Could parents learn a thing or two from hunter-gatherers? Perhaps.
But just as the childfree get sensitive when parents judge their choice not to have children, parents tend to get touchy when the childfree judge or advise their parenting. In short, I’m venturing into tricky territory by advocating hunter-gatherer parenting practices to my “childed” contemporaries. And yet while I may be off-base, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some meaningful reflection to be had here…
Many of the world’s hunter-gatherer societies have a laissez-faire style of parenting and consider young children to be autonomous individuals whose desires should not be thwarted (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers). Consequently some societies allow children to play with dangerous objects such as sharp knives and fires letting them be free to learn from mistakes but also to be hurt.
However, hunter-gatherer societies also foster precocious development of social skills in their children.
The Westerners who have lived with hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies speculate that these admirable qualities develop because of the way in which their children are brought up: namely, with constant security and stimulation, as a result of the long nursing period, sleeping near parents for several years, far more social models available to children through allo-parenting, far more social stimulation through constant physical contact and proximity of caretakers, instant caretaker responses to a child’s crying, and the minimal amount of physical punishment. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
Close Contact Among Hunter-Gatherers
Sharing a bed, or at least the same bedroom, is common practice among parents and their children in hunter-gatherer societies and many cultures throughout the world. It is only recently in Western society that isolation has become part of common parenting tactics.
A cross-cultural sample of 90 traditional human societies identified not a single one with mother and infant sleeping in separate rooms: that current Western practice is a recent invention responsible for the struggles at putting kids to bed that torment modern Western parents. American pediatricians now recommend not having an infant sleep in the same bed with its parents, because of occasional cases of the infant ending up crushed or else overheating; but virtually all infants in human history until the last few thousand years did sleep in the same bed with the mother and usually also with the father, without widespread reports of the dire consequences feared by pediatricians. That may be because hunter-gatherers sleep on the hard ground or on hard mats; a parent is more likely to roll over onto an infant in our modern soft beds. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
From slings to cradle boards, hunter-gatherers employ a wide variety of techniques/devices to carry their children resulting in constant contact between the mother (or another caregiver) and the infant. Only when the child is older and mobile does the child choose to voluntarily venture away, usually to play with other children. (Note: Some consider swaddling or placing an infant in a cradle board cruel because it restricts the child’s movement. Others believe it causes the child permanent damage.)
[However,] there are no personality or motor differences, or differences in age of independent walking, between Navajo children who were or were not kept on a cradle board, or between cradle-boarded Navajo children and nearby Anglo-American children. […] Hence it is argued that doing away with cradle boards brings no real advantages in freedom, stimulation, or neuromotor development. Typical Western children sleeping in separate rooms, transported in baby carriages, and left in cribs during the day are often socially more isolated than are cradle-boarded Navajo children. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
Debate and studies are still ongoing about whether it is better to leave a child alone when it is crying with no reason or if it should be held and comforted. While there is no consensus on the issue, hunter-gatherers generally favor comforting a troubled child.
Observers of children in hunter-gatherer societies commonly report that, if an infant begins crying, the parents’ practice is to respond immediately. […] The result is that !Kung infants spend at most one minute out of each hour crying, mainly in crying bouts of less than 10 seconds—half that measured for Dutch infants. Many other studies show that 1-year-old infants whose crying is ignored end up spending more time crying than do infants whose crying receives a response. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
What are Allo-parents?
Allo-parents are individuals who are not the biological parents but who play a role in a child’s life and do some caregiving.
In small-scale societies, the allo-parents are materially important as additional providers of food and protection. Hence studies around the world agree in showing that the presence of allo-parents improves a child’s chances for survival. But allo-parents are also psychologically important, as additional social influences and models beyond the parents themselves. Anthropologists working with small-scale societies often comment on what strikes them as the precocious development of social skills among children in those societies, and they speculate that the richness of allo-parental relationships may provide part of the explanation. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
Population numbers affect the socialization of children of various ages. In all cities, and in rural areas of moderate population density, children are separated by age, and will learn and play in age cohorts (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers). However in small-scale societies, the smaller group of children will interact more simply because there are less of them and situations would arise that make is easier to keep all the children together in spite of age differences.
A typical hunter-gatherer band numbering around 30 people will on the average contain only about a dozen preadolescent kids, of both sexes and various ages. Hence it is impossible to assemble separate age-cohort playgroups, each with many children, as is characteristic of large societies. Instead, all children in the band form a single multi-age playgroup of both sexes. […] The young children gain from being socialized not only by adults but also by older children, while the older children acquire experience in caring for younger children. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
Because hunter-gatherer children sleep with their parents, they are exposed to their parents having sexual intercourse which inevitably leads to groups of mixed-gender children mimicking what they witness.
Either the adults don’t interfere with child sex play at all, or else !Kung parents discourage it when it becomes obvious, but they consider child sexual experimentation inevitable and normal. It’s what the !Kung parents themselves did as children, and the children are often playing out of sight where the parents don’t see their sex games. Many societies, such as the Siriono and Piraha and New Guinea Eastern Highlanders, tolerate open sexual play between adults and children. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
State vs. Hunter-gatherer Child-rearing
[A] tentative generalization is that individual autonomy, even of children, is a more cherished ideal in hunter-gatherer bands than in state societies, where the state considers that it has an interest in its children, does not want children to get hurt by doing as they please, and forbids parents to let a child harm itself. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
In the modern world there is much variation among industrial state societies where parenting practices differ from state to state and between classes and generations. But it does seem that their may be some universal lessons to learn from hunter-gatherer parenting.
Everybody in the world was a hunter-gatherer until the local origins of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, and nobody in the world lived under a state government until 5,400 years ago. The lessons from all those experiments in child-rearing that lasted for such a long time are worth considering seriously. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
Some hunter-gatherer parenting practices are obviously not worth emulating.
I don’t recommend that we return to the hunter-gatherer practices of selective infanticide, high risk of death in childbirth, and letting infants play with knives and get burned by fires. Some other features of hunter-gatherer childhoods, like the permissiveness of child sex play, feel uncomfortable to many of us, even though it may be hard to demonstrate that they really are harmful to children. Still other practices are now adopted by some citizens of state societies, but make others of us uncomfortable—such as having infants sleep in the same bedroom or in the same bed as parents, nursing children until age 3 or 4, and avoiding physical punishment of children. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
However, there are many less controversial hunter-gatherer parenting practices which might well server our modern state societies.
It’s perfectly feasible for us to transport our infants vertically upright and facing forward, rather than horizontally in a pram or vertically but facing backward in a pack. We could respond quickly and consistently to an infant’s crying, practice much more extensive allo-parenting, and have far more physical contact between infants and caregivers. We could encourage self-invented play of children, rather than discourage it by constantly providing complicated so-called educational toys. We could arrange for multi-age child playgroups, rather than playgroups consisting of a uniform age cohort. We could maximize a child’s freedom to explore, insofar as it is safe to do so. (Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers)
I hope you’ve made it this far. Interesting, right? Before lambasting Jared Diamond (or me), pause. Consider. Sometimes we feel judged even when we’re not. Sometimes we feel advised even when we’re not. I know, the title of my blog post suggests otherwise. And hopefully it got your attention, provoked your curiosity, compelled you to read the post. Perhaps you’ll even grab the book and probe further. Your comments after reading the book would real really, really welcome. Especially since I haven’t read it. Yet.
Source for Hunter-Gatherer Parenting Post:
- From The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright 2012 by Jared Diamond.
- Newsweek and The Daily Beast