Writing for The New York Times last year, Michael Erard said there’s a particular book he likes to give friends who are expecting their first child. He calls it “the only book that new parents will ever need.” It’s titled The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings, and its author, anthropologist David Lancy, has far-reaching and sometimes controversial opinions about the way we raise children in Western nations. His goal, he says, is to offer a correction to the view that “sees children only as precious, innocent, and preternaturally cute.”
When I reached Lancy on the phone a few weeks after Erard’s article ran, he was negotiating rush-hour traffic in Salt Lake City, Utah, and dealing with the sort of media attention that career academics don’t usually get. He asked me to call him back in a few months, after the publicity had died down. I did, and we eventually met in person at his summer home on the Utah-Idaho border. By then I’d read several of his books and knew that, in his opinion, something has gone terribly wrong with child-rearing and schooling in affluent Western democracies.
Many Western countries, Lancy says, are “neontocracies,” societies in which children are the most valued members. We shield our young from disappointments and hardships, indulge and spoil them, and barely let them do anything without adult supervision. This is not the norm in other parts of the world. He has spent decades studying children, mostly in Third World countries: how they learn to farm or hunt; the role of language, games, and folklore in their development; the structures of their families; their rites of passage. He reports that parents in those other cultures casually observe but don’t offer direction as their children explore, play, and develop skills primarily through their own efforts, often without any organized schooling. Lancy uses the ethnographic record — a collection of anthropological findings based on observation and interviews — to prove that parenting styles aren’t as important as we think. In the U.S. we might find it healthy for a child and an adult to build a block tower together, but in most cultures it would be contrary to common beliefs about parent-child relationships. Those parents don’t take an interest in children’s play. Yet their children still develop into well-adjusted adults.
Lancy grew up in rural Pennsylvania, between two rust-belt towns. His parents never played with him, but he had full autonomy to go wherever he liked — often to the forest or river. Around grown-ups he was to be seen and not heard. This philosophy led, on one occasion, to an unexpected outcome: left alone on a porch while his parents socialized with neighbors, he discovered a case of beer bottles, some still half full, and proceeded to drain the dregs from all of them.
An emeritus professor of anthropology at Utah State University, Lancy has done extensive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and Liberia, with shorter stints in Madagascar, Uganda, Trinidad, and Sweden. He’s authored more than seventy scholarly articles and five books, including Studying Children and Schools and Playing on the Mother-Ground: Cultural Routines For Children’s Development. A second edition of The Anthropology of Childhood came out last year. In his seventies Lancy continues to write and travel and has a blog on Psychology Today’s website. He is married to Joyce Kinkead, an English professor and administrator at Utah State, and he has two daughters from a previous marriage.
As I walked with him along the shore of a lake on a beautiful August day, Lancy pointed out details of the local ecology and showed me his moored kayak; we could take a ride in it later, he said. We swapped parenting stories before heading back to his sunlit kitchen for a marathon interview session, interrupted only by a lunch he prepared. Lancy wears his erudition lightly, smiles easily, and speaks enthusiastically. Because some of the parenting practices he describes are ones to which readers might be averse, he is quick to remind me that he, too, finds some of them “horrible.” He might think we coddle our kids, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love children.
Leviton: Michael Erard says that your work demonstrates that “children are raised in all sorts of ways, and they all turn out just fine.”
Lancy: His point is that Western, middle-class parents are much too worried about protecting children from perceived threats and optimizing their development. They believe there is one right way to raise children, and even a slight deviation from it causes measurable harm. My review of child-rearing patterns elsewhere shows that it is impossible to identify one best or “normal” practice. Children reliably mature into appropriate and acceptable adult roles through various methods.
Leviton: In The Anthropology of Childhood you ask whether there is such a thing as childhood. Isn’t the answer obviously yes?
Lancy: Actually for most of human history there was no such thing as childhood. Children were viewed as small, incompetent adults. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that people began to see children as occupying a distinct stage in human development, with different needs, vulnerabilities, and understandings. This eventually led to the abolition of child labor and the rise of formal schooling.
Leviton: You say that how we treat children is key to understanding many of the differences between Western and non-Western cultures. What led you to this conclusion?
Lancy: When I was working on Playing on the Mother-Ground, I noticed a striking pattern in the data I had gathered. At this point my wife was pregnant with our first child, so I was readying myself to take on the role of American parent and reviewing my notes from my fieldwork in Africa at the same time. I saw a drastic difference in the way the two societies regarded youth and age.
In African villages the most respected and revered individuals were the oldest. They were fed first and treated with deference in many ways. Children, on the other hand, got the leavings after everyone else had eaten dinner. They could be ordered around and punished at will. Infanticide was far from rare. In short, children were treated as unimportant, as expendable; even as chattel, an item of property. They were valued not for being cute little cherubs but for what they would become: workers on the farm or an addition to the domestic labor force. The parents did just enough to keep them alive.
This might sound crass or mean. I’m not suggesting these African parents didn’t love their offspring, but they gave them much less attention than we give ours. Ethnographers have seen village children accidentally run through the fire pit and get burned, and the parents laugh and tell the kids they should have been more careful.
In the U.S. we are a “neontocracy,” a culture in which the youngest members are the most valued, as opposed to a “gerontocracy,” in which the oldest are. In a neontocracy children get better medical care than most adults. A mother will rush her child to the doctor for a symptom that she might ignore if she experienced it herself.
Historically the majority of societies have been gerontocracies. The neontocracy is a recent phenomenon, an outlier, but it’s become the norm in Western nations. Some colleagues of mine in Spain have studied how, in middle-class families there, infants and toddlers gradually take over the home. Their toys invade the living room. The bathroom has rubber duckies and Mickey Mouse towels. The kitchen is restructured, with safety latches on every cabinet door. Not just the spaces in the home but much of the parents’ time is allocated to the child’s pursuits.
A study was done in 1977 to determine who looks after infants in societies around the world. In a staggeringly high proportion of them, the mother was not the sole caretaker of an infant. Not only that, the grannies, siblings, other villagers, and “sister-wives” — fellow wives of the same husband — were collectively doing more. Years later Sarah Hrdy, who wrote a book called Mother Nature, began to elaborate on this notion of humans as “cooperative breeders.”
Leviton: What were some of the things Hrdy noticed?
Lancy: She collected data from anthropology, history, biology, and evolution with a goal of disproving the idea that there is such a thing as a “mothering instinct.” She studied the practice of “wet-nursing”: hiring other lactating women to feed your baby. Records indicate that only a small percentage of the women in Paris in the early nineteenth century nursed their own babies. This argues against the romantic notion of motherhood as a deep instinct: If mothers feel a compelling need to care for their newborns, why, in Paris, did those who could afford it abandon nursing immediately? Having a wet nurse was a sign of social status; even middle-class women used whatever resources they had to hire one. In fifteenth-century Florence, too, use of wet nurses was a sign of affluence: Michelangelo attributed his early interest in sculpture to the fact that he was nursed by the wife of a stone mason.
In our culture we take it for granted that there is a mothering instinct and are quick to identify the lack of one as pathology. When autism was first isolated as a disorder, it was thought to be the result of having a cold, distant mother. If there was something wrong with the child, the thinking went, there had to be something wrong with the parent.
Leviton: In psychology it’s considered crucial for infants to bond with their mothers if they are to develop into healthy adults, but your research disputes this.
Lancy: In most societies a mother’s becoming too attached to her infant is a bad thing. The attitude is that parents should develop emotional ties slowly over time, as the child’s viability becomes established. An unborn child may have birth defects or may die soon after it’s born. The worst-case scenario is to have a mother mourning a child so intensely that she doesn’t get pregnant again. The correct attitude in these cultures is to recognize that the child is gone and have another.
Anthropologists have been critical of many established psychological principles and have offered evidence that they are invalid outside of Western society. Robert LeVine, who has been studying the Gusii people in East Africa for decades, calls this the “anthropologist’s veto.” In response to the theory of infant attachment, for example, he offers the example of Gusii mothers, who respond promptly to infants’ cries but ignore their babbling and rarely speak to them. With older children the parents communicate mostly in commands and threats. Despite this, LeVine found no evidence that the Gusii were damaged by their upbringing.
In the medical arena we believe every complaint must have a cause and a potential remedy. A psychiatric patient, for example, might blame his or her problems on a parent’s alcoholism. But is it the parent’s failures that have an adverse effect, or is the search for an explanation unreasonably skewing the patient’s self-image? The medical model is pervasive. Child-rearing in the West is now treated as a clinical undertaking in which deviations from the prescribed manner can have disastrous consequences.
Leviton: It seems that, unlike psychologists, anthropologists expect to see great variation in what is considered “the norm.”
Lancy: Yes, anthropologists try to practice “cultural relativism” — the idea that there’s really no linear scale on which we can rank cultures; they all have different ways of doing things, and their pieces fit together internally.
The opposite of cultural relativism is “ethnocentrism”: when we look at the rest of the world through the lens of our own culture. Most of us do this. It’s a rare individual who can step outside of his or her culture and regard another on its own terms, by the way its members define or explain it. A good anthropologist accepts the other culture’s narrative and doesn’t impose his or her own values on it. It’s especially critical to do this when studying children, because people have such strong feelings about them. If we discuss different religious practices around the world, we might avoid passing judgment on another religion’s beliefs, but the subject of children arouses our sense of right and wrong. The practice of clitoridectomy, for example, is part of the process of ushering girls into womanhood in some cultures, but in Western countries we call it “female genital mutilation.”
Even within a fairly homogeneous society like ours, there are surprising cultural differences, and groups have difficulty understanding each other, whether they be African American, Cajun, WASP, Appalachian, or whatever.
Leviton: Earlier you contrasted the view of the child as “cherub” with the child as “chattel.” You also have a third category: “changelings.” What are they?
Lancy: The changeling is an ancient pagan concept based on the belief that a human infant with birth defects is the offspring of an evil spirit. The mother of a changeling had recourse to a number of measures to rid herself of the nest usurper. Tribal societies today still hold such beliefs, “returning” disabled infants to the wild by leaving them in the bush or throwing them in the river. According to ethnographic studies, such infanticide is widespread. If anything, it’s underestimated, because the child-killing isn’t done with any public fanfare. More of it could be going on than anthropologists are aware of.
Keep in mind that adults in these cultures aren’t simply callous or uncaring. They don’t value human life less. Rather, they look at a child’s death — which they might have hastened or actually caused — through a different lens than ours. In much of the world the newborn is seen not as a full-fledged human being, but more like an appendage of the parent. The way women nurse and swaddle babies is almost marsupial. In many places infants are believed to be reincarnated ancestors, and hands-off parenting is justified by the presumption that the child’s future is predetermined: he’s Uncle Ted reincarnated, so he will follow that path. In other societies children are thought of as go-betweens who straddle the worlds of the living and the dead. For instance, an infant’s babbling might be explained as the baby talking to an “invisible friend” from another plane of existence.
High rates of infant mortality also affect attitudes toward children. If a healthy one-year-old in our society suddenly dies, we look for a medical reason, but someone who doesn’t understand the nature of germs and disease might look for another explanation. Maybe its soul was not ready to be incarnated yet and will come back in another body. If a child dies during a time of discord in the family — say, the husband is cheating on the wife, or there are conflicts between the in-laws — the death may be considered an outgrowth of the discord. Many non-Western societies treat the whole subject of pregnancy with secrecy because of the possibility that the child won’t survive or will need to be discreetly killed. A woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock in these societies loses her place in the village. Some form of abortion or infanticide allows her to remain a citizen, eligible for marriage, and so forth.
Leviton: I was fascinated to read in your book about how burial rituals reflect a culture’s beliefs about childhood.
Lancy: The postmortem treatment of infants and children is fairly consistent in human societies: they are often not interred in communal burial grounds, and are mourned privately or not at all.
Even in the West, if you study older gravestones, you will find some with a list: “John Gray, deceased. John Gray, deceased. John Gray, deceased.” The first male child died, and the parents thought nothing of giving the next boy the same name, as if he had filled the slot vacated by the first. When it’s relatively common for infants to die, you take steps to distance your emotions.
The gap between our culture and most of the world is ever widening when it comes to children. In the first edition of The Anthropology of Childhood I discussed an obituary I saw for a six-month-old in Logan, Utah. It was a lengthy obituary. Now the anti-choice crowd is advocating that women who have had abortions name the aborted fetus.
Leviton: In describing our culture you use the acronym WEIRD — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.
Lancy: The acronym comes from a 2010 paper titled “The Weirdest People in the World?” by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. They note that, where comparative data are available, people in WEIRD societies “consistently occupy the extreme end of the human distribution” curve, possibly making them “one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens.” I agree with their main point, that we are the ones living in an abnormal society. Anthropology’s main criticism of psychology is that psychologists fail to account for this fact. All of their subjects are from WEIRD countries, which represent a departure from all other human cultures. We shouldn’t be studying them and then making generalizations about human behavior based on those findings.
Leviton: Non-Western countries like China, India, and Japan also fit most of the WEIRD attributes, don’t they?
Lancy: Yes, the “W” is a little misleading. East Asia is trending more and more toward Western neontocracy. Although children there are historically raised to take care of their parents in a way we don’t do here, they are also given freedom to be a pain in the ass and have plenty of toys and video games.
There is also variation within societies. You might find neontocracy in a gated community and a gerontocracy in the barrio. As economic development occurs, neontocracy comes along with it. I’ve seen this in Latin America over the last twenty to thirty years. Once families have more income, those funds are often used to improve the education of the children, and once kids are in school, they’re not available to provide sibling care or do chores. As the family seeks higher status, a series of shifts take place that are often justified as “helping the children.” We all want our kids to be more successful than we were, which means striving for better schools in better neighborhoods.
Western, middle-class parents are much too worried about protecting children from perceived threats and optimizing their development. They believe there is one right way to raise children, and even a slight deviation from it causes measurable harm. My review of child-rearing patterns elsewhere shows that it is impossible to identify one best or “normal” practice.
Leviton: And what will those schools be teaching? In the village children learn to forage for food; now they must learn computer coding. That’s a huge change.
Lancy: It is, and it occurs in stages. I was just reading a study by Barbara Rogof. She has worked for decades in Guatemala and recently published her findings about the changes that have occurred there over three generations: Guatemalan children are no longer helping on the farms as much and are not being held accountable for chores. They are becoming WEIRD.
This doesn’t happen without money. Poorer parts of Central America and Mexico are still gerontocracies. When those people travel to the U.S. to find work, they bring those values with them. They are less concerned with the education of their children and more focused on how they can use kids for economic gain or for chores or as a source of free care for younger siblings.
Schooling without economic development doesn’t have a transformative effect. In the sixties the United States Agency for International Development, religious missionaries, and nongovernmental aid organizations were building rural schools all over the world, but there was little change, because there were still no jobs available that required an education. Improved healthcare and outreach to mothers don’t cause much change, either, although teaching women about contraception does make a difference.
It’s not that education has no consequence. People might now be able to read the posters about mosquitoes and malaria. They can go to a rural clinic and explain more accurately what’s wrong with their child and get better treatment. But their culture is still miles away from being a neontocracy.
Anthropologists are concerned about too much modernization and want to preserve indigenous culture, but indigenous parents, once they decide that their children’s future will be better with schooling and education, will give up their heritage fairly quickly. They may express regret that their children are no longer learning the traditional ways and can’t tell poison ivy from English ivy, but parents are often not as anxious about disappearing traditions as anthropologists are.
Leviton: Besides economic development, what are the main threats to indigenous cultures?
Lancy: When Christian missionaries come in, they don’t just target religious rituals for replacement; they target many critical customs and practices that are not Western and therefore “wrong.” For instance, missionaries will immediately attack polygyny [polygamy in which men may have more than one wife], even though it creates family care and childbearing opportunities for women who might not otherwise have had them. Many cultures have a taboo against postpartum sex; this prohibition helps guarantee longer birth intervals, fewer miscarriages, and healthier babies. But missionaries discourage this practice. The Christian notion is that the husband must be tightly bound to the wife in order to prevent sin and adultery. If husbands stop having sex with their wives after the wives have given birth, the men might be tempted to sleep around, and the missionaries can’t have that. They are digging up the stakes that hold down the traditional culture.
Leviton: You have referred to polygyny as a more “normal” way of life than monogamy. Are there societies where women have multiple male partners?
Lancy: That’s called polyandry, and it certainly does exist. I think three societies currently have polyandry. But in most tribal societies the ideal to which every man and woman would aspire would be a polygynous household, because it allows cooperative breeding. If a child is born into a family with three mothers, its chances of surviving to reproduce are likely greater. Polygyny is practical in that culture. Would it make sense in our society, with its much lower infant-mortality rates? No.
Leviton: In the U.S. we have high “paternity anxiety,” meaning we want to know who the father of a particular child is. Does this vary around the world?
Lancy: In many societies paternity is very significant. The Dogon in Mali monitor wives closely. When a Dogon woman is married, the women in her husband’s family will watch the wife to determine when she becomes pregnant and make sure the husband was home during that time. If there’s a doubt about the paternity, it’s grounds for divorce. One of the most common reasons for infanticide is that the child is illegitimate.
Americans, however, are pretty tolerant of a mother who brings her child to term even if the child is known to be illegitimate. In a neontocracy the baby is the most valued being.
Leviton: Let’s get back to educating children. Could you explain what you call the “chore curriculum”?
Lancy: It’s when children acquire cultural knowledge by mastering chores. It isn’t top-down and formal but rather emerges from a child’s desire to fit in and emulate older siblings and relatives. An enormous amount of knowledge can be acquired by these means, without timetable or lessons. Children who do chores are developing cognitive, sensory, and motor functions while learning about the division of labor in the family and the nature of the tasks themselves.
They also play with adults’ tools. In places where hand tools are common, having a sensitivity to an object’s hardness, breaking point, and weight is valuable. Village adults don’t often intervene when a child investigates a sharp knife or strays near the fire. When ethnographers ask parents why they allow this, the parents’ reply is often “This is how they learn.”
Leviton: Do you think it’s wise to let children play with knives?
Lancy: I’ve found that there is a trade-off. If parents give their children such freedom, the kids may indeed get hurt, but serious injury is rare in village societies. Children there die most often of malnutrition and illness, not accidents. Meanwhile village children happily take the initiative in learning how to use common tools like knives, setting their own pace and keenly observing those who are more competent. If parents were to play a more active and protective role in their child’s development, the children might be safer from injury, but that sense of autonomy and ability to learn independently would be undermined. The children would cease to take the initiative to learn new things and instead wait for an adult’s permission, guidance, or instruction.
In a village the technology is visible and accessible. There’s a low bar to getting involved in most activities. At the age of three, kids can take a pan or bucket, go to the stream with their older brothers and sisters, and help get water. Village kids are perfectly capable of going into the bush, finding food, harvesting it, and bringing it home. They might not yet be able to name the plants or explain the route they took, but they enjoy doing these walkabouts and travel in mixed-age groups in which the young ones can watch the older children. Then, when their mother tells them, “Bring me an armload of reeds,” the children are ready.
Everybody in the village goes through this process, and you almost never see a child playing by himself or herself. That would mean something is wrong. In our society a high proportion of kids play by themselves, because they are less likely to have siblings or be allowed to wander the neighborhood.
Leviton: You write that in most cultures children simply live in the adult milieu; they are integrated into everyday life. If the adults are cooking or handling animals or using tools, the children are in the same area, observing. Youngsters don’t have their own physical space, and their parents aren’t “at work” somewhere.
Lancy: Exactly right. In many cultures children don’t have separate sleeping or recreational areas. If you were an aid worker and went to a village to build modern houses in which every person has an individual space, the villagers would resist. Maybe they would adjust because it was free, but once you weren’t looking, they’d start knocking down walls. Those cultures demand cooperation. Your personal space has to be small, and the territory you share with others — including kids of all ages — is large.
Leviton: As a result, children learn what they need to know without much adult intervention, and without organized schools.
Lancy: Yes. I’m struck by how strange schooling looks from an anthropological perspective. So much about formal education is antithetical to the way children have learned throughout history. Jump to the twenty-first century, and a childhood without schooling is unthinkable.
Given the opportunity, children will learn on their own, but in this country opportunities for them to do that have shrunk drastically. Kids used to be free to explore, get into their dad’s tool chest, and so on. Now they are expected to lead a narrow existence of organized activities. When I was a child, I sat behind a desk in school, listening to the teacher, but the rest of life was self-directed and fun.
In a recent psychological study one group of children was taught explicitly how to use a complicated toy — but they weren’t taught all the toy’s features. Another group of children was left to explore the toy without help. That second group discovered every feature of the toy, whereas the kids who were taught what it did explored no further. This strongly suggests that children are good self-starters — if you let them be. We’ve lost sight of this. We begin teaching children as babies. A lot of adult baby talk has a didactic quality. It conveys how the child should think about something or what he or she should pay attention to. Parents turn everything into a lesson: “This is a cow, and it says, ‘Moo.’ ” There are people who believe we should teach babies American Sign Language, so they can start to communicate even earlier. When children do get to take part in an adult activity, the parent often treats it as a “learning opportunity.” I saw a film by a psychologist who was watching children cook with their mothers at home. After some initial enthusiasm, the kids didn’t enjoy it much, because the mothers inevitably turned the situation into a math lesson: “See, that’s a quarter cup.”
This is one area in which the data from psychology experiments aligns with the ethnography. Children need to learn through their own initiative. Take language, for example. In our society it’s hard to find a new parent who isn’t trying to teach his or her child to speak, yet we know children will learn to speak just fine without instruction. It’s one of the great wonders of the species that we grow to communicate in such an effortless manner without coaching.
Leviton: But we have learned that there’s a “normal” time to speak, and that parents should monitor this development and notice when the child isn’t acquiring the skill on time. Isn’t some parental anxiety valid?
Lancy: Where there is a chance for early intervention with Down syndrome and other diagnosable disorders, it’s important to recognize the signs and respond, but there’s no need to extend that scrutiny to all kids. WEIRD families think you can’t start too soon. So they teach children to talk early, and if their lessons aren’t effective, they take their kids to be tested, and it escalates. We know the mean age for a certain milestone, but there’s a spread. When we treat the average as an absolute, we distort the picture. If a skill will be acquired between the ages of eighteen months and thirty-six months, we do not need to worry when it hasn’t arrived at twenty-seven months.
Our willingness to think about our children in strictly clinical terms, such that the slightest deviation from the norm is reason to worry, is not healthy. Concern about the first three years of life has gone from helpful to almost noxious.
Immigrants are sometimes criticized for not sharing this WEIRD child-rearing philosophy. Some Hispanic preschools are refused day-care licenses because their methods do not conform to the dominant American culture. They are told they must foster attitudes of individuality and help the children develop their own personalities. To immigrant parents this amounts to spoiling them.
I’d argue that parenting trends are less about what’s good for the child and more about parents’ need for affirmation. The message of my work is that parents have far less impact than they think they do. Contemporary middle-class parents tend to see themselves as the creators of their children. They believe they are going to make another Leonardo da Vinci, and then they can puff out their chests and revel in their great accomplishment. But Judith Harris, who published The Nurture Assumption in 1998, worked with a lot of twin studies, especially identical twins raised apart in different environments. She found that such twins turned out quite similar, indicating that parenting style is of little importance.
The !Kung bushmen of the southern African desert are at the opposite extreme from us. They barely try to control a child’s behavior at all. When confronted with a child who wants something, they will just ignore him or her. Kids might throw flaming branches from the fire at adults, and the adults just continue with what they’re doing. They don’t try to teach the kids much of anything. Little children learn from older ones how to dig up tubers or pick up fallen fruit. The boys keep shooting their arrows until they hit something.
I used to show a film in class about the !Kung in which they do teach someone to use a bow and arrow. The lesson is necessary because the young man being taught has been disabled by an injury and hasn’t learned to hunt. Now he is getting married and will have to provide for his own family. Recognizing his deficiency, the older men give him a lesson, but they treat the whole affair as just hilarious. It’s ridiculous, from their point of view, for someone to need to be taught this.
Leviton: Aren’t there some tribal societies that educate their children directly?
Lancy: The !Kung do consider one area so important they actually teach it: sharing. They teach very young children to share through a series of exercises because without direct intervention, the children wouldn’t learn to share early enough.
Quite a few societies in the South Pacific use focused instruction because they have incredibly complex social hierarchies, and the specialized language used for each rank must be taught. In Polynesia there’s a great concern for the reputation of the family. It’s not really about the child. A child who violates these canons of speech and kinship reflects poorly on the family and lowers the family’s status. So the youngest must be explicitly taught.
Leviton: We don’t focus much on etiquette, proper language, and deference in the U.S.
Lancy: My parents didn’t sit me down and teach me, but I knew there were rules about how to act around adults. Adults were not to be addressed by their first names, for example, unless they were a neighbor or close relative; then you might call them “Uncle Ted” or “Aunt Helen.” If an adult visited, I was required to go through a greeting process and then fade into the background. I responded when spoken to but didn’t interfere with the adults’ conversation.
It’s common today to see adults conversing and a child tugging on a mother’s clothes until the mother interrupts her conversation and attends to the child. The child’s needs come first. In the book Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman claims that in France children are not allowed to interrupt that way. I see the French moving in our direction, though.
Leviton: In the U.S. we have few coming-of-age rituals. Most of the ones we do have, such as the bar mitzvah and the quinceañera, are imported.
Lancy: Rites of passage are more common in village cultures, but they’re not universal. Most take place at the start of adolescence or soon after it’s perceived to start.
Some scholars see these initiations as training young people to assume adult roles, but I find no evidence that any real training occurs. To the extent that there is teaching, it is often esoteric or paradoxical: what is taught to the novices at one stage of the initiation is sometimes repudiated in the next. Commonly there is brutal, harsh treatment, including clitoridectomy or circumcision. Sometimes the initiation ritual begins with children being ripped out of their homes in the middle of the night and threatened or harangued by masked men in frightening costumes.
In many places boys live with their mothers, and the fathers live separately. The boys are thought to have been contaminated, feminized, and must suffer to earn the great privilege of being a man. Women are second-class citizens in these cultures, and boys have to work to become first-class. Being “male” isn’t taken to be a simple biological fact; it must be achieved. In Papua New Guinea you’re not fully an adult male until you’ve sired two kids.
I’ve concluded that for both male and female initiation, the main purpose is to say, “You are ready to make a transition to a higher status, but don’t forget you are still lower than the rest of us.” The pain, severity, humiliation, and fear involved reinforce that hierarchy. It’s like letting the new adults into the room but telling them to stand in the corner.
Leviton: So a teenage boy doesn’t just get his first kill or go on a vision quest and become an adult?
Lancy: A first kill may be celebrated, but that event, and the vision quest, too, is not so much about adulthood as it is about your ranking within your peer group. It has significance, though, because a high ranking among your peers improves your mating opportunities: you become a good catch.
Leviton: The young people in these cultures appear to participate willingly in these rituals, but we in the West would say it’s not possible for a teen to consent to having her clitoris removed. It’s barbaric and has to be stopped.
Lancy: I’m not advocating it, of course, but there are many documented cases of young women lobbying their elders to have these ceremonies, which are costly and require lots of preparation. The young women are often full of pride afterward. In their community clitoridectomy is a stepping stone to the next stage of life.
Well-meaning Westerners might want to educate young people in these cultures to reject such practices, but it’s not as simple as that. In one village missionaries convinced the adolescents to refuse the initiation ceremony, and the older people were distraught. Initiation was how they taught the youth their “secrets” for cultivating yams, the staple of their diet. If the next generation didn’t have this knowledge, the elders believed, they would starve. You and I might suggest they figure out how to raise yams another way, but from the point of view of the elders, the process was critical, and the foreigners’ interventions broke the cultural chain.
Leviton: In the U.S. we call these young people “teenagers” and grant them increased autonomy. If they get a job, the money they earn is often not for the family but for their personal use. Adolescence is not so much a time of new responsibilities as it is a loosening of ties to the family.
Lancy: The way we treat toddlers sets up contemporary adolescence. The emphasis is on individuality and personal needs and wants. When three-to-five-year-olds are allowed to choose their own cereal, you get teenagers who live almost autonomously — with their own room, their own media, and their own transportation — and who resent parents’ attempts to exert control or rein them in. The seeds are planted early.
Parents might know they should assign more chores, but they give excuses: “The kids will make a mess.” “It’s just quicker for me to do it.” “I don’t have time to teach them.” In many immigrant communities, however, the children do chores and earn money for the family. And on farms children are still expected to contribute in significant ways in addition to going to school.
I’d argue that parenting trends are less about what’s good for the child and more about parents’ need for affirmation. The message of my work is that parents have far less impact than they think they do.
Leviton: We also have an organized system of competitive sports instead of allowing free-form play. When I was a kid, I played baseball in the dirt lot at the end of the block, and the teams included all ages and levels of ability.
Lancy: In non-WEIRD societies you find children of different ages playing together. Children learn a tremendous amount from older peers who take the time to show them how to do something right. When we organize sports teams and other activities within a narrow age group, we shut down that avenue of learning. We also don’t let the children cooperate and devise their own games and activities. Adults are present to supervise.
Parents arrange so-called playdates: “Your friend will come here at this time and do this activity.” There’s no wandering the neighborhood, encountering other children, and figuring out what you’d like to do. We’ve seen an increase in toys and games related to movies and television shows, which means the toys come with their own narrative. The story line is predetermined. A child might pretend to be a character and speak like the character, but there’s less room to make up anything.
Kids today have difficulty just exploring. They are used to being given a script for how they are supposed to play or learn: “Take out your books and turn to page 67.” It’s rote, planned in advance. This system is creating laziness, because following instructions requires less mental effort. I think children should be acknowledged for what they can learn and achieve. They should earn the right to have certain tasks assigned to them because they have shown they are capable.
Leviton: In our country there’s also been a decline in apprenticeship, which is still flourishing — formally and informally — in the rest of the world.
Lancy: Yes, I think it’s a real loss to our society. We have an acute shortage of craftspeople — carpenters and plumbers and so forth. Why? Because we don’t do anything to channel students into vocational apprenticeships where they receive on-the-job training and guaranteed employment. We have people who would like to be employed but who have few skills and difficulty acquiring them. College is not always the appropriate path and may lead to long-term debt when a career doesn’t repay the expense incurred. This problem will never be solved without a national conversation that goes beyond the idea that college is the only way to get ahead. I’m not convinced everyone is better off with a college degree.
We also give our kids a pass when it comes to fitting in. They may acquire mastery, but they don’t get the good feeling that comes from joining a community. Instead we value independence. They are under no moral pressure to figure out how they fit into society. By contrast, some other societies don’t allow people to participate fully as citizens until they demonstrate that they are competent and share the group’s goals.
Leviton: What about the ways we discipline children? In Asia and the Pacific it’s common to use shame and ridicule.
Lancy: Asian cultures value uniform public appearance and behavior. The foundation for that uniformity is the cultivation of shame: an extreme awareness of when you are out of line or different. We are all born with some capacity for shame. Cultures either amplify it or — as in our culture — attempt to reduce or erase it, because we find it incompatible with other values, such as individuality. In Asia, where the worst thing the child can do is bring shame to the family, the ideal is shyness, restraint, blending in. If you are noticed, it’s with disapproval.
All societies have to control the behavior of children to some degree, even the !Kung, who do very little. As societies become more complex, the need to control social behavior increases. In Africa they are much more likely to control a child’s behavior with corporal punishment, rather than shaming. It’s quick and dirty, and it works. Our culture says corporal punishment is damaging, but ethnographers have observed no lasting negative effects: they see a child crying his eyes out one minute and then playing happily the next. And when researchers query young adults about the physical punishment they received as children, almost universally they report that it was a sign of love and caring. They say the adults were looking out for them when they did something stupid. It’s quite a disconnect from how people in our culture might respond.
And the least-used technique for correcting children is, of course, what most of us in WEIRD countries do: reason with them.
Leviton: How does gender parity in a society affect child-rearing strategies?
Lancy: Where women and men are closer to parity, children are more likely to be indulged, meaning later weaning, no corporal punishment, fewer unpleasant chores, greater tolerance of play, and so on. One widely accepted theory in anthropology is that the great divide between the genders occurred with the onset of plow agriculture. Until then the men were not the “breadwinners.” On the contrary, in many foraging societies women bring home more calories than their husbands. With agriculture women were excluded from the physically more taxing work of using draft animals and heavy implements, and in the process they lost status. In foraging societies today women have more-equal status with men. These communities have little hierarchy. Decisions are made through face-to-face negotiation rather than fiat from a leader. All members of the community, including children, are treated as having a will of their own that shouldn’t be tampered with.
Leviton: But in most societies gender roles are still unequal.
Lancy: Yes, your sex determines the sort of work that you do, and your job defines your status. Also, as societies become more complex, there is an accumulation of wealth and uneven distribution of property, and males are seen as better able to defend the family’s resources, giving rise to a preference for male heirs and male offspring. So girls start out life in second place. At the extreme, they are sometimes killed immediately after birth. I am haunted by a photo I once saw of a mother and her two children in a United Nations report: the Indian mother was holding her son and daughter in her lap; the boy was large and healthy, and the girl was stunted and wasted. The photo conveyed dramatically the society’s preference for males.
Leviton: How could parents in the West go about applying the village model to raising their children?
Lancy: They could give their children freedom to do more grown-up things and worry less about them getting hurt or damaging property. Let the children help and get involved. Yes, chores will take longer to get done, and the product may not be as pretty, but the child will develop a sense of responsibility, especially if parents show appreciation in lieu of effusive praise.
Parents could also create opportunities for children to interact with peers without adults around. Younger children can be placed in the care of older ones. Parents don’t have to arrange “quality time” in which the child is the sole focus. Don’t play with your children unless you really enjoy it and can get down to their level. Make sure they have playmates instead. I’ve participated in radio call-in shows, both in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, and callers often tell me they are relieved by my advice on playing with children. They felt there must be something wrong with them because they didn’t enjoy playing with their kids.
It’s hard to replicate fully the village model in contemporary society because there is no village. Nuclear suburban families often live far from kin, so relatives can’t contribute to a child’s development. And government-provided services are a poor substitute — the exception being most of Scandinavia, where they spend enormous sums to ensure that the public system replicates the best elements of the village model. In the U.S. the most important government services, and the ones we should expand and improve on, are access to effective birth control and counseling for young parents who aren’t ready to be mothers and fathers. Child-rearing in the U.S. falls largely on the parents — often on a single mom or dad. It’s no wonder that parents here suffer so much angst.
Leviton: The Scandinavian model is better?
Lancy: It’s closer to the ideal. For example, in Sweden preschoolers go outside for recess every day. “Outside” means grassy meadows, trees, and play structures, not asphalt. Their motto is “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.”
The Scandinavian practice is based on the principle that, given the variability in parents’ readiness and competence, the state is ultimately responsible for each child’s welfare. And their citizens are willing to endure high income taxes to pay for superb public programs for children. For example, all children are expected to attend state-funded day care and nursery school. There’s also a belief that both parents should be involved in child care, and men are afforded generous paternity leave. State-provided child care enables mothers to continue to pursue their careers. Their model promotes gender equity and produces excellent outcomes for children.
A major caveat is that communities in Scandinavia are highly homogeneous, just like traditional small-scale societies. But because these countries accept more than their fair share of the world’s refugees, this homogeneity is being lost. It remains to be seen whether the uniformly positive outcomes can be sustained.
Leviton: What would your ideal society be like, as far as child-rearing goes?
Lancy: An ideal society would retain or restore the bed-rock principle of village-based child-rearing — namely, that child-rearing is a shared responsibility. At a minimum, children should have opportunities to observe and interact with folks of all ages. Neighbors should welcome children and take some responsibility for their well-being, even if they’re not relatives. Adults should think of future generations and take steps now to improve their prospects. For example, don’t deny human-induced climate change.
In an ideal society children are allowed to be children, rather than their parents’ projects or status markers. A child should have opportunities to learn independently, selecting his or her own books at the library, building things from scrap materials with real tools, making a meal after watching Mom or Dad do it, or getting instruction from a website. And children should have a direct experience of the natural world — forests, rivers, fields, parks — in all kinds of weather.
In an ideal society these benefits would be available to all children, not just the favored few.