December 2012, Week 3


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Fri, 21 Dec 2012 22:57:16 -0500
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Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers

`The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?' by Jared Diamond. 512 p. Viking Adult. $22.94

by Jared Diamond
Dec 17, 2012 

     Hold them, share them, let them run free. Why the
     traditional way of raising kids is better than

On one of my visits to New Guinea, I met a young man
named Enu, whose life story struck me then as
remarkable. Enu had grown up in an area where child-
rearing was extremely repressive, and where children
were heavily burdened by obligations and by feelings of
guilt. By the time he was 5 years old, Enu decided that
he had had enough of that lifestyle. He left his
parents and most of his relatives and moved to another
tribe and village, where he had relatives willing to
take care of him. There, Enu found himself in an
adoptive society with laissez-faire child-rearing
practices at the opposite extreme from his natal
society's practices. Young children were considered to
have responsibility for their own actions, and were
allowed to do pretty much as they pleased. For example,
if a baby was playing next to a fire, adults did not
intervene. As a result, many adults in that society had
burn scars, which were legacies of their behavior as

Both of those styles of child-rearing would be rejected
with horror in Western industrial societies today. But
the laissez-faire style of Enu's adoptive society is
not unusual by the standards of the world's hunter-
gatherer societies, many of which consider young
children to be autonomous individuals whose desires
should not be thwarted, and who are allowed to play
with dangerous objects such as sharp knives, hot pots,
and fires.

I find myself thinking a lot about the New Guinea
people with whom I have been working for the last 49
years, and about the comments of Westerners who have
lived for years in hunter-gatherer societies and
watched children grow up there. Other Westerners and I
are struck by the emotional security, self--confidence,
curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale
societies, not only as adults but already as children.
We see that people in small-scale societies spend far
more time talking to each other than we do, and they
spend no time at all on passive entertainment supplied
by outsiders, such as television, videogames, and
books. We are struck by the precocious development of
social skills in their children. These are qualities
that most of us admire, and would like to see in our
own children, but we discourage development of those
qualities by ranking and grading our children and
constantly -telling them what to do. The adolescent
identity crises that plague American teenagers aren't
an issue for hunter-gatherer 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.

Keep Them Close

In modern industrial societies today, we follow the
rabbit-antelope pattern: the mother or someone else
occasionally picks up and holds the infant in order to
feed it or play with it, but does not carry the infant
constantly; the infant spends much or most of the time
during the day in a crib or playpen; and at night the
infant sleeps by itself, usually in a separate room
from the parents. However, we probably continued to
follow our ancestral ape-monkey model throughout almost
all of human history, until within the last few
thousand years. Studies of modern hunter-gatherers show
that an infant is held almost constantly throughout the
day, either by the mother or by someone else. When the
mother is walking, the infant is held in carrying
devices, such as the slings of the !Kung, string bags
in New Guinea, and cradle boards in the north temperate
zones. Most hunter-gatherers, especially in mild
climates, have constant skin-to-skin contact between
the infant and its caregiver. In every known society of
human hunter-gatherers and of higher primates, mother
and infant sleep immediately nearby, usually in the
same bed or on the same mat. 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.

Even when not sleeping, !Kung infants spend their first
year of life in skin-to-skin contact with the mother or
another caregiver for 90 percent of the time. A !Kung
child begins to separate more frequently from its
mother after the age of 1 ½, but those separations are
initiated almost entirely by the child itself, in order
to play with other children. The daily contact time
between the !Kung child and caregivers other than the
mother exceeds contact time (including contact with the
mother) for modern Western children.

One of the commonest Western devices for transporting a
child is the stroller, which provides no physical
contact between the baby and the caregiver. In many
strollers, the infant is nearly horizontal, and
sometimes facing backward. Hence the infant does not
see the world as its caregiver sees the world. In
recent decades in the United States, devices for
transporting children in a upright position have been
more common, such as baby carriers, backpacks, and
chest pouches, but many of those devices have the child
facing backward. In contrast, traditional carrying
devices, such as slings or holding a child on one's
shoulders, usually place the child vertically upright,
facing forward, and seeing the same world that the
caregiver sees. The constant contact even when the
caretaker is walking, the constant sharing of the
caregiver's field of view, and transport in the
vertical position may contribute to !Kung infants being
advanced (compared to American infants) in some aspects
of their neuromotor development.

In warm climates, it is practical to have constant
skin-to-skin contact between a naked baby and a mostly
naked mother. That is more difficult in cold climates.
Hence about half of traditional societies, mostly those
in the temperate zones, swaddle their infants, i.e.,
wrap the infant in warm fabric and often strap the
infant to a cradle board. A Navajo infant spends 60 to
70 percent of its time on a cradle board for the first
six months of life. Cradle boards were formerly also
common practice in Europe but began to disappear there
a few centuries ago.

To many of us moderns, the idea of a cradle board or
swaddling is abhorrent-or was, until swaddling recently
came back into vogue. The notion of personal freedom
means a lot to us, and a cradle board or swaddling
undoubtedly does restrict an infant's personal freedom.
We are prone to assume that cradle boards or swaddling
retard a child's development and inflict lasting
psychological damage. In fact, 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. The probable explanation is
that, by the age that an infant starts to crawl, the
infant is spending half of its day off of the cradle
board anyway, and most of the time that it spends on
the cradle board is when the infant is asleep. 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.

There has been a long debate among pediatricians and
child psychologists about how best to respond to a
child's crying. Of course, the parent first checks
whether the child is in pain or really needs some help.
But if there seems to be nothing wrong, is it better to
hold and comfort a crying child, or should one put down
the child and let it cry until it stops, however long
that takes? Does the child cry more if its parents put
the child down and walk out of the room, or if they
continue to hold it?

Observers of children in hunter--gatherer societies
commonly report that, if an infant begins crying, the
parents' practice is to respond immediately. For
example, if an Efe Pygmy infant starts to fuss, the
mother or some other caregiver tries to comfort the
infant within 10 seconds. If a !Kung infant cries, 88
percent of crying bouts receive a response within 3
seconds, and almost all bouts receive a response within
10 seconds. Mothers respond to !Kung infants by nursing
them, but many responses are by nonmothers (especially
other adult women), who react by touching or holding
the infant. 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.

Share the Parenting

What about the child-rearing contribution of caregivers
other than the mother and the father? In modern Western
society, a child's parents are typically by far its
dominant caregivers. The role of "allo-parents"-i.e.,
individuals who are not the biological parents but who
do some caregiving-has even been decreasing in recent
decades, as families move more often and over longer
distances, and children no longer have the former
constant availability of grandparents and aunts and
uncles living nearby. This is of course not to deny
that babysitters, schoolteachers, grandparents, and
older siblings may also be significant caregivers and
influences. But allo-parenting is much more important,
and parents play a less dominant role, in traditional

In hunter-gatherer bands the allo--parenting begins
within the first hour after birth. Newborn Aka and Efe
infants are passed from hand to hand around the
campfire, from one adult or older child to another, to
be kissed, bounced, and sung to and spoken to in words
that they cannot possibly understand. Anthropologists
have even measured the average frequency with which
infants are passed around: it averages eight times per
hour for Efe and Aka Pygmy infants. Hunter-gatherer
mothers share care of infants with fathers and allo-
parents, including grandparents, aunts, great-aunts,
other adults, and older siblings. Again, this has been
quantified by anthropologists, who have measured the
average number of care-givers: 14 for a 4-month-old Efe
infant, seven or eight for an Aka infant, over the
course of an observation period of several hours.

Daniel Everett, who lived for many years among the
Piraha Indians of Brazil, commented, "The biggest
difference [of a Piraha child's life from an American
child's life] is that Piraha children roam about the
village and are considered to be related to and
partially the responsibility of everyone in the
village." Yora Indian children of Peru take nearly half
of their meals with families other than their own
parents. The son of American missionary friends of
mine, after growing up in a small New Guinea village
where he considered all adults as his "aunts" or
"uncles," found the relative lack of allo-parenting a
big shock when his parents brought him back to the
United States for high school.

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

Similar benefits of allo-parenting operate in
industrial societies as well. Social workers in the
United States note that children gain from living in
extended, multigenerational families that provide allo-
parenting. Babies of unmarried low-income American
teenagers, who may be inexperienced or neglectful as
mothers, develop faster and acquire more cognitive
skills if a grandmother or older sibling is present, or
even if a trained college student just makes regular
visits to play with the baby. The multiple caregivers
in an Israeli kibbutz or in a quality day-care center
serve the same function. I have heard many anecdotal
stories, among my own friends, of children who were
raised by difficult parents but who nevertheless became
socially and cognitively competent adults, and who told
me that what had saved their sanity was regular contact
with a supportive adult other than their parents, even
if that adult was just a piano teacher whom they saw
once a week for a piano lesson.

Give Them More Freedom

How much freedom or encouragement do children have to
explore their environment? Are children permitted to do
dangerous things, with the expectation that they must
learn from their mistakes? Or are parents protective of
their children's safety, and do parents curtail
exploration and pull kids away if they start to do
something that could be dangerous?

The answer to this question varies among societies.
However, 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

That theme of autonomy has been emphasized by observers
of many hunter-gatherer societies. For example, Aka
Pygmy children have access to the same resources as do
adults, whereas in the U.S. there are many adults-only
resources that are off-limits to kids, such as weapons,
alcohol, and breakable objects. Among the Martu people
of the Western Australian desert, the worst offense is
to impose on a child's will, even if the child is only
3 years old. The Piraha Indians consider children just
as human beings, not in need of coddling or special
protection. In Everett's words, "They [Piraha children]
are treated fairly and allowance is made for their size
and relative physical weakness, but by and large they
are not considered qualitatively different from adults
... This style of parenting has the result of producing
very tough and resilient adults who do not believe that
anyone owes them anything. Citizens of the Piraha
nation know that each day's survival depends on their
individual skills and hardiness ... Eventually they
learn that it is in their best interests to listen to
their parents a bit."

Some hunter-gatherer and small-scale farming societies
don't intervene when children or even infants are doing
dangerous things that may in fact harm them, and that
could expose a Western parent to criminal prosecution.
I mentioned earlier my surprise, in the New Guinea
Highlands, to learn that the fire scars borne by so
many adults of Enu's adoptive tribe were often acquired
in infancy, when an infant was playing next to a fire,
and its parents considered that child autonomy extended
to a baby's having the right to touch or get close to
the fire and to suffer the consequences. Hadza infants
are permitted to grasp and suck on sharp knives.
Nevertheless, not all small-scale societies permit
children to explore freely and do dangerous things.

On the American frontier, where pop?ulation was sparse,
the one-room schoolhouse was a common phenomenon. With
so few children living within daily travel distance,
schools could afford only a single room and a single
teacher, and all children of different ages had to be
educated together in that one room. But the one-room
schoolhouse in the U.S. today is a romantic memory of
the past, except in rural areas of low population
density. Instead, in all cities, and in rural areas of
moderate population density, children learn and play in
age cohorts. School classrooms are age-graded, such
that most classmates are within a year of each other in
age. While neighborhood playgroups are not so strictly
age-segregated, in densely populated areas of large
societies there are enough children living within
walking distance of each other that 12-year-olds don't
routinely play with 3-year-olds.

But demographic realities produce a different result in
small-scale societies, which resemble one-room
schoolhouses. 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. That observation applies to all small-
scale hunter-gatherer societies that have been studied.
In such multi-age playgroups, both the older and the
younger children gain from being together. 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. That
experience gained by older children contributes to
explaining how hunter-gatherers can become confident
parents already as teenagers. While Western societies
have plenty of teenage parents, especially unwed
teenagers, Western teenagers are suboptimal parents
because of inexperience. However, in a small-scale
society, the teenagers who become parents will already
have been taking care of children for many years.

Another phenomenon affected by multi-age playgroups is
premarital sex, which is reported from all well-studied
small hunter-gatherer societies. Most large societies
consider some activities as suitable for boys, and
other activities as suitable for girls. They encourage
boys and girls to play separately, and there are enough
boys and girls to form single-sex playgroups. But
that's impossible in a band where there are only a
dozen children of all ages. Because hunter-gatherer
children sleep with their parents, either in the same
bed or in the same hut, there is no privacy. Children
see their parents having sex. In the Trobriand Islands,
one researcher was told that parents took no special
precautions to prevent their children from watching
them having sex: they just scolded the child and told
it to cover its head with a mat. Once children are old
enough to join playgroups of other children, they make
up games imitating the various adult activities that
they see, so of course they have sex games, simulating

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.

What We Can Learn

Let's reflect on differences in child-rearing practices
between small-scale societies and state societies. Of
course, there is much variation among industrial state
societies today in the modern world. Ideals and
practices of raising children differ between the U.S.,
Germany, Sweden, Japan, and an Israeli kibbutz. Within
any given one of those state societies, there are
differences between farmers, urban poor people, and the
urban middle class and differences from generation to
generation within a society.

Nevertheless, there are still some basic similarities
among all of those state societies, and some basic
differences between state and nonstate societies. State
governments have their own separate interests regarding
the state's children, and those interests do not
necessarily coincide with the interests of a child's
parents. Small-scale nonstate societies also have their
own interests, but a state society's interests are more
explicit, administered by more centralized top-down
leadership, and backed up by well-defined enforcing
powers. All states want children who, as adults, will
become useful and obedient citizens, soldiers, and
workers. States tend to object to having their future
citizens killed at birth, or permitted to become burned
by fires. States also tend to have views about the
education of their future citizens, and about their
citizens' sexual conduct.

Naturally, I'm not saying that we should emulate all
child-rearing practices of hunter-gatherers. 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.

But some other hunter-gatherer child-rearing practices
may fit readily into 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.

But our impressions of greater adult security,
autonomy, and social skills in small-scale societies
are just impressions: they are hard to measure and to
prove. Even if these impressions are real, it's
difficult to establish that they are the result of a
long nursing period, allo--parenting, and so on. At
minimum, though, one can say that hunter-gatherer
rearing practices that seem so foreign to us aren't
disastrous, and they don't produce societies of obvious
sociopaths. Instead, they produce individuals capable
of coping with big challenges and dangers while still
enjoying their lives. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle
worked at least tolerably well for the nearly 100,000-
year history of behaviorally modern humans. 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.


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