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 infants.
How We Hold Them: Constant contact between caregiver and baby may contribute to the child’s improved neuromotor development. (Photos: Eyecandy Images-Alamy (left); Eric Lafforgue / Gamma Rapho-Getty Images)
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.