Each month I open the magazine and skim the contributors’ notes, searching for Poe Ballantine’s name like a teenage girl looking for her crush at a high-school dance. When his byline is missing, I silently despair and put the issue in my read-later pile. Since my first exposure to him in The Sun twenty-one years ago, I’ve been smitten by his charm, self-deprecating wit, encyclopedic references, and amazing stories. “No Longer on the Map” [March 2016] is no exception. As he heads into journeyman geezerhood, I find myself just as eager to read about his adventures.
Indeed, Ballantine’s essays are the primary reason I continue to subscribe. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
David Lancy has coined the misleading descriptor “neontocracy” for a culture in which children are more valued than old people, and he says the U.S. is one [“The Kids Are All Right,” interview by Mark Leviton, February 2016]. One root of that word, however, is kratos, meaning to have power. The assertion that children are the most powerful members of U.S. society is false. There are many examples to the contrary. For instance, ours is one of the richest countries in the world but has one of the worst infant-mortality rates among wealthy nations — even worse than some less-advantaged countries.
Lancy uses the words coddling and indulging to describe parents today, but their efforts are heroic in the face of the pressures of capitalism, which forced children into factories before, and forces them into formal schooling now.
David Lancy asserts that children are the most valued members of U.S. society, but I didn’t see any reference to sexual abuse. In this country, one in four girls is sexually abused before the age of eighteen. He also didn’t mention that 15 million U.S. children experienced hunger in 2014. Nor did he speak of the astronomical arrest rates of black and Latino youths.
It seems to me that the U.S. has a deeply contradictory relationship to children, one that swings between paternalism and abuse, indulgence and neglect — and is profoundly shaped by the racism of our culture.
When comparing the child-rearing practices of Third World village societies to our own, neither Mark Leviton nor David Lancy questions why there are such differences. Our children may grow up in environments where they change homes and schools more than once, and they may live in communities with large populations. Moreover, Western parents are often exposed to news about kidnappings and child abuse, which inevitably influences our concept of parental responsibility and can explain, at least in part, the rise of overprotective parenting.
Additionally birth rates have declined in the West, which can have an impact on how we parent; we may place higher value on our children because we have fewer of them.
I agree with David Lancy’s views on parenting. I don’t recall my parents ever playing with me or my siblings. It never occurred to me to ask them to. If the weather was bad, my friends and I were told to play in the basement. If it was nice, we weren’t allowed inside but had the entire neighborhood in which to play. My mother was too busy with housework to have us in her way.
I remember calling to her from outside (because we wouldn’t think of just walking into the house without permission):
Me: Mom, we want to come in.
Me: Because we’re thirsty.
Mom: Drink from the hose.
Can you imagine a mother saying that to her child today?
Though born and raised in Oregon, I was in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic and married a Haitian man. We had a child together. I later remarried into a Kenyan family, and I also hold a master’s degree in geography and international development. So I have some experience with non-Western cultures.
Though Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) culture has raised standards of living through technology and social organization, something important has been lost. Many indigenous people live in extended families and have customs that build community. Even if children are punished or neglected by their parents, other adults can help them stay connected and recover from the trauma. We’ve lost those communal societies in the U.S., where we live in isolated nuclear families. That’s one reason WEIRD parents tend to indulge their children: to compensate for the isolation of our lifestyle.
People have different priorities in rural Africa and urban America. It’s not fair to say one is better, or that either should adopt the practices of the other.
Much of what David Lancy said about American child-rearing practices reminded me of my childhood, in which loving parents left me to my own devices. I’m disheartened to read about today’s college students, many of whom seem to wish to live in cocoons, undisturbed by anything they don’t already agree with: a serious contradiction of what a university education should be.
However, Lancy’s neutrality toward what is rightly called female genital mutilation is unsettling. It is not “ethnocentrism” to call it what it is: the mutilation of a young girl’s sexual organs. It is, as Lancy says, “part of the process of ushering girls into womanhood in some cultures,” but it is also a horrific ritual carried out because of a misogynistic cultural imperative to control women, much like veils or honor killings in which women who have “shamed” the family are murdered.
Would Lancy be so neutral if the process involved mutilating young boys? Does he engage in the same refusal to judge when talking about sexual slavery or the Taliban’s denial of education to women? As an anthropologist, Lancy is right to refrain from judgments, but I don’t see how he can as a human being. Interestingly he seems to have no trouble judging our own culture and its sometimes silly excesses.
I cannot see how David Lancy can suggest it is a misnomer to refer to clitoridectomy as female genital mutilation. For a child to have her external genitalia removed so that she will never experience pleasure in sexual intercourse — and will instead suffer pain, infections, and complications in childbirth — is nothing other than torture and child abuse. The fact that a culture condones it does not make it any less so. This is not about child-rearing; it is about the oppression of women. It is appalling that any modern person would excuse this abhorrent practice.
I’ve read many letters to the editor in which the authors cancel their subscriptions because of objections to a magazine’s content. I never considered doing that until I read David Lancy’s thoughts on female genital mutilation. With all due respect, that is the correct term.
I’m not canceling, though, because the March issue brought Sam Mowe’s excellent interview with Jack Miles [“Embracing Ignorance”], but I must express my deep disappointment in Sy Safransky’s editorial judgment.
When anthropologists view a culture, they need to examine the resistance to its dominant practices, too. For instance, many African women have mounted efforts to resist and eliminate clitoridectomy, but David Lancy portrays the controversy as produced by outsiders — an argument often used by Africans who benefit from the current power structures. By focusing only on Westerners who question such practices, Lancy makes invisible the long traditions of resistance and activism within those societies.
David Lancy responds:
Though I’m not sure we can precisely define the proper degree of protection children should have in any society, it is not difficult to identify the harmful extremes, and I consider female genital mutilation to be one such extreme. I personally condemn the practice.
My point was only to show that actions we denounce from the perspective of our own society may be considered completely legitimate in others. I wish I had chosen a different example.
Alain Laboile takes touching photos of his children at play, but the conditions they live in are alarming [“Where the Wild Things Are,” February 2016]. Four girls and two boys sent out to explore the surrounding French countryside with no adult supervision and optional clothing would be a red flag to most parents. Has Laboile not thought about the worst that could happen?
Alain Laboile responds:
As a photographer, I’m flattered that my children appear so natural in my shots that the viewer doesn’t even realize I was near them when I took the photos.
My wild kids are among the most protected in the world, constantly surrounded by a loving family. Besides, four of them are now teenagers or young adults, and the eldest recently joined law enforcement. Rest assured they’re in good hands.