Chapter 5: Bringing Up Children

As a father of two little creatures of 5 and 2 years old, I was really looking forward for this chapter. Despite my initial observations about chapters being too long, I have to admit that I wish this one to be longer.

Here the tone of the book changes,and we have a chapter focused on what can we learn from traditional societies. Diamond uses traditional societies as “a vast database of child-rearing.” that reveals “the outcomes of thousands of natural experiments on how to rear children”.

These experiments are also being carried away in our Western world, as parents are not that happy with the way states think children should be educated, like people trying again to give children at home instead of hospitals. And some are starting to be implemented as pilot experiments. For example, in the school I send my children, next course instead of putting in a classroom 22 kids of the same age, they are going to mix ages from 6 to 10 years, so kids do not learn just from the teacher, but from other kids of other ages as well.

The section on infanticide, of course, moves away from such tone, and we are shown how traditional societies do not have much options but to consider some forms of infanticide, besides some exceptions like the Siriono Indians in Bolivia.

Diamond understand that some differences on how different societies treat children are culture based, but he also argues that some others can be explained through differences in environment. For example, hunter-gatherer bands tend to do minimal physical punishment to kids, while they are a lot more common in farming societies. The main reason -according to Diamond- is that hunter-gatherers “tend to have few valuable physical possessions. But many farmers, and specially herders, do have material things, especially valuable livestock, so herders punish children to prevent serious consequences to the whole family.”

The same happens with child autonomy: it heavily depends on the environment. infants of hunter-gatherers under one year living in the Amazon rainforests “spend about 93 % of their daylight time in tactile contact with a mother or a father (…) it is not until about three years of age that Ache children between three and four years of age spend 76% of their daylight time less than one meter away from their mother.” And then, in mostly harmless environments like the Australian desert, children regularly go on foraging trips unsupervised y adults.

Like the others, this is chapter worth reading fully. Let me just list some of the stuff we, parents, can learn from traditional societies

– To stop using strollers, and carry babies horizontally and forward so there is physical contact between the child and the care-giver and infants and adults see the world from the same perspective.

– Giving more opportunities to kids to be with their fathers and allo-parents (aunts, uncles, grandparents) and share education among them all.

– To give kids more autonomy to explore, experiment with stuff and face the consequences of their behavior instead of over-protecting them.

– To pay more attention to children crying instead of the behaviorist position of letting them cry.

– To let children of different ages mix freely both playing and at school

– To let children sleep with their parents at least till a certain age.

– To develop games which are not based on competition or contest, but on cooperation and sharing.

– To help foster creativity in children letting them to build their own toys instead of buying them expensive “educational toys.”

– To let children learn from adults and not separating play and education so drastically.

– To let education in children follow naturally from social life.

As usual, Diamond is careful about his conclusions. So far we got impressions, not hard science. It is very difficult to establish what are the reasons that  generally make children in traditional societies more resilient, autonomous and empathic. But those impressions are relevant and an invitation to explore these natural experiments.

Let’s give Diamond the last words:

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, video games 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 teen-agers aren’t an issue for hunter-gatherer children (p. 208)

2 thoughts on “Chapter 5: Bringing Up Children

  1. Well, first of all, let’s begin to say that I just noticed that the whole text of this chapter was already known to us since we had a link to it in the Spanish-written previous life of our Blog. It didn’t generate much dialogue then but I think that probably convinced us to read the book in the future.

    David, by the way, you said there that this book had horrible critiques. Do you remember what did they attack in the book?

    The chapter is very powerful since, on one side, it touches a very sensitive issue as it is the relationship with our little cubs and, on the other, it really presents us a world so different from ours that one wonders if we are really talking about the same species of ape.

    There is a part of brutality about women dying alone at labor with nobody helping them, children put to death after birth because of being the second twin or just born to early after their older sibling. It is a story of humans in front of the world without disguise.

    And at the same time you have surprising strong emotional ties between adults and children which is somehow lost in our world. Primitive people, hunter gatherers didn’t beat their children. That came to me as a shock. I had always assumed that children had been physically punished since the dawn of humanity. Now it comes out that this is probably a recent innovation of agrarian societies. (So, among other lessons to learn: don’t trust your “always assumed”).

    One can learn from traditional societies as you clearly state in your post. However, most of the traits of that kind of education cannot be applied because you cannot do it alone. If you think that school is a bad idea (and I do) you cannot let your children at home because all the other children are at school and yours will be alone and even more unsocialized than in school. You cannot take your child to work with you because the world is organized in such a way that there is no place for him. Probably somebody would call the police because you are abusing him. Children are put out of the system, they learn the rules of a parallel world (that of the school and their pairs), develop a modern disease called adolescence and after all this, they are supposed to be able to begin to live, work and participate in the adults’ world. Where the hell are they supposed to have learned to live in the adult’s world? If they have been closed in Peter Pans stupid universe for 18 years.

    And this is worse and worse. The last trend is to refuse admission to children in hotels. Apart from reasonable doubts about the legality of this (can you refuse women in a hotel?, can you refuse gays?, and old people? The point is that:

      – children behave improperly because they are isolated from the adults’ world and they do not learn the basic rules of behaviour
      – they disturb because of their bad behaviour
      – the solution: to isolate them even more and to put them into “special hotels for Children”. Peter Pan concentration camps.
  2. Well, those critiques were mostly variations of the following themes:

    1) Diamond is not a professional anthropologist and he shouldn’t try to act as one.
    2) (Related to 1) Diamond does simplify a lot of how traditional societies act in order to sustain his controversial claims
    3) He only examines a handful of traditional societies, mostly from New Guinea.
    4) Diamond thinks that societies can be explained by only appealing to material processes, forgetting that culture is mostly a process of ideas.
    5) Traditional societies are not violent. They became violent when evil white man get in touch with them. He even got demands from Papuans, I believe.

    And I agree with what you expose, it is very difficult to teach our children in a different way considering all the pressures we have from XXI st century society.
    There is one thing in which modern life helps us to be more like traditional societies: alloparents. In this new world in which both mother and father have to work a lot in order to pay all the debts, children can be (actually must be) in touch with grandparents, older aunts and uncles or neighbors. But the rest stinks.

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