sleeplessness, and sudden surprises.”

After being raised by women, boys’ rituals often focus on separating them from the world of women:

“One element that looms large in the training of male adolescents in much of Africa and Papua New Guinea is misogyny, as noted above. There is a distinct focus on teaching boys to feel superior toward and contemptuous of women. The “text” of many messages conveyed to initiates is replete with references to women’s physical weakness relative to men and their power to pollute through menstrual and puerperal blood. Another tool in the men’s arsenal is the use of “secrets,” including sacred terms, rituals, locations, and objects such as masks. These “secrets” are denied to women on pain of death. For the Arapesh (Sepik Region), “initiation ceremonies [include] an ordeal followed by the novices being shown the secret paraphernalia … flutes, frims, paintings, statues, bullroarers” (Tuzin 1980: 26). Denying female access to powerful spirit forces aids in maintaining male hegemony. A Mehinacu girl “cannot learn the basic myths because the words ‘will not stay in her stomach’” (Gregor 1990: 484). Wagenia “women and girls belong to the social category of the non-initiated, from whom the secrets of initiation were carefully concealed” (Droogers 1980: 78).”

“Immediately following [the ordeal], the initiators drop their razors, spears, cudgels or what have you, and comfort the boys with lavish displays of tender emotion. What resentment the latter may have been harboring instantly dissipates, replaced by a palpable warmth and affection for the men who, moments before, had been seemingly bent on their destruction. As their confidence recovers itself, the novices become giddy with the realization that they have surmounted the ordeal. (Tuzin 1980: 78)”

“The Hitler Youth and the Soviet Young Pioneers both capitalized on the idealism and fanaticism characteristic of adolescence (Valsiner 2000: 295; see also Kratz 1990: 456). During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese authorities used the naturally “anti-social,” rebellious nature of adolescents in recruiting, training, and then setting them loose as “Red Guards” to destroy bourgeois, Western, or intellectual elements of Chinese society (Lupher 1995). Today, Muslim terrorist organizations easily recruit male and female adolescents to serve as suicide bombers. Again, there are fundamental biological and psychological aspects of adolescence that render them susceptible to group-think mentality. Normal standards of human decency are suspended, allowing them to commit crimes in the name of the group.”

Neither here nor there

The author describes the plight of young people who have been socialized away from their traditional cultures but not given anything good in exchange:

“Christian missions offer them the opportunity to escape the restrictions imposed by traditional rites associated, in the Sepik area, with the men’s Haus Tambaran, without successfully socializing them to embrace Western/Christian values. Similarly, in attending government schools, young males signal their abandonment of the traditional agrarian economy without actually learning enough to secure a job in the modern economy. In short, they have been led to believe they are superior to the senior men, yet bring no significant resources to the community”

“Disaffected African students, their hopes for white-collar jobs dashed by stagnant economies, are easily recruited as “rebels” (Lancy 1996: 198) and street rioters (Durham 2008: 173). Terrorists and rebel armies capitalize on the peculiarities of adolescent psychology, brought on in part by “living in limbo,” to create pliable fanatics (Rosen 2005: 157). Rosen also notes the continuity between traditional Mende warrior training, described earlier in this chapter, and the recruitment and training of child soldiers.”

The decades-long Salvadoran Civil War raised a generation of men with no livelihood other than war:

“Initiation rites in the socialization of young rebels, unlike traditional rites, do “not facilitate their social transition into responsible adulthood” (Honwana 2006: 63). Similarly, in the Salvadorian civil war, young soldiers “were not given a chance to practice and learn how to be campesinos, dedicated to subsistence agriculture … and the lack of preparation for a new, adult peacetime identity led many youth to choose the negative identity of … marero [delinquent/gang member]. (Dickson-Gómez 2003: 344–345)”

“Similarly, adolescent males living on Indian reservations suffer mortality and suicide rates three times the national average.”

Traditional cultures meet Western schools

Western schools were historically places where knowledge is crammed and beaten into children.

The story was the same in Sumeria 4000 years ago, where a student described his day: “My headmaster read my tablet, said: ‘There is something missing,’ caned me. ‘Why didn’t you speak Sumerian,’ caned me. My teacher said: ‘Your hand is unsatisfactory,’ caned me.’ And so I began to hate the scribal art” (Kramer 1963: 238–239).”

“Until fairly the 1970s, elite English boarding schools (and their US counterparts) for males weren’t all that different in terms of the constant hazing of younger by older boys, the emphasis on physical deprivation and removal from family, and daily engagement in team sports. This is probably what prompted Arthur Wellesley, the duke of Wellington, to remark: “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton.””

“The lamentations of passionate critics provide another window on the nature of schooling. These critics believed that the reluctant scholar problem could be solved by making schooling more like the experiences of the unschooled child, mixing in play, letting the child make choices, rewarding curiosity and independent learning. The fact that these pleas continue to appear over nearly two millennia suggests how enduring and intractable were the earliest ideas about the nature of schooling.”

“The idea that school should interest children was considered a radical new pedagogical philosophy in the United States of the 1840s”

But although the West has moved into a more child-centered mode, schools in the developing world remain on an old-fashioned model:

“As schools are introduced to formerly school-less communities, they much more closely resemble medieval schools than they do modern, progressive institutions. Bare, drafty classrooms, rote memorization, a scarcity of teaching materials, corporal punishment, unintelligible teachers, menial labor by students, the underrepresentation and exploitation of girls – all harken back to the dawn of schooling in the West.”

“Schools have encountered resistance from pupils who struggle to “sit still” or to meet the teacher’s gaze; from parents who’d prefer their children to be working and who reject their assigned role as “under-teacher,” prepping and supporting their child’s schooling; from patriarchal societies that impose limits on the choices available to women; and from the general public because of the very poor quality of instruction and the coercive atmosphere.”

“In a survey of childhood across history and culture, the suite of practices and teaching/learning abilities associated with modern schooling is largely absent”

An anthropologist “marvels at how facile and active the Matses children are in the natural environment, compared to what she feels is her own ineptitude. She is cowed by three- and four-year-olds who competently paddle and maneuver canoes on the wide river. She observes young boys nimbly catching and handling enormous catfish (Figure 28). And then she is struck by the painful contrast between the children’s mastery of their natural surroundings and the great discomfort and incompetence they display in the classroom. She summarizes the dilemma as ‘learning to sit still.’”

The demographic transition

A change began to happen in the Netherlands:

“In the seventeenth century, foreigners were already recording their astonishment at the laxity of Dutch parents … they preferred to close their eyes to the faults of their children, and they refused to use corporal punishment … foreigners remarked on something else: since the sixteenth century, most Dutch children – girls as well as boys – had been going to school. (Kloek 2003: 53)”

“John Locke – exiled to Holland in 1685–1688 – was profoundly influenced by what he saw. His treatise on childrearing, published in 1693, brought Dutch ideas on childcare to England (Locke 1693/1994). At the end of the eighteenth century, the Quakers also embraced population control and used various means to reduce their fertility. “The drop in the birth rate also reflected … a rejection of the view that women were chattels who should devote their adult lives to an endless cycle of pregnancy and childbirth” (Mintz 2004: 78).”

Dutch paintings of this era are no longer only stiff portraits, but depict families enjoying time together (though I’m not clear on how much the cat is enjoying this experience.)

“Teaching a cat to read,” Jan Steen, 1660s.

In developing countries, traditional methods of spacing births may be discouraged, resulting in a baby boom:

“For example, from Malaita Island in the South Pacific, traditional Kwara’ae practice was to keep men separated from their nursing wives for at least a year. However, the “abolition of the tabu system and the ascendance of Christianity has meant that … ritual separation [is] no longer practiced” (Gegeo and Watson-Gegeo 1985: 240–241). As a result, fertility has jumped and families with ten to thirteen children are not uncommon.”

Western intervention has addressed one aspect of population but not another: “The agencies that intervened to reduce infant mortality were not as ready with contraception and family-planning interventions, and the result has been masses of humanity living on the ragged edge of poverty.”

Even where it’s available, people may not be interested in birth control, despite the practical difficulties of raising lots of children. In Burkina Faso:

“There are no perceived disadvantages in having lots of children. Children are never seen as a drain on resources. The availability of food is believed to be purely a product of the God-given fortune of the child, and nothing to do with the level of resources available within the household or the number of mouths to feed [because] ‘every child is born with its own luck.’ (Hampshire 2001: 115)”

The author gets editorial at times, quipping “The rich get richer, and the poor get lots of sickly children.”

“Unfortunately, the ubiquity of infant death along with well-established coping mechanisms inures people to a phenomenon that, given the state of medical knowledge and a pharmacopeia adequate to the task, shouldn’t be happening. The wastage of young human life and the debilitating impact this has on mothers are staggering and cannot possibly be justified. And, in the West, we remain largely oblivious of the problem of child malnutrition and death in the Third World until it reaches such proportions that the story becomes newsworthy.”





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