What the Pygmies Can Teach Us About Child Rearing

Why do we push our young ones while asking little of our older kids?

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Gary Bryan / Getty Images

With narcissism levels on the rise among college students, and kids everywhere growing up with inflated egos and deflated life prospects, it’s hard to make the case for giving kids yet more pats on the back. But a growing body of research suggests we still have much to learn from traditional societies where babies grow into resilient and caring adults through a steady diet of nurturing.

Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, describes some of the lessons we can learn from today’s hunter-gatherer societies that most closely approximate the way people lived in our ancestral past. While they vary in important ways, most of these societies share a leisurely childhood where infants are constantly held by their mothers or other caretakers and where young children have enormous freedom to play.

(MORE: Judith Warner: Why American Kids Are Brats)

These traditional practices are important to understand because many indices of poor health in children — such as obesity, depression, ADHD and teen suicide — have increased dramatically in the U.S. over the past 50 years. At the same time, play, which has wide-ranging cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits, is under siege from shortsighted school policies, changes in family structure and technology use, and other 21st century pressures. Although it’s tricky to make causal leaps, evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray links the decline in play to a rise in children’s psychopathology via lost opportunities to make friends, learn self control, develop intrinsic motivation and other basic developmental functions.

According to Diamond, babies are nursed on demand in the hunter-gatherer world, are never left to cry (88% of !Kung baby cries are responded to within three seconds), and children exhibit few of the psychological scars of contemporary life. Loneliness and depression are virtually unheard of and children learn empathy through noncompetitive games and the care of younger siblings. Kids in traditional societies have few rules or expectations; in some hunter-gatherer societies, such as the !Kung and Aka Pygmy, young children are even indulged when they slap and insult their parents.

(MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage of Attachment Parenting)

The nuclear family is much less important in hunter-gatherer societies too. Nonparental caregivers play a much bigger role in child care than in contemporary industrialized societies, usually starting immediately after birth. Diamond cites a study of the Efe people, whose infants were passed around among nonparental adults an average of eight times per hour.

Of course, we’ve heard many of these recommendations before: skin-to-skin “kangaroo” care helps premature infants grow. “Breast is best.” Co-sleeping has had its moment too. What’s new is the argument that our modern child-rearing practices are rubbing up against 6 million years of human evolution (when the protochimpanzee and protohuman lines first split apart). The fact of the matter is that babies really weren’t designed to sit in car seats for extended periods of time or to sleep alone in their own bedrooms. And they certainly didn’t evolve to compete with an iPhone for adult attention. The hue and cry over attachment parenting, with images of neurotic yuppies breast-feeding well into elementary school, obscures a basic reality: modern life is not really compatible with the healthy child development we evolved to have.

(MORE: Belinda Luscombe: How Feminism Begat Intensive Mothering)

Why is it so hard to meet the needs of babies and young children? Most obviously, a child-centric approach to human development demands a lot of resources in industrialized societies where the nuclear family bears the burden of child rearing. On-demand breast feeding and 24/7 physical contact are costly luxuries for well-off families, and even where possible, many contemporary parents would sooner dig ditches than live in such constant proximity to their offspring. Our culture is organized around devices, such as baby monitors and strollers, that keep infants at arm’s length.

But there may be more than technology and economics at work. It’s hard to avoid the sense that all this, well, infantilizing is just a bridge too far. If children are losing their moral compass and failing to “launch” into adult roles these days, how can we justify further amplifying the period when our kids are most indulged?

It feels counterintuitive. But cuddling babies is not the same thing as coddling teenagers. Hunter-gatherer childhoods are easy and playful, but adolescents are expected to go out and hunt lions. We seem to have things backward in our contemporary world, pushing our very youngest to do things that don’t make neurological or developmental sense while asking relatively little of our older kids. Human beings are endlessly adaptable, and it’s unrealistic to think we could or should step back in time. But if we want to stop the current slide toward depressed, unhealthy young people, maybe we shouldn’t ignore 6 million years of evolution either.

MORE: Judith Warner: Parents Do What’s Right for Them, Not for the Kids

19 comments
LaurieACouture
LaurieACouture

Your comment about "coddling teenagers" is not factual. Teenagers were cuddled and provided intense amounts of physical affection and nurturance by parents in Hunter-Gatherer societies. Teenagers in our culture are far from "coddled". They are starved for affection and positive time with parents. They are acting-out the affects of years of disconnected, attachment-disrupting mainstream parenting, materialistic lessons from our culture and inhumane, stressful school environments. When these toxic cultural conditions have finally taken their toll on their mental health, teens are then called selfish, aggressive and several other derogatory when in actuality, they are reacting NATURALLY to UNNATURAL environments. If you want to heal your adolescent children, I hope you read my book, Instead of Medicating and Punishing: Healing the Causes of Our Children's Acting-Out Behavior by Parenting and Educating the Way Nature Intended.

2nagels
2nagels

It somehow comes as a surprise to intellect-directed (rather than instinct-directed or even moderately reflective) modern experts that living in harmony with the nutritional and behavioral parameters that humans evolved to function in are more likely to provide the foundation of physical and mental health for humans alive today.

Diamond’s exploration of this “novel” concept with regard to child-rearing is disappointingly cursory and glib.

One of the first people to point out the divergences from our evolutionary heritage was Jean Liedloff in her 1975 book The Continuum Concept, Allowing Human Nature to Work Successfully.

While the medical profession is currently reversing itself on breastfeeding (how nutty that anyone ever proclaimed that substitutes for human milk were more healthful) and the concept of “attachment” parenting is making small inroads, what is arguably the most damaging of all evolutionarily incompatible missteps--medical childbirth--continues to expand it’s destructive influence.  See chapters 12 and 13 of Joseph Chilton Pearce’sEvolution’s End, Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence (1992) for the only description I know of of the delicate and finely-tuned physiological developments that take place in both mother and child before, during and after childbirth and how they are systematically stymied by current “state of the art” birthing protocols, putting both mother and infant at significant physical and psychological disadvantages.

Trey1
Trey1

While we have access to more wisdom than any other nation or generation, we are about as weak of a nation of people as there are.

msfisk111
msfisk111

2/4/13, 10:25am, Bronx, NY...Bringing up baby via the "Pygmy way" is the natural way.  But Pygmy families don't have to worry about paying the landlord, utility bill, the food bill--we do.  I would've stayed home with my kids and been a Pygmy-type Mom if not for the bills and lack of helpful relatives.

elcidharth
elcidharth

Diamond in the Rough@elcidharth.com

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

I'm sorry, but this article basically compares Apples to Apple iPods.  They might have Apple in their names, but both are entirely different.

"Parents" are no different.  There are "parents" in First, Second, and Third World countries.  A First World (FW) country would be the U.S., whereas a Third World (TW) country would be the Republic of the Congo.  Between FWs and TWs exists a world of difference, especially regarding education, technology, and commerce.

As such, child-rearing in FWs and TWs must take those differences into account.  In FWs, children must become accustomed to independent use of technology from a very early age, because his 95%+ of his future interactions will be with other FW children in FW environments.  Conversely, a TW child must become accustomed to the habits and customs of a TW environment in order to thrive in later years.  His interactions with FW children will likely be sparse and sporadic at best.  

Furthermore, it is that very contrast in the environments that allows the child-rearing to differ.  Very likely, Pygmy parents are not connected by cell phone, Facebook, Twitter, email, Instagram, or other social mediums.  As such, they are able to devote more time to their children and villages.  Conversely, technology forces a FW parent to always be "on call," and detracts from time meant for child-rearing.

From this, it's fundamentally unfair to compare Pygmy Parents to their counterparts in the FW.  What is realistic and practical for Pygmies in the 21st century is not so for FW denizens.  It would have been a fairer comparison to draw lessons from other FW parents on successful child-rearing techniques. 


aernst
aernst

I'm living near the Aka Pygmy in the Republic of Congo. There seems to be a romanticized notion about their culture. Their childhood is filled with as much death and malnutrition as with healthy play. Children are cared for because hardly any of them live long enough to be indulged. They may not know loneliness, but they also don't know motivation, health, or opportunity. 

ADauphin04
ADauphin04

I would add that people really need to examine how committed they are to being a "mom" or a "dad". Anyone can be a mother or father; that's just biology. Being a "mom" or "dad" takes a lifelong commitment not everyone can handle. Just because one can do something, doesn't mean they should. Once one has determined their commitment, THEN should the decision to procreate be made. Not simply because it's the "next logical step" in a relationship, or because one's biological clock is ticking, or because of societal expectations. Very few people I know of truly see the seriousness in raising another human being.

RobGulley
RobGulley

Our culture is asking relatively little of our adolescents? Um... have you heard of high school, perhaps? Standardized tests, maybe? Insane pressure to get into college? Just wondering.

pendragon05
pendragon05

That's because child-worship in the USA is completely out of control. Maybe parents need to stop living vicariously through their offspring and stop centering their worlds around their offspring.

NamecNassianer
NamecNassianer

"children learn empathy through non-competitive games"   Well said just before the Super Bowl.

Why is that "there can be only one" winner, and everyone else feels like a loser, particularly the second-place team who came oh-so-close?


2nagels
2nagels

Sorry for that first sentence.  Should read  ...is more likely to provide....  2nagels :)

RavenSingularity
RavenSingularity

I have been intensely planning how I will raise my daughter since I was twelve years old, and I am now in my thirties.  My daughter was born two days ago, and is in great health.  The adventure I have spent half a lifetime planning now begins!

There is nothing as complex (or simple!) as being an ideal parent to a child.  I think the most important parts of parenting, apart from providing the basic necessities, are to always challenge and encourage them with pursuing their interests, while maintaining honest and open communication -- including always honestly answering their questions without a hint of deterence.

elchristakis
elchristakis

@RobGulley I live at the epicenter of that pressure!  But I think more traditional societies understand something profound about how to help children become men and women. In our culture, we are very good at asking adolescents to jump through hoops (SATs, college applications. etc.) but fewer and fewer middle class kids know the experience of building resilience through their own motivation and rewards/failures. I think as a society, many of us parents (myself included) don't do very much to encourage our young people to take responsibility for their actions, and for the wellbeing of others. The rat race culture of college admissions has really made key developmental experiences like menial summer jobs and family chores/childcare obsolete for a lot of families, which I find troubling. I see many college students who seem adrift and depressed, unsure how to make decisions for themselves and unable to trust themselves. High schoolers do, indeed, experience "insane pressure" (I'm not defending our system, though plenty of American high schools are doing the opposite of pressuring kids, which is probably even more unacceptable). Nonetheless I think we are treating our teenagers like infants who can't be trusted to develop properly without a rigid program of adult-approved activities and checklists - and a really disproportionate level of adult supervision. So, yes, I stand by my assertion that we are very tough on babies and toddlers/preschoolers and then, in a fundamental sense, asking relatively little of our older kids. Thanks for your comment and helping me think this through!

ADauphin04
ADauphin04

@RavenSingularity I agree and I wish you and your daughter much peace, many blessings and boundless joy (or as I like to say, PB&J)!

WilliamBarnes
WilliamBarnes

@elchristakis @RobGulley Start by asking kids a question which they should answer truthfully (good luck): What would give you more personal satisfaction, building a palace or destroying one?