Bringing up kids the New Guinea way – an alternative to helicopter parenting

I am currently reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Diamond is the author of the wonderful Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which sought to explain the huge differences in development among different world regions. His latest book concerns the possible lessons we can draw from analysing traditional societies. We need to remember that humans have lived in bands and tribes for almost all of our history. Diamond looks at areas such as war, justice, religion, language and physical exercise. Today I’m just going to look at chapter five, in which Diamond explains how they bring up children in traditional societies. These practices emerged over millennia with thousands of natural experiments, by societies all over the planet. Can we learn anything from them?

Diamond analyses infant care practises from a mammalian perspective. There are species in which the infant is in constant contact with the mother. In modern hunter-gatherer societies an infant is held almost constantly throughout the day, generally the mother. When the mother is walking, the infant is held in carrying devices. In milder climates, there is constant skin-to-skin contact between her and the infant. This has been the practice throughout almost all of human history. By traditional standards, many of our modern child-rearing practices are absurd. We moderns follow what Diamond calls the rabbit-antelope pattern. The mother or someone else will occasionally pick up and hold the infant in order to feed it or play with it, but the infant will generally spend a large portion of the day in a crib or playpen and at night they sleep alone, usually in a separate room from the parents. This is highly unusual – one cross-cultural survey of 90 traditional human societies could not find a single one in which mother and infant slept in separate rooms.

In relation to physical punishment there are huge variations. Diamond describes a mother who rubbed stinging nettle leaves into her eight-year old daughter’s face, causing the child to scream uncontrollably in agony. Other groups have a Spock-like permissiveness. How can one explain why some societies practise physical punishment of children, while others don’t? There does seem to be a broad trend: most hunter-gatherer bands do minimal physical punishment of young children, most farming societies do more punishment, with herders being especially likely to punish. The rise of agriculture led to greater gender and age inequality. Deference and respect became important. Therefore physical punishment became an important disciplinary tool.

What observers of traditional societies do notice is how self-confident and independent the kids are even at a young age. Diamond tells of Talu, a 10-year-old boy from New Guinea who volunteered to be a porter for him. As his parents were not around, Talu didn’t ask permission from them – he just went off with Diamond. When the parents came back, they would be told by one of the villagers that their son had gone off with some unknown white man for some unknown length of time. The boy had originally agreed to go off for seven days, but that week finally turned into a month. In New Guinea you assume that kids are independent, and are capable of making their own decisions. As a result of this they’re more autonomous, self-confident people. Diamond describes another band in which young children were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased. If a baby was playing next to a fire, adults did not intervene. Consequently, many adults had burn scars that they had acquired as infants.

A child’s individual autonomy may be a cherished ideal in hunter-gatherer bands, but in the West we seem to be gripped by paranoia. Stranger danger describes is embedded in our culture. We have all received these warnings from our parents:

“Don’t talk to strangers”

“Don’t tell anyone your name”

“Don’t eat sweets off strangers”

The problem is that most child abductions and harm are not due to strangers, but rather someone the child is familiar with or related to. By exaggerating the potential threat you spread fear and mistrust. In the USA 50 children are murdered in what could be described as classic stranger abductions. This is in a country with a population of 315 million.

Stranger danger has contributed to parents keeping children indoors, where they are on the Play Station, resulting in what Richard Louv has called nature deficit disorder. I have to say I’m not really a nature lover. A couple of Woody Allen quotes sum up my attitude:

“I am at two with nature.”

I love nature, I just don’t want to get any of it on me.

While I don’t think we need any new psychological conditions, it is not a good idea to have kids cooped up all day. Apart from obesity, Louv believes that children who don’t get out will be more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems.

It’s not just that though. We should want our kids to be street smart. Lenore Skenazy certainly believes this. If you don’t remember her, she was the mother who allowed her son Izzy, then nine years old, to take the New York subway alone. The reaction she provoked was extreme. Google “America’s worst mom” and the first hit you see is hers – some even accused her of child abuse. Skenazy believes that parents are being overprotective and has started her own blog “Free-Range Kids”. Skenazy is part of a backlash against helicopter parenting. The term, originally coined by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, refers to obsessive parents who like helicopters, hover overhead.

We are not going to go back to bringing up our children like they do in New Guinea. Diamond is a sympathetic observer of traditional societies, but he doesn’t try to idealise them either. He also mentions the negative aspects; he doesn’t recommend that we return to the hunter-gatherer practices of selective infanticide, or letting infants play with knives or fire. Being a parent is intimidating. I sometimes think that by what we do, or fail to do, we may be creating a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer. There is so much conflicting advice. We have Tiger moms who believe that children should be able to solve Fermat’s last theorem by the age of three and should be punished if they don’t get A’s in all their subjects. At the other end of the spectrum is economist Bryan Caplan who believes that we are fussing too much over our kids and that it is nature not nurture which determines how they turn out. I would continue but my kids’ knife throwing game seems to be getting out of hand.

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