Author Archives: Julia

Books and websites on babies

Several people I know are expecting a first baby soon, and I wrote up notes for one of them. Might as well share here too:

Scott Alexander’s Biodeterminist’s Guide to Parenting is an interesting read, and some parts are actionable. 

If you live in an old building (pre-1978 in the US), here’s my writeup on lead paint.

If breastfeeding, KellyMom is my go-to for advice on whatever is going wrong.

On childbirth, I read several books but The Birth Partner is the only one I’d use again. It’s written primarily for the partner rather than the person giving birth, but it’s the best one I read even for the person giving birth. The advice for working out your attitude to pain relief and medical interventions felt more balanced than some of the other more obviously pro- or anti-intervention stuff I read.
Even if you’re not expecting a c-section, read about what aftercare will be like if you do get one. For example laying things out in the house to minimize walking / stairs, figuring out what pain meds you’d be ok with during recovery if breastfeeding.

The Happiest Baby on the Block techniques are well worth learning for dealing with fussy babies. The actual book is needlessly fluffy, but there’s a video version that covered the important stuff in an hour, or there’s a 9-minute version.

Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Cribsheet have some good info, and enough of your friends have read them that you’ll hear about her opinions no matter what. At least on her blog, I feel like her brand is now “don’t worry, studies show your child probably won’t be harmed by X.” I think she’s overly cavalier in a few cases (for example claiming that light drinking during pregnancy won’t hurt; this rebuttal by an epidemiologist specializing in fetal alcohol syndrome was pretty convincing to me.) There are cases where there’s no conclusive evidence that X is bad for your child, but often she’s only looking at one particular type of harm, or it seems like there’s just not enough data to answer the question. For example she convinced me that caffeine is not likely to cause a miscarriage, but that’s not the only harm I care about, and common sense is that you don’t give psychoactive drugs to developing brains.

Now that you can google everything, I don’t feel like a Dr. Spock – style baby guide is that important if you have a decent sense of what babies are like. If you’ve never spent much time around babies, it’s probably worth skimming a baby development type book to get a sense of what happens when. I skimmed Penelope Leach’s Your Baby and Child and T. Berry Brazleton’s Touchpoints, which were both fine.

Another part of why I didn’t feel like I needed a book that explained every last medical situation you could encounter with a baby is that our pediatrician’s office has a 24-hour phone line where they answer your questions about the baby’s rash or whatever. I definitely recommend finding a practice that offers this.

When researching medical problems, I find that children’s hospitals often have good guides. You can find some doctor somewhere with all kinds of opinions, but I assume the guides from children’s hospitals represent some kind of expert consensus. Example on fever.


On sleep training, my take is that people have a pet method they prefer and will tell you the other methods are terrible. But different families do succeed with completely different methods, and if one method is a terrible fit for your family you can switch to another. We used the Weissbluth cry-it-out method and will do it again. If you run into other sleep problems the Ferber book might be worth getting because he’s an actual pediatric sleep expert, while the other authors are usually generic pediatricians. The Ferber book covers a bunch of other sleep stuff like sleepwalking and bed wetting, so might be worth consulting later even if you don’t use it for sleep training.

Aside from nighttime sleep training, read something about nap schedules. One example. If your baby is in daycare, you can ask the daycare what they do and do the same at home.

On potty training when the time comes, the Oh Crap method was great for us. Both kids trained in a weekend.

On other behavior stuff, Jeff’s main thoughts are here and mine are here. I talk a lot in that post about How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, but a lot of it is about older kids. For younger kids, I start with How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen.

Other life stuff:
On time management, Laura Vanderkam is about the only productivity person I can stomach anymore, because she has 5 kids and most other authors seem to write for people with no commitments aside from work. Her book I Know How She Does It is based on time tracking by mothers who earn at least $100k and are presumably pretty busy. The time logs indicate you can work a lot, have some personal time, and spend quality time with your kids if you organize things well and pay for a lot of childcare.

Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is based on a bunch of twin and adoption studies. He argues that they show parenting doesn’t make that much difference and mostly your kid is going to come out how they were always going to come out based on their genetics, so you might as well just focus on enjoying time together instead of shaping them into a star achiever. I thought I was going to be a really relaxed parent after buying these arguments, but there’s still a bunch of environmental stuff like lead exposure that I managed to be anxious about anyway. And there’s still a lot to figure out about how to make life pleasanter in the meantime. 

Notes from “Don’t Shoot the Dog”

I just finished Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog: the New Art of Teaching and Training.” Partly because a friend points out that it’s not on Audible and therefore she can’t possibly read it, here are the notes I took and some thoughts. It’s a quick, easy read.

The author started off as a dolphin trainer at an aquarium park in the 1960s and moved on to horses, dogs, and her own children. There are a lot of anecdotes about how to train animals (apparently polar bears like raisins). At the time, training animals without violence was considered novel and maybe impossible. I read it as a parenting book since I don’t plan to train dogs, horses, or polar bears.

It’s probably not the best guide to training dogs since a lot of it is about people, and not the best guide to training people since a lot is about animals. She’s written a bunch of other books about training dogs and cats. But this book is an entertaining overview of all of it.

The specter of behaviorism
I can understand not wanting to use behavioral methods on children; the idea can sound overly harsh or reductive. The thing is, we already reinforce behavior all the time, including bad behavior, often without meaning to. So you might as well notice what you’re doing.

“To people schooled in the humanistic tradition, the manipulation of human behavior by some sort of conscious technique seems incorrigibly wicked, in spite of the obvious fact that we all go around trying to manipulate one another’s behavior all the time, by whatever means come to hand.”

“There are still people who shudder at the very name of Skinner, which conjures in their minds some amalgam of Brave New World, mind control, and electric shock.”
(B. F. Skinner in fact believed that punishment was not an effective learning tool, and that positive reinforcement was much better for teaching.)

Pryor argues that behavioral training allows you to get good results more pleasantly than with other methods. She describes her daughter’s experience directing a play in high school:

“At the closing performance the drama coach told me that she’d been amazed to see that throughout rehearsals Gale never yelled at her cast. Student directors always yell, but Gale never yelled. ‘Of course not,’ I said without thinking, ‘she’s an animal trainer.’ From the look on the teacher’s face, I realized I’d said the wrong thing—her students were not animals! But of course all I meant was that Gale would know how to establish stimulus control without unnecessary escalation.”

Of course there are bad applications of behavioral training: “The psychological literature abounds with shaping programs that are so unimaginative, not to say ham-handed, that they constitute in my opinion cruel and unusual punishment.”

I don’t know a lot about ABA (applied behavior analysis), which is one application of behaviorism. My understanding is that its bad applications are certainly cruel and ham-handed, although there also seem to be good applications. I think that even people opposed to ABA should be able to find a lot of useful material in this book.

You’re already doing reinforcement training

One point I think is underappreciated is that we all reinforce each other, and children train parents as well as the other way around.

“A child is tantruming in the store for candy. The parent gives in and lets the child have a candy bar. The tantruming is positively reinforced by the candy, but the more powerful event is that the parent is negatively reinforced for giving in, since the public tantrum, so aversive and embarrassing for the parent, actually stopped.”

It’s also easy to accidentally reinforce bad behavior.

I recently read Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona with the kids, in which a preschooler scribbles in a library book she wants to keep. Her older sister pays for the book, and the librarian gives them back the discarded book to keep.
That’s not fair, thought Beezus. Ramona shouldn’t get her own way when she had been naughty.
‘But, Miss Evans,’ protested Beezus, ‘if she spoils a book she shouldn’t get to keep it. Now every time she finds a book she likes she will…’ Beezus did not go on. She knew very well what Ramona would do, but she wasn’t going to say it out loud in front of her.

Jeff and I try to not let bad behavior lead to a reward. For example, our four-year-old was eager to go home from the park, and left without us towards the house. I caught up with her and told her not to leave without us. We were halfway to the house, but If I’d continued home with her from there, she would still have achieved what she wanted: getting home sooner. So I took her back to the park and we redid the whole situation: she said “I want to go home” and I walked home with her. Running off on her own didn’t pay, and she hasn’t repeated it.

Responding to good behavior, not bad

Instead of punishing bad behavior, the emphasis is on noticing and reinforcing good behavior.
“Shutting up about what you don’t like, in order to wait for and reinforce behavior you do like, is counterintuitive and takes some practice.”

My mother, who taught preschool for decades, sums it up as “You have to catch ‘em being good.” 

Some animals can’t be trained by force, or at least can’t be trained to do anything very complicated. Such training was necessary with dolphins because they’ll simply swim away if you try to make them do anything they don’t like. You can only train them by offering something they like (fish).

“As a dolphin researcher whom I worked with sourly put it, ‘Nobody should be allowed to have a baby until they have first been required to train a chicken,’ meaning that the experience of getting results with a chicken, an organism that cannot be trained by force, should make it clear that you don’t need to use punishers to get results with a baby.”

At its best, reinforcement learning is enjoyable for the learner:
“Clicker trainers have learned to recognize play behavior in animals as a sign that the learner has become consciously aware of what behavior was being reinforced. When ‘the light bulb goes on,’ as clicker trainers put it, dogs gambol and bark, horses prance and toss their heads, and elephants, I am told, run around in circles chirping. They are happy. They are excited.”

Clickers and other sounds

Pryor became known for “clicker training” because she started using the method of using a sound to immediately convey “yes, that’s good.” The particular sound isn’t important as long as the learner can hear and recognize it. With aquatic animals you use whistles because they can be heard underwater; with dogs she uses mechanical clicker noisemakers; with a person I’d probably use a specific phrase but some people also use clickers.

The sound initially has no meaning, but by giving it at the same time as a reward (food, smiles, pats) you create an association between the sound and the reward. Later the sound itself is rewarding.

“It often happens, especially when training with food reinforcers, that there is absolutely no way you can get the reinforcer to the subject during the instant it is performing the behavior you wish to encourage. If I am training a dolphin to jump, I cannot possibly get a fish to it while it is in midair. If each jump is followed by a thrown fish with an unavoidable delay, eventually the animal will make the connection between jumping and eating and will jump more often. However, it has no way of knowing which aspect of the jump I liked. Was it the height? The arch? Perhaps the splashing reentry? Thus it would take many repetitions to identify to the animal the exact sort of jump I had in mind. To get around this problem, we use conditioned reinforcers.”

“Breland called the whistle a ‘bridging stimulus,’ because, in addition to informing the dolphin that it had just earned a fish, the whistle bridged the period of time between the leap in midtank—the behavior that was being reinforced—and swimming over to the side to collect one’s pay.”

Pryor describes the program her son (an airplane pilot) designed for pilot training:

“A flight instructor can also click a student for initiative and for good thinking: for example, for glancing over the instrument panel before being reminded to do so. So the clicker can reward nonverbal behavior nonverbally in the instant it’s occurring.”

“Once you have established a conditioned reinforcer, you must be careful not to throw it around meaninglessly or you will dilute its force. The children who rode my Welsh ponies for me quickly learned to use ‘Good pony!’ only when they wanted to reinforce behavior. . . One day a child who had just joined the group was seen petting a pony’s face while saying ‘You’re a good pony.’ Three of the others rounded on her instantly: ‘What are you telling him that for? He hasn’t done anything!'”


This doesn’t mean you give positive attention only during training.

“One can and should lavish children (and spouses, parents, lovers, and friends) with love and attention, unrelated to any particular behavior; but one should reserve praise, specifically, as a conditioned reinforcer related to something real.”

I think when children point out minor accomplishments — “Look at all the sticks I collected” — it’s more often a request for attention than a situation that requires praise. I’m likely to comment in a way that shows interest — “Yes, you’ve got a lot of sticks there!” — but I don’t see a need to evaluate the quality of their stick pile or whatever. I try to save actual praise for something I especially want them to do more of, or something that was new and challenging for them.

Interested attention during training is necessary, and ignoring someone is a kind of punishment:
“If the trainer starts chatting to some bystander or leaves to answer the telephone or is merely daydreaming, the contract is broken; reinforcement is unavailable through no fault of the trainee. This does more harm than just putting the trainer at risk of missing a good opportunity to reinforce. It may punish some perfectly good behavior that was going on at the time. Of course if you want to rebuke a subject, removing your attention is a good way to do it.”

Wrong timing

Pryor emphasizes that if you give punishment or reward at the wrong time, you reinforce the wrong behavior. If you call a dog to you and it finally comes, then you strike it, you’ve punished it for returning to you.

My mother always complained of the same tendency in her choral director: when the singers finally got a difficult passage right, instead of praising them he’d shout “Why couldn’t you do it like that the first time?!”

I’ve noticed the importance of timing when a child finally does what you want, because it’s tempting to scold them even after they’ve shaped up. Anna has a wide variety of delay tactics for brushing her teeth, and I find it easy to be stony-faced when she’s capering around instead of coming to the sink. By the time she finally comes to have her teeth brushed I’m feeling annoyed and would like to give her a lecture. But if I give her an unpleasant response just as she’s finally doing what I want, I disincentivize her from doing it. Instead, as soon as she comes to the sink I become pleasant Mama, smiling and joking.

Maintaining behavior

Once a behavior is established, you use intermittent reinforcement to maintain it:

“In order to maintain an already-learned behavior with some degree of reliability, it is not only not necessary to reinforce it every time; it is vital that you do not reinforce it on a regular basis but instead switch to using reinforcement only occasionally, and on a random or unpredictable basis.”

“Many people initially object to the idea of using positive reinforcers in training because they imagine that they will forever have to hand out treats to get good behavior. But the opposite is true. Training with reinforcement actually frees you from the need for constant vigilance over the behavior, because of the power of variable schedules.”

In people, the behavior itself eventually brings its own reward; we praise toddlers for learning to use the potty, but after the behavior is established we no longer need to reinforce it. And having dry clothes is its own reward.

“The power of the variable schedule is at the root of all gambling. If every time you put a nickel into a slot machine a dime were to come out, you would soon lose interest. Yes, you would be making money, but what a boring way to do it. People like to play slot machines precisely because there’s no predicting whether nothing will come out, or a little money, or a lot of money, or which time the reinforcer will come (it might be the very first time).”

We encountered this in my house when Lily was two. Our housemate would sporadically show her a Sesame Street video on his phone, and she loved this so she’d pester him constantly for it. The reward came unpredictably, so she asked very often. Once he moved to a predictable schedule (one video every day after dinner) she learned the pattern and stopped asking at times of day when she knew it wouldn’t work.

Also affects adult relationships:
“If you get into a relationship with someone who is fascinating, charming, sexy, fun, and attentive, and then gradually the person becomes more disagreeable, even abusive, though still showing you the good side now and then, you will live for those increasingly rare moments when you are getting all those wonderful reinforcers: the fascinating, charming, sexy, and fun attentiveness. And paradoxically from a commonsense viewpoint, though obviously from the training viewpoint, the rarer and more unpredictable those moments become, the more powerful will be their effect as reinforcers, and the longer your basic behavior will be maintained. Furthermore, it is easy to see why someone once in this kind of relationship might seek it out again. A relationship with a normal person who is decent and friendly most of the time might seem to lack the kick of that rare, longed-for, and thus doubly intense reinforcer.”

Pryor training herself to go to class even when she didn’t feel like it, and then maintaining the behavior without the reward:
“I found that if I broke down the journey, the first part of the task, into five steps—walking to the subway, catching the train, changing to the next train, getting the bus to the university, and finally, climbing the stairs to the classroom—and reinforced each of these initial behaviors by consuming a small square of chocolate, which I like but normally never eat, at the completion of each step, I was at least able to get myself out of the house, and in a few weeks was able to get all the way to class without either the chocolate or the internal struggle.”

Sports players and fans become “trained” to do certain actions (wearing their lucky clothes, etc) because they associate it with the team winning. 
“I have seen one baseball pitcher who goes through a nine-step chain of behavior every time he gets ready to pitch the ball: touch cap, touch ball to glove, push cap forward, wipe ear, push cap back, scuff foot, and so on. In a tight moment he may go through all nine steps twice, never varying the order. The sequence goes by quite fast—announcers never comment on it—and yet it is a very elaborate piece of superstitious behavior.”

Raise expectations gradually, with rewards for incremental progress:
“I once saw a father make a serious error in this regard. Because his teenage son was doing very badly in school, he confiscated the youth’s beloved motorcycle until his grades improved. The boy did work harder, and his grades did improve, from Fs and Ds to Ds and Cs. Instead of reinforcing this progress, however, the father said that the grades had not improved enough and continued to withhold bike privileges. This escalation of the criteria was too big a jump; the boy stopped working altogether.”

Pryor claims that you have to be much more consistent with aversives (punishments) than with rewards. Seems like that might be right with animals and young children, but adults are usually willing to avoid committing crimes even if they don’t expect to be caught every time.

“Often when we are teaching the behavior, we use a fixed schedule of reinforcement; that is, we reinforce every adequate behavior. But when we are just maintaining a behavior, we reinforce very occasionally, using a sporadic or intermittent schedule. For example, once a pattern of chore sharing has been established, your roommate or spouse may stop at the dry cleaners on the way home without being reinforced each time; but you might express thanks for an extra trip made when you are ill or the weather is bad. When we train with aversives, however—and that’s the way most of us began—we are usually taught that it is vital to correct every mistake or misbehavior. When errors are not corrected, the behavior breaks down. Many dogs are well behaved on the leash, when they might get jerked, but they are highly unreliable as soon as they are off leash and out of reach. When out with their friends, many teenagers do things that they wouldn’t dream of doing in their parents’ presence. This can happen because the subject is fully aware that punishment is unavailable—when the cat’s away, the mice will play—but it can also happen as a side effect of training with aversives. Since the message in a punisher is ‘Don’t do that,’ the absence of the aversive sends the message, ‘That is okay now.'”

Learners can go long periods of time without a reward:
“One psychologist jokes that the longest schedule of unreinforced behavior in human existence is graduate school.”

When to stop a training session

End a training session while the learner is having success:
“When you stop is not nearly as important as what you stop on. You should always quit while you’re ahead.”

“The last behavior that was accomplished is the one that will be remembered best; you want to be sure it was a good, reinforceable performance. What happens all too often is that we get three or four good responses—the dog retrieves beautifully, the diver does a one-and-a-half for the first time, the singer gets a difficult passage right—and we are so excited that we want to see it again or to do it again. So we repeat it, or try to, and pretty soon the subject is tired, the behavior gets worse, mistakes crop up, corrections and yelling take place, and we just blew a training session.”

Sports training

Pryor notes that in the second part of the 20th century, sports training seems a lot better than when she was young, and has moved toward more effective reinforcement learning:

“I think what had changed in the last decade or two is that the principles that produce rapid results are becoming implicit in the standard teaching strategies: “This is the way to teach skiing: Don’t yell at them, follow steps one through ten, praise and reinforce accomplishment at each step, and you’ll get most of them out on the slopes in three days.”

On patience

Good trainers are disciplined and intentional:

“People who have a disciplined understanding of stimulus control avoid giving needless instructions, unreasonable or incomprehensible commands, or orders that can’t be obeyed. They try not to make requests they’re not prepared to follow through on; you always know exactly what they expect. They don’t fly off the handle at a poor response. They don’t nag, scold, whine, coerce, beg, or threaten to get their way, because they don’t need to. And when you ask them to do something, if they say yes, they do it. When you get a whole family, or household, or corporation working on the basis of real stimulus control— when all the people keep their agreements, say what they need, and do what they say— it is perfectly amazing how much gets done, how few orders ever need to be given, and how fast the trust builds up. Good stimulus control is nothing more than true communication— honest, fair communication. It is the most complex, difficult, and elegant aspect of training with positive reinforcement.”

One thing I notice in all this is that it’s self-reinforcing. The method requires a certain amount of patience and self-discipline from the parent. It’s easier to do that when things are already going well, and in turn you’re rewarded with children who are easier to live with. When parents are exhausted and time-pressed, it’s easier to slip into inconsistency, and both parents and children are more prone to outbursts and unpleasantness. 

Limits of reinforcement

She ends with some warnings about trying to apply reinforcement to absolutely everything, or assuming it’s the only thing in play: 

“Idealistic societies, in imagination or in practice, sometimes fail to take into account or seek to eliminate such biological facts as status conflict. We are social animals, after all, and as such we must establish dominance hierarchies. Competition within groups for increased status—in all channels, not just approved or ordained channels—is absolutely inevitable and in fact performs an important social function: Whether in Utopias or herds of horses, the existence of a fully worked-out hierarchy operates to reduce conflict. You know where you stand, so you don’t have to keep growling to prove it. I feel that individual and group status, and many other human needs and tendencies, are too complex to be either met or overridden by planned arrangements of reinforcement, at least on a long-term basis.”

This isn’t the only tool I’d want in my parenting repertoire. But I do think it’s well worth having.

Baby stuff I’d get again, the third time around

Jeff and I are expecting a third child in June. We gave away most of our baby stuff in the interim, so I’m now considering what stuff to get. Since I’m more experienced than I was the first time, I feel like I don’t need to do as much trial and error.

Basic principles
A note on nurseries

Basic ideas

I’m being neither super minimalist nor maximalist. You might get more or less stuff depending on your budget, your tastes, and the space you have.

Babies grow out of things fast. You can get almost everything used from friends, Ebay, Facebook marketplace, Craigslist, and Facebook groups like Buy Nothing [name of town] where people give things away. It’s cheaper and lighter on the environment. When you’re done, you can send stuff back into the same system. (The same is true for maternity clothes and gear.)

I found it hard to think about buying things that I’d only use for a few months, but they’re intense months. You’ll use a lot of baby products every day. And again, the beauty of the secondhand market is that if you get something and don’t like it you can resell it.


Rather than individual clothing items, I would try to get bundles of clothes for a given size. You can get bags of clothes in the various sizes from any of the sources listed above. Remember seasons (if you’re having a summer baby, you want lightweight newborn clothes and warm 6 month clothes). After that it gets less predictable, so I would hold off on getting 9 month 12 month sizes until you know if you have a big, medium, or small baby.

“Newborn” size clothes are sized for babies around 5-8 pounds, and an average baby weighs around 7.5 pounds already at birth. You can probably skip newborn sizes and go straight to 0-3 month sizes.

If you just buy stuff that’s cute, you will end up with lots of cute patterns that don’t go with each other. Now I try to go for patterned/interesting tops and solid color pants so it’s not too crazy.

Hats: If you live anywhere at all cold, get a warm hat both for warmth and to reduce the rate of older ladies telling you the baby needs a hat. Sunhat for summer. The hats will fall off and get lost at some point – have a backup.


Infant carseat: even if you don’t have a car, you will need this at some point. We used a hand-me-down from a family member – tips on safety of used seats. If you want to use a stroller with the baby in the first year or so, you might want to get one that snaps into a stroller frame (examples). It is possible to fit 3 carseats in a standard car – there are several guides.

Some kind of carrier: Even if you never go anywhere in it, I would still get one to use around the house to be able to hold the baby hands-free. Also good when the baby is fussy and wants to be close to you and in motion. If you can learn to breastfeed in the carrier, even better. We used a stretchy wrap for the first several months, but they’re hot to use in summer. Having a pocket in front is convenient, so you might want to sew one on. They look complicated, but if you can learn to tie shoelaces you can learn to tie a wrap. Wirecutter on soft wraps and slings

For older babies and toddlers, a soft structured carrier. The Baby Bjorn is popular but not very comfortable – there are better ones out there. We used our Ergo for errands, parties, conferences, travel, everything. We continued using it as late as age 3 for when a child was sick and wanted to be held at all times. Wirecutter on structured carriers

We got a double stroller once we had two little kids. We got one for the specific things we needed (narrow to get through store aisles, single front wheel to get up onto a bus, rain cover) because we had no car and used it as our main vehicle. For others it’s more of an occasional thing and they might want other characteristics, or might not need it at all.

Cold weather gear:

Outdoor clothes: We had a warm zip-up suit that the baby could wear in a carseat for winter. If they’re going to be buckled into a carseat or stroller, you need something with legs that separate rather than a sack shape, or a hole for the buckle to go through.

If you plan to wear the baby outside in cold weather, some way to keep the baby warm in the carrier. A snowsuit with feet doesn’t work well because it gets pulled too tight and is uncomfortable on their feet and crotch. I sewed a panel into my coat. I’ve also seen parent tuck a blanket or something around the baby and the carrier.


Diapers and wipes: We cloth diapered for the first 6 months and then decided this was not an additional task we wanted in our lives. Now we use disposable diapers. The big boxes of storebrand ones from Target are cheap and worked fine for us.

Even if you are cloth diapering, I would get some disposable newborn diapers for the first two weeks or so because they come with a cutout so they don’t bother the umbilical cord while it’s still attached.

Diaper pail: Many of the specialized diaper pails like the Diaper Genie only work with special bags that cost more than normal trash bags. We ended up using normal lidded trash cans and normal trash bags. I do recommend a lid, but it doesn’t have to be hermetically sealed.

Nasal aspirator thing, aka snotsucker: Nosefrida or similar. At some point your baby will have a stuffy nose and be unable to breathe while latched on to the breast or bottle, and it will be a sad day for everyone. This device will unstuff their nose. Yes, it’s gross, but this kind works better than the bulb kind. My babies hated having their noses cleaned in any way, but life is better once they can breathe freely.
Minimal version: A doctor I know says the old-fashioned method used by some of her patients on their babies is just mouth-to-nose suction.

Some kind of spit cloths: babies vary a lot in how much they spit up. Even with not-very-spitty babies, we wanted some. You can use things sold as burp cloths, old cloth diapers, cut up flannel baby blankets, or whatever. You can get or make bandana-type drool bibs so the baby’s shirt doesn’t keep getting wet.

Some kind of bathtub: We used the bathroom sink for the first few months, and later a plastic tub that I think was meant to hold drinks. Even once they’re old enough to sit in the big tub, it’s nice to have something quicker to fill, and ideally small enough that they can’t tip over very easily. 
Minimal version: wash baby in the sink with a towel for padding, or take a bath with the baby and hold them. I find both more annoying, especially in sinks with a popup drain where the baby inevitably sits on the drain and opens it, draining all the water out.


Somewhere comfortable to sit: If you’re breastfeeding, you will spend a lot of time sitting and feeding the baby. Some people just do that in bed or on a couch. The Ikea Poang chair is a popular cheap alternative to gliders or rockers. I prefer a chair with padded arms (for less head-bonking) and where I can rest both my elbows on the arms at once (for me, that’s a narrower chair). I do like a glider, and since I’m going to spend a lot of hours in this chair I did get one I thought would be maximally comfortable.

If you want one that moves, I would go with a glider rather than a rocker. Rockers move around on your floor so you have to keep repositioning them after you’ve rocked for a while, and if you have cats or older children it can rock on their feet or tail.

If you have older children, you might want a glider where the gliding mechanism is not exposed, so nobody gets their hands and feet caught in it. DaVinci is one brand with a bunch of such gliders.

I’m paranoid about flame retardants in furniture, so I get one that’s not made with flame retardants (like Ikea or some other brands) or where I can take off the cushions and wash them. Since no one in our house smokes, our furniture is very unlikely to catch fire.

Footstool: if you’re short enough that your feet don’t easily rest on the floor in your chair, a footstool of some kind is nice. I like this wooden kind.

I don’t know what people find best for bottlefeeding – I assume the chair is less important.

Breastfeeding pillow: something to rest the baby on while you’re feeding them. I have one for upstairs and one for downstairs. Boppy and the oddly-named My Brest Friend are the two common kinds.
Depending on the distance between your lap and your breasts, you might want a thicker pillow. I jam extra stuffing inside a Boppy kind.
Minimal version: use regular pillows, or feed the baby lying down.

Breastpump: If you’re going to be pumping at work. In the US, your insurance will probably cover a couple of models, but if you use it every day you might want to buy your own if the model you want isn’t covered. Wirecutter on pumps. I loved having one with a rechargeable battery so I didn’t have to plug it in everywhere, but you can also get an external battery for models that don’t come with this. 

If you’re pumping every day, definitely get some way to pump hands-free, whether it’s a bra that can hold the pump parts, or a wearable pump. This way you can still use your computer, read, etc while you’re pumping.

There are a lot of in-bra models now that didn’t exist when I first looked into this; I would look at those if you’re going to pump at work. And someday the MIT breastpump hackathon may save us all from poor design and those little flaps that wash down the drain.

If you expect to pump only occasionally, a hand pump is fine. Wirecutter recommends a couple. Also worth having for travel, public bathrooms, etc where you don’t necessarily want to bring your full electric pump or can’t plug it in.
Minimal version: hand express and you don’t need a pump at all. It’s slower and won’t get as much milk, though.

Some kind of bottles: Even when I was breastfeeding 95% of the time, we did a couple bottles a week so I could go to dance practice. I would start with a few and then buy more if you like that kind, or try different kinds if not. Then buy more of the kind you like.

If your baby is not liking bottles, you might want to try different kinds. Some breastfeeding support groups have loaner kits where you can try out a bunch of different ones.

I wanted to avoid plastic bottles, so we used glass bottles with silicone covers. I was happy with them.

Something to dry bottles on: All those little bits can take over your counter very fast. There are various racks intended for drying bottle parts.
Minimal version: dishcloth, but wash it pretty often

High chair: I love this one that buckles into a normal chair. We used it every day, and it’s light enough that we packed it in our suitcase (with clothes in the crevices) when traveling.

Bib: I get the kind with sleeves. The kind that just covers their front still leaves their arms/sleeves covered in food.

Clothes you can breastfeed in: If relevant. You can get ones that are specifically made for this, with some kind of opening or layers that lift out of the way. I typically wore loose shirts with a tank top underneath, aka the two-shirt method. That way you don’t need to buy a different set of clothes.
Most dresses do not work for breastfeeding because you’d need to hike the whole thing up to your shoulders. Dresses and tops can work fine if they have a wrap style, or have buttons at the neckline that can be undone, or are stretchy enough that you can pull the top down.
If you’ll be breastfeeding at night, think about sleep clothes – button-down pajamas or stretchy tank tops work well.
(For the first few weeks when you’re figuring it out, don’t worry about clothes – just hang out at your house and feed the baby the best you can. You can figure out how to do it in clothes later.)

Bra you can breastfeed in: Most people seem to like the kind with little buckles that open up. I’ve always used something like a stretchy cami bra that can be pulled out of the way. You might start by finding one you like and then getting more.


Swaddles: The blanket method is good to know, but velcro is so much better and less likely to come undone. By far my favorite is this sleepsack with wings, so they can have arms out or in. More recommendations from Wirecutter. Some babies hate swaddling, but enough people (including us) find it so helpful that I would have some swaddles available. I would have at least two so you still have one to use when the other is in the wash. In a pinch while out of the house, we have swaddled Lily in an adult flannel shirt or any other thing we could wrap around her to get her to sleep.

Something to sleep in during the early stage (first six months or so):
You could just go straight to a crib. You’ll be getting up to feed them a lot, so you might find it more convenient to have the crib in your room rather than in a separate room.
You could cosleep (sleep with baby in your bed), but if you already have two adults in the bed I’d recommend sidecar-ing another mattress or using a co-sleeper so the baby has room. Cosleeping is most dangerous when you do it without planning out of exhaustion – if you want to do it, figure out a safe setup where baby won’t fall off the bed, get trapped between mattress and wall, covered with a blanket, etc.

This time I am biting the bullet and getting this ridiculously expensive robo-bassinet that rocks and shushes the baby. (I’m getting it used, but they’re not cheap even used.) If it does result in significantly better sleep, even for 5 months of use that’s a cost of about $7/night, and as the parent of a newborn I would definitely pay $7 for an additional 30 or 60 minutes of sleep a night.

Crib, crib mattress and crib sheets: Easy to get used. We kept them in cribs as long as possible, which worked well for us. Once they seemed on the verge of climbing out, we just moved them to the same crib mattress on the floor without the crib frame. A child doesn’t actually outgrow the size of a crib mattress until they’re 5 or so.

Crib sheets and waterproof mattress covers: I recommend the layering method so when your child has a stomach virus or whatever and you change the sheets in the middle of the night, even if you have to do it multiple times, you just take off the dirty layer instead of wrestling more sheets on. I like to have at least 3 layers (so 3 sheets and 3 mattress covers).

Minimal version: cosleep in parents’ bed, but you probably still want a bigger mattress or an additional mattress to put alongside yours.

Night light: to see the baby a little while you’re feeding them at night.

White noise machine: Especially when sleeping in the same room as the baby, this was helpful for everyone’s sleep. You can use your phone (or an old phone with no data) and a white noise program, but you want to be able to take your phone out of the room. We used the Dohm kind that’s basically a little fan. Or you could use an actual fan, pointed away from anyone.

Air conditioner: We’ve done without air conditioning for nearly our whole time in Boston. But when you have a baby who normally sleeps swaddled, and it’s too hot to swaddle them, it’s a very rough night. We finally own, and periodically use, a window unit.
Minimal version: just have bad sleep when you can’t swaddle them

Warm sleeping clothes: We used sleep sacks through age 3 or so (search for “wearable blanket” or “sleep sack”). Thick ones keep the baby warm in winter without blankets that can get over their face or get kicked off. Even in summer, they make it much harder to get a leg over the side of the crib.

Blackout curtains: Your baby does not have to wake up at dawn. We made some curtains that velcro for a good seal. There is a commercial version too.
Minimal version: try aluminum foil or black garbage bags first, or while traveling. It might get moldy if you leave it indefinitely, so I would take it down periodically and wipe off the windows.

Baby monitor: Unless your apartment is so tiny you can hear the baby from anywhere. We liked having one with one parent set that lived in our bedroom all the time and another one that we’d carry around during the day. I can see how a video one could be useful but have not used one.


Something to put the baby down in: 
For the early weeks when they lie down a lot, we used a bassinet on the floor.
For once they want to sit up and look around, we used some kind of bouncer seat. We liked the kind with a wire frame that you could push with your foot so that the whole thing bounces, like this or similar.

Teethers: I’m getting a natural rubber one because I’m not keen on them chewing on plastic.


Something to change the baby on: You probably want a changing table if you have a c-section or have back or knee problems that makes it hard to be on the floor. I don’t find that I want one, and don’t plan to have one this time. You can change the baby on a mat on the floor, or just a folded towel on the floor. I switched to this after Lily fell off the changing table (which was my fault, but it made clear that I should switch to a more foolproof method). If you do want something at table height, you can use a changing mat on top of a low dresser – they make trays to hold the mat on top of the dresser.

Other swaddle type things: we used the Baby Merlin sleepsuit (basically a stiff snowsuit type garment that makes it hard for them to roll over) as a transition once our second baby started rolling over in the swaddle. There are various other kinds of swaddle-ish things. I wouldn’t get one preemptively, but worth trying if your baby is waking themselves a lot by rolling or startling.

Stroller: We didn’t get one until I was pregnant with our second child and it got uncomfortable to wear the older one everywhere. I did like having a double stroller with two little kids. Obviously some people get a lot of use out of theirs with one kid, but we preferred using a carrier.
If using the stroller in really cold weather, I would get one of those bag-type buntings that fastens into the stroller and keeps the baby’s legs and torso covered.

Bumbo or other thing for the baby to sit in: marketed to help your baby learn to sit up, but the child development people think it’s bad for that. Can be useful for having the baby sit near you while you’re cooking, sorting laundry, etc. We had one but didn’t use it much.

Toys: people will give you some random toys. You can wait and see what you get.

Socks: they just fall off and get lost. If you need to keep their feet warm, some kind of booties with elastic or velcro stay on better. Or put them in footie suits.

Baby shoes: they don’t need them, and it’s better for foot development to walk barefoot or in minimally structured shoes. Once they learn to walk and need something to protect their feet outdoors, here are recommendations for flexible-soled shoes.

Baby food: we did the baby-led weaning method and gave the kids pieces of table food, and soft things like yogurt. Spoon-feeding can be more convenient in some ways (can be faster and less messy) and less convenient in other ways. Most parents do more spoon-feeding purees, which seems fine, just not what we prefer to do.

A note on nurseries

A surprisingly large portion of the baby-related internet is devoted to setting up and decorating your baby’s nursery. If you enjoy decorating a baby-themed room, that’s cool. But be clear that aside from some basics, the room is for you, not the baby. They do not care if there is a color theme. They will not appreciate the wall art.

Make it comfortable, and optionally make it pretty if that’s something you’ll enjoy. But you’ll probably spend more time hanging out in the living room than you will in the baby’s room.

Once the baby is crawling, having their room be a fully childproofed “yes space” means you can leave them there while you go to the bathroom or whatever.

Toddlers do not have tastes that look good by Pinterest standards; as soon as they get some say in how the room is decorated they will probably want it full of rocks, things they found in the recycling, etc. More on scruffy spaces.

Gift ideas for preschool / early elementary children

Previously: gift ideas for young children (0-2)

I thought I’d list some toys our kids have especially liked. None of these are amazing revelations that you probably couldn’t find on other sites.

I’m picking things that need little or no adult supervision, unless otherwise specified.

A few of these (especially the Melissa and Doug toys) are so ubiquitous that you might well duplicate toys they already have, so it might be worth asking the family if they already have them. We had three identical wooden train sets at one point. This is fine for sets that build on each other, less so for other toys that you really don’t need multiples of.

Eeboo, Mudpuppy, and Crocodile Creek puzzles – attractive and well-made large jigsaw puzzles.

Melissa and Doug toys of many kinds. We have several of the food sets that have gotten a lot of use, including pizza, cupcakes, and cutting food. The cleaning set is surprisingly good for actual cleaning.

Battat take-apart airplane (and other similar take-apart toys from the same company). Pieces go together with big plastic screws. The coolest part is that it comes with a working drill (forward and backward) that you use to put the screws in and take them out. Unlike a bunch of construction toys, the pieces are big and simple enough that a 5-year-old can do it themselves with maybe some adult help the first time.

Some kind of marble run set. A poorly made one is pretty annoying, so I do think it’s worth reading reviews. The ones that snap together are easier for younger kids than the wooden kind that falls completely apart if you bump into it.

Costumes: hats, crowns, and fancy dresses have been popular with my kids. You can buy used sequiny dance costumes on Ebay.

Play kitchen. There are usually some on Craigslist or similar sites. The Ikea one is popular for good reason.

Dolls and stuffed animals: when I asked the kids, these were the first things they listed as their favorite toys. BUT we’ve been given about 9 times more volume of stuffed animals than the kids actively play with, it’s kind of a storage problem, and I would not suggest getting these for other people’s children without checking what they already have.

Paper activity books: Play All Day is maybe out of print but I think it’s the best. Masha’s World, My Giant Press Out Activity Book.

Dollhouse: I would only get this for a kid who’s already into dolls. 2-4 seemed to be the peak years for dollhouse interest. There’s a sort of standard wooden type with expensive ones by Hape and Melissa and Doug, and some other cheaper ones for typical 4-inch wooden dolls.

Physical play:

Bilibo: plastic seat / teeter totter thing. Versatile and doesn’t take that much space.

A kite. Get one described as for kids or beginners.

Large floor mattress: ONLY get this for your own household, not someone else’s unless you are sure they want it. Most of Anna’s bedroom is taken up by a queen mattress. (She sleeps on a different smaller mattress.) It serves as a guest bed, a sleepover location when Lily wants to spend the night with her, a trampoline, a circus ring, and a gymnastics tumbling mat.

(In climates with snow) snowpants and sleds. Snowpants for both kids and adults mean you can do stuff in snow or cold weather and not be miserable.


What We Do All Day has my favorite collection of book suggestions by age, topic, etc. Can use for picture books, or longer books to read aloud to kids at this age.

You can search for “Caldecott lot” on Ebay or similar sites and find collections of prize-winning books, often classics from other decades.

Anything published by Usborne seems reliably good. For example their “Look inside” series of lift-the-flap books about science topics like space and the human body, good for younger kids who aren’t ready for wordy science books.

Let’s Read and Find Out science series is also good, with topics from germs to weather to animals. Some are old enough that you can search Ebay for “Let’s read and find out lot” and get bundles of them, but I haven’t found the info outdated.

Board/card games:

My First Orchard: attractive wooden pieces, teaches game mechanics, no skill involved. Pieces are big enough that you can play with a baby around and they cannot eat the pieces. Best for age 2-4.

Rush Hour, Rush Hour Jr, or Three Little Piggies spatial puzzle games. The first two seem to be very similar except that the Jr version has some easier puzzles.

Uno: of the standard children’s games, less boring for adults than Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. Can play a simplified version starting around age 4.

Board Game Geek’s lists of games by suggested age. Mostly pretty obscure unless you’re in Germany (and maybe even there.)

Open-ended materials:

I would not give messy project type supplies (e.g. paint) as a gift unless you know the parents are up for that.

String. Rope. Scrap cloth. Tissue paper. Giftwrap. So much scotch tape.

Big rolls of paper. Washable paints (watercolor, tempera). Paint sticks. Spillproof paint containers and brushes. Washable markers. Pipe cleaners. Pompoms.

Digging tools like shovels and trowels, either sets for kids or small real tools. Can be used at the beach or in dirt.

Bucket, bowls, boxes with lids, other containers.

Flashlight. Kids leave them on and the batteries run down, so we’ve enjoyed a wind-up rechargeable one.

Rocks and branches in the yard.


Tiny Polka Dot: card game with lots of variations for different levels.

Counting bears: This set or any of many other sets. We use ours a lot for Bear Store, other ideas here.

A bowl of pennies. We use them as counters for a bunch of things.

After developing a distaste for BOB books and other learn-to-read books, Lily had a breakthrough with the Acorn series at age 6. They have chapters, but with few enough words per page that they’re manageable for a kid who needs to sound out a lot of words. A key thing was getting books on a topic she was interested in (fairies, in her case.)

Needs adult supervision:

Snap circuits Jr. Lily listed this as one of her favorites. Some of the projects are loud (I have banned the one that plays “Happy Birthday” during work hours). She was ready for this at age 6.

Science kit: there are a lot of ones that look kind of bad, but this one has been a hit. Lily really wanted to do the kind of science where you need to wear goggles, and this did it for her.

Pricey but versatile:

Magnatiles or similar magnetic tiles. My kids never got super into these, but they’re consistently recommended enough by other families that they’re worth considering.

Duplos: my kids did get super into these. The cheapest option we found was buying them by the pound on Ebay, though you might get knockoffs instead of name-brand Duplos which are easier to work with. My kids are more into narrative than pure construction, so the animals that came with our set were a big part of their enjoyment. We haven’t gotten into legos yet except for travel, where a lego set can provide a lot of playtime for little luggage space.

You can make maple syrup in a slow cooker

I tried to find out if anyone had successfully done this, and couldn’t find verification on the internet. So this is just to confirm: yes, you can boil maple sap into syrup in a slow cooker / crock pot. This is my third year doing it.

I’m not sure if the cost of the electricity makes this actually cheaper than buying maple syrup from the store, but for me it’s a fun project. Outdoor fires are not practical or legal in the city where I live, and indoor boiling creates more steam than I’m up for. So for me, the slow cooker has worked well.

One of many guides about how to tap trees and collect sap.

I verified that two of my trees were maples. (One produced barely any sap – I think it’s a Norway maple which apparently doesn’t drip well. Now I just tap the other.) I got some taps from Amazon or somewhere. You need a drill with the right size bit to tap your tree.

Once the weather is right (below freezing at night and above freezing in the day), it’s time to collect sap. Typically this is in January – March depending on where you live and the particular year. I used this app the first year, and I don’t anymore but I just want to share my joy that it is called the Sap Tap App.

I use well-washed gallon milk jugs to collect and store the sap. I keep them in my fridge, or outside if it’s not too warm – you don’t want the collected sap sitting around at warm temperatures for days or it gets nasty.

Last year I showed Lily’s kindergarten class how syrup is made, and we tapped this tree at the school. The jug got played with, knocked over, etc so it’s good we had backup sap from my tree. 0/10 do not recommend schoolyards as a place to collect food products, other than for demonstration purposes.

The process of turning watery sap sap into thick syrup is basically reducing it about to 1/40th its volume by evaporating the water out of it. Traditionally you boil large pans or pots of sap at a high temperature, which puts a lot of steam into your house if you do it inside and requires some amount of watching to be sure it’s not boiled down too much about about to burn. The slow cooker method is, well, slower.

I fill my slow cooker with as much sap as it will hold, and keep it on high constantly for several days. Leave the lid off – remember the point is for the water to leave the pot. It won’t boil, but will stay hot and gradually reduce. Add more sap about once a day. You don’t want it to burn overnight, so be sure it’s at least half full if you’re leaving it on overnight. After a few days, many gallons of sap will be about half a gallon of amber-colored fluid. I store that in the fridge in a glass jar and repeat with fresh sap. Once the sap has stopped running or I’m tired of having the slow cooker occupying the counter, it’s time to finish the syrup as per these directions. You can do this in the slow cooker or in a pot on the stove. Cook it until it’s thick like syrup. It will try to boil over if you’re doing this on the stove.

The finished syrup keeps indefinitely in the fridge. Here’s a jar from last year that we’re still finishing up:

Who benefits from the au pair program?

I’m writing this post from more of an economics-y perspective than usual. I used to be super suspicious of this approach because I read it as cold and selfish. I hope you’ll take me in good faith here as caring about au pairs, about people who could become au pairs if they were allowed to, about host families, and about other childcare workers. I seriously considered being an au pair, and I’ve done stints as a daycare worker and a nanny. While that’s not the same as being an au pair or a professional long-term childcare worker, I do think I have some basic understanding and compassion for everyone involved here.

We’ve hosted au pairs for the last 4.5 years, and I have mixed feelings about it. But I want to lay out some things that I think are misunderstood about the program.

The main objections I know of to the au pair program:

  • The program is exploitative. Au pairs earn less than the minimum wage. It isn’t truly focused on cultural exchange, and is really a way for American families to get cheap childcare. 
  • Some host families break the program rules.
  • The program undermines American workers.


The basics of the US program: the government allows au pair agencies to facilitate matches between au pairs and host families, and then issues temporary work visas to au pairs.  Their legal status is some weird hybrid of an exchange student and an employee. Au pairs must be unmarried childless high school graduates between 18 and 26. Host families must house and feed the au pair and pay $500 toward some kind of education for them. Au pairs cannot work more than 10 hours a day or 45 hours a week, and cannot do any work besides childcare for the host family, and cannot do any other work. Both au pairs and host families pay the agency for things like screening, the au pair’s travel to the US, and having a local staff member who mediates problems. The arrangement lasts one year by default but can be extended as far as two years.

The au pair program in Massachusetts changed after the state court decided that a different set of laws applied, meaning that au pairs would be paid the state minimum wage rather than a stipend as in other states, and some other protections that apply to domestic workers now apply to them. So things are currently better for Massachusetts au pairs (except the ones who were laid off when the cost jumped). 

On bad host families:

  • It’s absolutely true that some host families are exploitative and disrespectful to au pairs, and the au pair agencies should kick these families out. Any au pair can tell you stories of friends who are expected to work extra hours unpaid, who aren’t given proper bedrooms but expected to sleep in a laundry room, etc. The au pairs are not on an even footing — if they leave their host family, they have only two weeks to match with another family before being deported. Many stay in bad arrangements out of fear of being sent home. As far as I can tell, these families are allowed to stay with the program and continue hosting au pairs. Agencies should be more aggressive in removing such families from the program, and should better support au pairs who leave because of bad treatment, but they seem to be reluctant because most of their income comes from the host families. The federal government licenses agencies, and it should withdraw licences from agencies that aren’t doing an adequate job here.
  • Not all au pairs are lovely rule-abiding people either (one stole money from us), but the families are in general less vulnerable than the au pairs. 

On motivations:

  • Yes, for most families the primary draw of the program is lower-cost childcare rather than cultural exchange. This is fine — we don’t expect families to prioritize cultural exchange when choosing a daycare or school. And it’s no wonder that families want to pay less for childcare: in most states, care for an infant costs more than state college. Charts here. When Lily was a baby, an infant spot at a large daycare cost about $30,000 a year and the cheapest childcare we could find was about $19,000 a year at a poorly-run one-room operation. When we had a second child and an au pair became the cheaper option, it was a relief to switch.
  • Another attraction for families is in-home care. It’s great to not have to get your children out the door to daycare, especially if you work odd hours. An au pair just has to walk downstairs and won’t get stuck in traffic or kept away by bad weather.
  • For au pairs, a lot of the draw is the chance to live in the US for a while and travel in their spare time. (This pandemic year has been a tough one for au pairs because they didn’t get to see the sights as they expected.) For ones who want to improve their English, it offers a lot of language practice. And for those used to living under the watchful eyes of their parents, it can offer a lot more social freedom. And as I’ll say later, the pay is often better than what they could make at home.

On pay: 

  • Au pairs get housing, food, sometimes car access, and a $200/week stipend. (More in Massachusetts.) That comes out to less than $5/hour, while federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. But consider that our last au pair came from El Salvador, where college-educated workers might expect to earn about $5,000/year as a teacher or accountant. By contrast, au pairs in the US make almost twice as much, and have basic living expenses paid. (Families pay quite a bit more than that, but the rest goes to the au pair agency.)
  • My first job out of college was a similar arrangement — I was a “kitchen intern” at a religious center, working as a cook for $200/month plus room and board. In retrospect I’m sure it wasn’t legal, but it worked well for me. When I filled out the sliding-scale form to get birth control at Planned Parenthood, the receptionist was incredulous that my income was so low. But because I had basically no expenses, I paid off a bit of my student loans and had less stress about my living situation than most new graduates. I realize I still had a lot of privilege as a college-educated American. But for young women in poorer countries without a lot of good options, I think this kind of arrangement is still a good chance to save money (or spend it on travel, or whatever they choose.)
  • I worry that saying “the amount au pairs are paid is too low” ignores the question of what would happen if they didn’t have the option of this program. After their time with us, most of our au pairs have gone back to living with their parents. One of them has gone back to her small town in Argentina with no good employment prospects. Another has gone back to a homophobic country after two years of being out and proud in Boston. I don’t know if their long-term trajectory was changed, but I’m glad they had a time of higher income and more freedom here. A third got another visa and hopes to stay in the US, which she feels is safer than her home country. I don’t see how taking the au pair option away from them would have been better or fairer to them.
  • And what if the program required higher pay? That would be better for those who get au pair jobs, but I expect fewer of them would have jobs. Some families would be priced out, as happened when Massachusetts raised wages: many families left the program, and some agencies stopped operating in Massachusetts. At some price, it’s not worth matching with a stranger over Skype and hoping they’ll be a good fit with your family for the next year vs. getting local childcare.

On race and nationality:

  • There’s a weird dynamic around white families hiring people of other races to watch their children. There’s a long history of behavior by employers that ranges from distasteful to truly awful, including deliberately limiting the options people of color had (particularly Black Americans) in order to retain them as cheap labor for childcare, agriculture, etc. 
  • Our last several au pairs have been Latin American, largely because their academic calendar lines up with the time of year we were looking. In some way, it felt more comfortable to have a white American nanny or a white Australian au pair, because I didn’t worry that other people would feel we were somehow being racist. I know I treated them all with the same respect and same adherence to the rules regardless of color or nationality, but I somehow felt like a bad progressive by hiring Latinas to watch my white children. Of course, the urge to look like a good progressive by hiring someone of my same race is harmful — it discriminates based on race, and discriminates against precisely those people who would most benefit from the position. In my experience, the Latin American au pairs we’ve matched with have been better educated and more motivated than au pairs from richer countries who are more likely to be looking for something like a vacation year.

On displacing American workers:

  • My basic response to the concern that au pairs is that they take childcare jobs from US residents: I don’t think it’s fair to favor some people over others because of where they happen to have been born. Overall, I favor more immigration.
  • In my area, the going rate for a nanny is around $40,000 / year, more if they have experience and speak good English. That’s a bit below the Boston median individual income, but once you account for the fact that most nannies don’t pay taxes, I expect they come out better than the typical Boston resident. Even if you believe that US residents have more right to US jobs than other people, it seems like the pay is good enough that there’s room for more qualified workers here.
  • Au pair visas have been frozen for the last 6 months, along with some other visa types, in an effort to protect American jobs. During the pandemic with schools and daycares closed and in-home childcare in particularly high demand, freezing au pair visas seems especially bad. 

Bottom line

  • In general, when the rules are enforced, I think the au pair program is a win-win for host families and au pairs.

Indirect hat tip to Brian Caplan’s piece on tourism and social desirability bias, on why rich tourists spending their money in poorer locations is good even though it highlights inequality – not doing so doesn’t actually help inequality.

Children’s podcast recommendations

I’ve emailed my list to enough friends that I should really just post it.

Podcasts have been a big part of Lily’s life since around age 4. Before that, she spent a lot of her time demanding of any available adult, “READ. READ TO ME” (once she literally asked the cat, who did not read to her). We read a lot and told her a lot of stories, but her appetite for stories was more than we could really keep up with.

We still read every day, but since she discovered podcasts she basically has an endless supply of stories, and we’re all happier. We ration videos but let her listen to audio as much as she wants.

Hardware: We’ve gotten lots of mileage out of a $50 Amazon Fire kids tablet, which she’s used for podcasts for 3 years. It has withstood being dropped and stepped on. She also uses it for videos on long trips, various math and reading games, and now Zoom calls for school. They’re always on sale on Black Friday.
If you have someone’s old smartphone floating around your house, those can also be a good podcast vehicle for kids (with wifi, no phone service needed.)

Age 3-4:

Frog and Toad audiobooks: not a podcast, but just the best. It’s the only audio Lily was interested in starting at age 2.5, when this book got us through a drive from Philadelphia to Boston. I checked it out from our library’s digital section month after month.

“Sparkle Stories”: This podcast is mostly on a subscription service, but they issue one free story a week. The “Martin and Sylvia”, “So Many Fairies”, and “Junkyard Tales” series are best for this age; some of the other series are meant for older kids. Quiet, wholesome vibe.

“Story time with Josh and Blue”: Blue’s Clues podcast, all bedtime/sleep themed

“Thomas and Friends”: Thomas the Tank Engine stories

Age 5 and up: (Lily is currently 6, not sure how long she’ll be interested in some of these)
Easy on my ears:

“Bedtime stories podcast” / Tales from the Lilypad (seems to be two names for the same show): gentle stories including some sleep meditations. She manages to do a non-scary retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur.

“Little stories for tiny people”: Gentle, original stories. I like how the guest speaker is always an animal who says nothing.

“Molly of Denali”: serial story set in indegenous Alaskan town, based on PBS show.

“Circle Round”: Folktales from around the world, high production values, from WBUR radio.

“Storynory” – British, original stories, some scarier stories taken from mythology or history.

“Stories podcast: a bedtime show for kids of all ages”: with picture of green dragon. Some dragon / ogre stories that Lily found scary at age 4/5. “The Brilliant Firefly” series is a superhero serial aimed at older kids, definitely too scary for Lily at this age.

“Stories from the woods”: I don’t remember much about this one, but Lily’s listened to it a lot.

“Story Time” from bedtime FM: another one I don’t remember much about. British.

Good but loud / frantic to my ears:
“Wow in the World”: science podcast from NPR. They break down scientific research into manageable pieces – pretty sure this is the reason Lily knows what a hypothesis is. I like the concept, but it’s an ear-grabbing rather than relaxed style.

“Story Pirates”: stories and songs based on prompts sent in by kids. Funny but frantically paced.

“What if World”: more stories based on prompts sent in by kids along the format “what if …” I find some of the voices annoying.

“Stories Podcast: A Bedtime Show for Kids of All Ages”: aka Amanda Weldon. If you’re going to listen to this a lot, worth joining the Patreon for a few dollars to avoid ads. Most voices are not annoying, except the chihuahua in the “Dog King” series.

Review of two Rhiannon Giddens songs

I listened to the “Folk Songs” album from Kronos Quartet, partly because of the two Rhiannon Giddens songs. I was interested to know the backstory on her songs, but I got annoyed by reading reviews of these songs that seemed to miss critical pieces. The only review I could find of “Lullaby” called it “sprightly”, apparently entirely missing the point. The review I read of “Factory Girl” didn’t go into the changes Giddens made to the traditional song.

Giddens is a North Carolinian of European, African, and American Indian descent, and her music often reminds me that the white folk music traditions I’m familiar with tell only part of the region’s story.

A cuckoo is a “brood parasite” that lays its eggs in another bird’s nest. The other birds go through the trouble of feeding and protecting the young cuckoo, not realizing it’s not their own. It’s the origin of the word “cuckold” – a man who doesn’t realize he may be raising another man’s child in his nest. It appears in folk music in various contexts, most often people lamenting their false lovers.

But to hear a black woman address her young charge as “little cuckoo” is even more grimly appropriate. The child is described as blond and blue-eyed, a child the speaker cares for although “you are not my own, but I’ll nurse you til you’ve grown.”

The repetition of “go to sleepy, little baby” echoes All the Pretty Little Horses, a traditional song thought to be from the viewpoint of a black mother lulling a white child.

But what of her own child? A cuckoo doesn’t just lay its egg in another nest it pushes one egg out first. “If you see my darling girl / Treat her nice now, little baby” the speaker asks. Her voice disappears into grief before resuming the lullaby. We don’t know how many enslaved women had their children taken from them or forced into neglect so they could nurse white children. We can guess at the fears that are the flip side of the mother’s plea to “treat her nice.”

Yes, it’s sprightly. But it’s the hidden pain that makes this a gem of a song.

Factory Girl

The first few verses are traditional. I learned the song from the singing of one of my mother’s friends, and as a teenager I found the ending incomplete. A young man courts a girl on her way to work at a factory. She turns him down:

“Go find you a lady and may you do well
For I am an orphan with ne’er a relation
And besides, I’m a hard working factory girl.”

When I was younger, I expected the song might end by him forswearing his fortune or something. But that’s it, the song ends there. She doesn’t think it can ever work, and she’s probably more realistic than he is about the reception she’d get from his friends and family.

Giddens’ version has the relationship develop instead. But one day the man goes to meet her and finds the factory lying in ashes. In one introduction, Giddens refers to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire which killed 146 garment workers in 1911, and to the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than a thousand people.

I like the twist on the traditional song. I like the attention to the working conditions this girl experiences when she’s not traipsing along the lane with her boyfriend.

But the last verse kind of spoils it for me:

“As I stood there, a whisper it did caress me
A faint scent of roses my senses begun
I lifted my face and I saw that above me
A thousand young butterflies darkened the sun.”

The girl and her coworkers haven’t turned into roses. They haven’t turned into butterflies. They have turned into ash. I find it a weird switchback after bringing the song in a grim direction, to try to patch it up with a supernatural ending.

Notes on “Anthropology of Childhood” by David Lancy

I read David Lancy’s “The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, and Changelings” and highlighted some passages. A lot of passages, it turns out.

[content note: discussion of abortion and infanticide, including infanticide of children with disabilities, in “Life and Death” section but not elsewhere]

I was a sociology major and understood anthropology to be basically “like sociology, but in Papua New Guinea.” This is the first cultural anthropology book I’ve read, and that was pretty much right. I found it very accessible as a first dive into anthropology. The first chapter summarizes all his points without the examples, so you could try that if you want to get the gist without reading the whole book.

I enjoyed it and would recommend it to people interested in this topic. A few things that shifted for me:

  • I feel less obliged to entertain my children and intervene in their conflicts. We don’t live with a tribe of extended family, but my two children play with each other all day, which is how most people throughout time have spent their childhoods. Lancy isn’t a child development expert, but I buy his argument that handling conflict (for example about the rules of a game) is a skill children need to learn, rather than having conflicts always mediated by adults.
  • Even though it doesn’t change anything concrete, I feel some relief that not having endless patience for toddlers seems to be normal. Except where families were very isolated, it’s not normal in traditional societies for one or two adults to watch their own children all day every day. And childcare has traditionally looked mostly like “being sure they don’t hurt themselves too badly.” 
  • It surprised me that childcare by non-parents was so common. Some more modern views treat women’s childcare work as basically free, traditional cultures have valued women’s labor enough that the society wants to free up their time from childcare. It was striking to me that the expectation that stay-at-home mothers will be responsible for all childcare was a relatively short historical blip. But of course, having childcare done by teenagers and grandmothers requires that those people’s time be available, which usually isn’t the reality we live in.
  • I was surprised at how apparently universal it is for fathers to be uninvolved. I expect they’re typically involved in providing food and other material resources, but that wasn’t emphasized in this book.

I’m a little unclear on how valid Lancy’s conclusions are or how much data they’re based on. It seems like an anthropologist could squint at a society and see all kinds of things that someone with a different ideology wouldn’t see.

Big caveat that what Lancy is describing is traditional, non-industrialized societies where children are expected to learn how to fit into the appropriate role in their village, not to develop as an individual or do anything different from what their parents and ancestors did. He stresses that traditional childrearing practices are very poor preparation for school. Given that I want my children to learn things I don’t know, to think analytically, etc, the way I approach learning is very different from how traditional societies approach it.

One complaint is that Lancy periodically complains about how much money Western families spend on fertility treatments, medical care for premature infants, etc. He argues that the same money could be used to provide adequate nutrition for many more children in the societies he’s studied. I’m sympathetic, but assuming that families would donate this money if they weren’t spending it to have a baby is not realistic. I see cutting luxury spending as a much more feasible way that people might do some redistribution.

And now, my notes:

Views of childhood

As in many areas of research, the children who have been studied by academics are mostly from WEIRD (“Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic”) populations. Thus our understanding of good or normal childrearing practices is very different from how children have typically been raised. Lancy contrasts modern childrearing norms with those of traditional agrarian or forager societies.

Lancy contrasts neontocracy (where babies and children are most valued) with gerontocracy (where elders or ancestors are most valued). I can think of ways our society isn’t very good for children, but I agree that compared with traditional societies, we spend a lot of attention and money on children. (Albeit sometimes by micromanaging them, while Lancy would rather have them figure out more for themselves as children have historically done.) 

Even studying children is a strange thing to do in most societies. “Examples of children treated as lacking any sense, as being essentially uneducable, are legion in the ethnographic record.” “Anthropologists interested in children are treated in a bemused fashion; after all, why bother to observe or talk to individuals who ‘don’t know anything’?” (Lancy 1996: 118; also Barley 1983/ 2000: 61)“

“Infants were widely seen as insensible. Almost like plants, their care could be rudimentary”

Traditional societies have two broad patterns toward young children: “One response is ‘benign neglect’– everyone waits until the child can talk sensibly before acknowledging its existence. A second typical response is to aggressively humanize the child, including ruthless suppression of all ‘sub-human’ tendencies (e.g. bawling, crawling, thumb-sucking).”

Europeans were of the second view:

“Like wild men [or beasts], babies lacked the power to reason, speak, or stand and walk erect. [They were] nasty, brutish, and dirty, communicating in wordless cries, grunts, and screams, and were given to crawling on all fours before they could be made to walk like men … Left to their own devices, they would remain selfish, animalistic, and savage. Parents believed they had to coerce their babies into growing up, and they expected protests and resistance. (Calvert 1992: 26, 34)”

“The Puritans were perhaps the first anxious parents, fearing they might fail and their children would turn out badly.”

“We now take for granted the “need” to stimulate the infant through physical contact, motherese, and playing games like peek-a-boo to accelerate physical and intellectual development. Contrast these assumptions with the pre-modern objective of keeping babies quiescent so they’d make fewer demands on caretakers and not injure themselves (LeVine et al. 1994).”

“Much of what we think of as the routine duties (e.g. reading bedtime stories; cf. Lancy 1994) or expenses (e.g. orthodontics) of modern parents are completely unknown outside modern, mainstream societies.”

“150 years ago, the idea of the useful child began to give way to our modern notion of the useless but also priceless child (Zelizer 1985). Children become innocent and fragile cherubs, needing protection from adult society, including the world of work. Their value to us is measured no longer in terms of an economic payoff or even genetic fitness but in terms of complementing our own values – as book lovers, ardent travelers, athletes, or devotees of a particular sect.”

“Known as the “largest children’s migration in history,” so-called “orphan trains” carried about 200,000 children (Warren 2001: 4) from orphanages and foundling homes in eastern coastal cities to families in the Midwest (Kay 2003: iii) and West. The orphan trains continued until 1929 (Warren 2001: 20), which indicates how very recently our fundamental conception of children as chattel changed to viewing them as cherubs.”
Anne of Green Gables is a story about this dynamic in Canada — the family was expecting to adopt a boy who could serve as an unpaid farmhand, but got a girl orphan by mistake.

Who cares for children?

Surprisingly to me, in traditional societies it’s usually not mothers.

In the early days of infancy, of course, breastfeeding necessitates keeping mother and baby convenient to each other. “Nearly all societies hold very strict views on the necessity for almost constant contact between a mother or other nurturing adult and the infant. Infants are fed on demand, carried constantly, and sleep with their mother. Young mothers are severely chastised for any lapse in infant care. However, once the infant begins to walk, it immediately joins a social network in which its mother plays a sharply diminished role – especially if she’s pregnant – and its father may play no role at all.”

On the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”: “If one actually looks at real kids in real villages, either one sees infants and young children in a group of their peers, untended by an adult, or one sees a mother, or a father, or an older sister, or a grandmother tending the child. These helpful family members are referred to in anthropology as ‘alloparents.’ The rule governing their behavior would not necessarily be ‘Everyone’s eager to have a hand in caring for the child,’ but, rather, ‘Whoever can most easily be spared from more important tasks will take care of the child.’ And the next rule we might derive from our observations might be, “The mother is often too busy to tend to the child.” At the same time, babies are not simply passive recipients of care. They not only look cute, they beguile caretakers with their gaze, their smiling and their mimicry (Spelke and Kinzler 2007: 92). While alloparents may want to minimize their effort (Trivers 1974) in caring for the child, the very young have an arsenal of tactics they can deploy to secure additional resources (Povinelli et al. 2005).”

“Weisner and Gallimore examined hundreds of ethnographies in the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) archive and found that, in accounts of childcare, 40 percent of infants and 80 percent of toddlers are cared for primarily by someone other than their mother, most commonly older sisters (Weisner and Gallimore 1977).”

“Three-year-old children are able to join in a play group, and it is in such play groups that children are truly raised” (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989: 600).”

“Once the infant has been judged worthy of rearing, it will be displayed to a community eager to interact with it. In particular, its older sisters will be in the forefront of those wanting to share in the nurturing process. The circle of caretakers may gradually widen to include aunts, grandmothers, and, occasionally, the father. Even more distant kin can be expected to cast a watchful eye on the child when it is playing on the ‘mother-ground’ (Lancy 1996: 84). Indeed, the toddler must seek comfort from relatives as it may be abruptly weaned and forcibly rejected by its mother as she readies herself for the next child.”

In a large polygynous household where the author visited, even after a few weeks he was unable to figure out which children belonged to which mothers: “I was stymied because the children, once they were no longer attached marsupial-like to their mother’s body with a length of cloth, spent far more time in each other’s company and in the company of other kin, particularly grandmothers and aunts in nearby houses, than with their mothers. And as far as the chief was concerned, I just had to assume that since these were his wives, the majority of the children in the vicinity must be his as well. Aside from dandling the occasional infant on his knee during the family’s evening meal, I never saw him enjoy more than the most fleeting interaction with a child.” Later, “I began to see their family arrangements and childcare customs as neither unusual nor exotic, rather as close to the norm for human societies, and, simultaneously, to see the customs of the middle-class Utah community I live in now as extraordinary.”

Older sisters are often alloparents:

“Across the primate order, juvenile females show great interest in infants (Hrdy 1999: 157), and it is not hard to sustain an argument that their supervised interaction with younger siblings prepares them for the role of motherhood (Fairbanks 1990; Riesman 1992: 111). The weanling’s need for mothering corresponds to the allomother’s need to mother.”

This seems to be true in other primates as well (though I do imagine researcher bias could interpret some kinds of carrying around a stick as ‘doll play’ depending on the gender of the young chimp.)

Several studies have documented the gender bias in “baby lust” (Hrdy 1999: 157). Females show far more interest in babies, images of babies, and even silhouettes of babies than do males. In fact, there’s some evidence that young chimp females will cradle, groom, and carry around a “doll” (a stick or a dead animal) in the absence of a live infant (Kahlenberg and Wrangham 2010: 1067).

“In Uganda in 2003, I observed and filmed numerous primate species and, after resting, eating, and play, “baby-trading” is the most common occupation. Often I observed what amounted to a “tug-of-war” between the nursing mother and her older daughters for possession of the infant, which may lead to what Sarah Hrdy (1976) referred to as “aunting to death.” By contrast, mothers tend to discourage interest shown by juvenile males in their offspring (Strier 2003).12

“Aunting to death” sounds familiar to me. When Lily was born, we lived with Jeff’s family including his two sisters. They would literally race each other to the baby each morning when I came downstairs with Lily, as each aunt tried to arrive first for baby cuddles.

Boys are not seen as good caregivers:
“Dozens of studies have documented the heightened likelihood of sensation-seeking (Zuckerman 1984) or risk-taking by adolescent primate males in groups. Demographers have identified an “accident hump” in mortality curves for male primates, including humans, during puberty (Goldstein 2011).”

“I had a personal epiphany regarding the inadvisability of assigning boys as sibling caretakers in May 2007 as I stood on a busy street in front of the Registan in Samarkand. Two boys were pushing baby carriages in the street, just barely out of traffic. The street sloped downward and the lead carriage-pusher began a game of chicken, releasing his grip on the bar, then rushing after to grab it as the carriage rolled away on its own. This game was repeated with longer intervals between the release and retrieval.”

Children need less oversight in less dangerous environments:

“Tether-length is definitely a useful concept in observing human mother– toddler interaction (Broch 1990: 71–72). As Sorenson discovered in a Fore village, the infant’s “early pattern of exploratory activity included frequent returns to the mother. She served as the home base, the bastion of security but not as director or overseer of activities” (Sorenson 1976: 167). For the forest-dwelling Chewong, the tether is shorter. Toddlers are discouraged from wandering away from proximity to adults with “loud exclamations …‘it is hot,’ or ‘it is sharp,’ or ‘there are … tigers, snakes, millipedes’” (Howell 1988: 163).”

Swaddling makes children easier to watch:
“A swaddled baby, like a little turtle in its shell, could be looked after by another, only slightly older child without too much fear of injury, since the practice of swaddling made … child care virtually idiot proof. (Calvert 1992: 23–24)”

There is a chain of oversight:
“toddlers are managed by slightly older siblings, who are, in turn, guided by adolescents, while adults serve as rather distant “foremen” for the activity, concentrating, primarily, on their own more productive or profitable activity.”

The stereotype of grandmothers “spoiling” children is not unique to the West:

“[I]n the Mende view, grannies are notoriously lax with children. They are said to feed children upon demand and do not beat them or withhold meals from them for bad behavior or for failing to work … Children raised like this are said to grow up lazy and dishonest …”

In Rome, nurses were responsible for childcare in wealthy families:

“It was the nutrix [nurse] who … took responsibility for … early infant care: breast-feeding, powdering and swaddling, bathing and massaging, rocking and singing the child to sleep, weaning the child from milk to solid food … The nutrix, in fact, was only one of a sequence of child-minding functionaries who influenced the early lives of children.”

“Public attitudes in Europe reflect a view of the family that echoes the utopian ideals of the Israeli kibbutz from the mid-twentieth century. While the mother might be the primary caretaker during infancy, shortly afterward the child should be placed in a nursery with trained staff as she returns to her job. This policy is seen as beneficial to the mother’s self-esteem, the economy, and the child itself (Corsaro 1996; Dahlberg 1992; Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1983: 181). Publicly supported pre-school or daycare in the US has been blocked by the politically powerful religious right, which insists on keeping wives tied full-time to the kitchen and nursery.”

When childcare is a collective task, discipline is also collectivized:
“The mother must, however, accept the consequence that virtually anyone older than her child can scold or even discipline them (Whiting 1941). In societies like our own, where childcare is handled within the nuclear family and/or by professionals, the necessity for learning manners and kinship arcana is reduced. At the same time, we are often reluctant to concede to outsiders, even “professionals,” the right to discipline our young.”

Why do mothers outsource childcare?

In a majority of the world’s diverse societies, women continue as workers throughout pregnancy and resume working shortly after the child is born. This work is physically demanding, so, for many, there is a peak period in their lives when they have the stamina and fat reserves to do their work and have babies. How many babies they successfully rear will depend heavily on their access to a supportive community of relatives who can help with household work, assist with childcare, and provide supplementary resources.”

How children are taught to relate to others

Contrasted with the emphasis on the mother-child bond in WEIRD society generally and especially in “attachment parenting”, traditional cultures may emphasize finding other caregivers:

“The baby’s cherub-like features aid the mother in her quest for helpers. Young mammals, generally, but especially humans, display a suite of physical features that seem to be universally attractive to others, and these features are retained longer in humans than in other mammalian species (Lancaster and Lancaster 1983: 35; Sternglanz et al. 1977). Also critical is the fact that human infants vocalize, make eye contact, and smile from very early on (Chevalier-Skolnikoff 1977) – unlike chimps, for example, whose mothers make more limited use of helpers. Mothers may not always rely on the inherent cuteness of their babies; they may take pains to showcase the baby – at least among close kin. The Kpelle mothers I observed didn’t stop at frequently washing and cleaning their babies. They oiled the babies’ bodies until they gleamed – an ablution carried out in public view with an appreciative audience. The Kaluli mothers studied by Bambi Schieffelin in Papua New Guinea not only hold their infants facing toward others in the social group – a practice often noted in the ethnographic record – but treat the baby as a ventriloquist’s dummy in having him or her speak to those assembled (Schieffelin 1990: 71). The Beng advise young mothers: Make sure the baby looks beautiful! … put herbal makeup on her face as attractively as possible … we Beng have lots of designs for babies’ faces … That way, the baby will be so irresistibly beautiful that someone will feel compelled to carry her around for a while that day. If you’re lucky, maybe that person will even offer to be your leng kuli. (Gottleib 1995: 24) When [Guara] neighbors visit … relatives – identified by kinship terms – are repeatedly indicated to the child. (Ruddle and Chesterfield 1977: 29) [Marquesan mothers] … spent much time calling the baby’s name, directing him to look and wave at others … directing three- to six-year-old siblings to play with him. (Martini and Kirkpatrick 1981: 199)”

“Samoan …toddlers were fed facing others and prompted to notice and call out to people. (Ochs and Izquierdo 2009: 397) From the moment a [Warlpiri] child is born … she will hear every day … for the next few years; “Look, your granny,”‘That’s your big sister, your cousin, your auntie.” In fact, they make up the bulk of verbal communication with babies and little children. (Musharbash 2011: 72)”

“There were numerous constraints put on young [Orissa India] mothers to prevent them from focusing too much attention on a new infant. Close, intimate mother-child bonds were viewed as potentially disruptive to the collective well-being of the extended family … In such families, much early child-care was organized so as to subtly push the infant away from an exclusive dependence on its mother toward membership in the larger group. (Seymour 2001: 15)”

In contrasting to WEIRD parenting, Lancy describes  “casual nurturance [where] … mothers carry their babies on their backs and nurse them frequently but do so without really paying much direct attention to them; they continue working or … socializing” (Erchak 1992: 50).

The author may be comparing to American mothers in the 1980s and 1990s, when many women were learning how to breastfeed from books after a couple of generations of formula-feeding. The materials emphasized sitting in rocking chairs staring at your baby. Once I learned to feed hands-free in a carrier, I expect I more closely resembled the village mothers Lancy describes. I’ve breastfed my children while cooking, writing emails, riding the subway, and contra dancing, and I certainly wasn’t giving them eye contact the whole time.

How do parents learn to parent?

Partly through alloparenting as described above. Among other primates:

“While the benefits to the mother are obvious, allomothering daughters also clearly benefit by learning how to care for infants (Fairbanks 1990). A study of captive chimpanzees showed that females prevented from interacting with their mothers and younger siblings were themselves utterly incompetent as mothers (Davenport and Rogers 1970).”

Also through guidance from other parents. I was surprised at how hard it was to feed a newborn – in my case I got help from various lactation consultants and the pediatrician, but traditionally this would come from family and neighbors:

“Field and colleagues, working with Haitian immigrant mothers in Miami, find these mothers often have difficulty feeding their offspring, who are therefore hospitalized for dehydration and malnutrition at a high rate (Field et al. 1992: 183). I think it’s possible these young women immigrants lost the opportunity to learn how to care for infants from older women.”

Among the Fulani of West Africa:
“All women caring for their first babies will have had years of experience taking care of babies … under the watchful and sometimes severe eyes of their mothers, aunts, cousins or older sisters. The other women … will immediately notice, comment on, and perhaps strongly criticize any departure from customary behavior on the part of mothers. (Riesman 1992: 111)”

(Anthropologists traveling with their own children also get a lot of advice from locals.)


I hadn’t really thought about how much of life in traditional societies revolved around the essential, never-ending task of getting calories. There is often not enough to go around, and social differences can be observed through which children’s growth is stunted.

“A study of the Mende found that senior wives did have higher fitness while junior wives had fewer surviving children than their counterparts in monogamous unions (Isaac and Feinberg 1982). Similarly, in Botswana, children of more senior wives enjoyed nutrition and school attendance advantages (Bock and Johnson 2002: 329).”

The author recalls seeing “a picture of a mother holding on her lap a boy and girl of about the same age, possibly twins. The girl was skeletal, obviously in an advanced state of malnutrition, the boy robust and healthy. He sat erect, eyes intent on the camera; she sprawled, like a rag doll, her eyes staring into space. That picture and what it represented has haunted me ever since.”

Babies of the preferred sex are likely to be nursed longer and have higher survival rates:

“One thorough study compared Hungarian Gypsies (matriarchal) with mainstream Hungarian (patriarchal) society. Gender preferences were as expected and behaviors tracked preferences. Gypsy girls were extremely helpful to their mothers and tended to remain at home longer than their brothers, helping even after marriage. They were nursed longer than their brothers, while Hungarian boys were nursed longer than their sisters. “Gypsy mothers were more likely to abort after having had one or more daughters, while Hungarians are more likely to abort pregnancies when they have had sons” (Bereczkei and Dunbar 1997: 18).”

Many folk traditions recommend foods for children, or diets for sick children, that are undernourishing or likely to be contaminated:
“Meat is usually among the foods kept from children. This is probably harmful, as a protein shortage, in particular, is often found in recently weaned children. However, malnutrition is rarely identified by parents as the root of a child’s illness. Katherine Dettwyler pointedly titled her study of the Dogon Dancing Skeletons, describing, in graphic detail, the horrific sight of severely malnourished children. She finds that, while the mothers are aware of something amiss, they attribute the problem to locally constructed folk illnesses and seek medicine from the anthropologist to effect a cure. When she tells them to provide the child with more food, they are skeptical. Children can’t benefit from good food because they haven’t worked hard to get it, and they don’t appreciate its good taste or the feeling of satisfaction it gives. Anyway, “old people deserve the best food, because they’re going to die soon” (Dettwyler 1994: 94–95). Yoruba mothers feed children barely visible scraps compared to the portions they give themselves. Good food might spoil the child’s moral character (Zeitlin 1996: 418; also true for the Tlingit – cf. de Laguna 1965: 17). The prescription for a sick child among the Gurage tribe in southwest Ethiopia is often the sacrifice of a sheep: “The flesh of the sacrificial animal is eaten exclusively by the parents of the sick child and others who are present at the curing rite; no portion of the meat is consumed by the patient, whose illness may well stem from an inadequate diet” (Shack 1969: 296).”

“Aside from a demonstrable shortage of food (Hill and Hurtado 1996: 319), under-nutrition may be attributable to customs that support a shortening of the nursing period, such as the belief by some East African pastoralists that certain babies nurse “too much” and should, therefore, be weaned early (Sellen 1995). On Fiji, nursing beyond one year is condemned as keeping “the child in babyhood [, leading to] a weak, simpering person” (Turner 1987: 107). The Alorese use threats to discourage nursing: “If you continue nursing, the snakes will come … the toad will eat you” (Du Bois 1941: 114).”

While medical science considers the first milk (colostrum) to be especially beneficial to the newborn because of the antibodies it contains, folk tradition often withholds it from newborns: “In a survey of fifty-seven societies, in only nine did nursing begin shortly after birth (Raphael 1966).”

Spacing children

Contrasted with agricultralists who go for large families, “foragers adopt a “survivorship” reproductive strategy. Around-the-clock nursing and a post-partum sex taboo combine to insure long intervals between births, leading to lower fertility. Low fertility is offset by the attention bestowed on the few offspring, enhancing their chances of survival (Fouts et al. 2001).” Breastfeeding suppresses women’s fertility.

“Another way in which nature contributes to increasing IBI [inter-birth interval] is through post- partum depression following a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death. Binser notes that depression elevates cortisol and leaves the mother lethargic and sleepy, which may just serve to put off the next pregnancy until she has had a chance to recoup her vigor (Binser 2004). Nature is aided by culture in promoting longer IBIs through injunctions that militate against long intervals between nursing bouts. Frequent, round- the- clock nursing maintains high prolactin levels. The post- partum taboo on intercourse between husbands and wives also plays a critical role in spacing births.”

In other cases the mother is physically separated from her husband: “The wife may be lodged in a birthing or “lying-in” house (Lepowsky 1985: 64), or secluded in her own home, until, in the Trobriands, “mothers lost their tans and their skin color matched that of their infants” (Montague 1985: 89).” 

In traditional societies, early sexual activity was less likely to result in pregnancy because adolescents were often malnourished and their fertility lower than we’d expect.

Which children are preferred

The gender preference, or lack therof, is influenced by parents’ expectations for help their children will provide them with.

“There is a world in which children almost always feel “wanted” and where “there is no cultural preference for babies of either sex” (Howell 1988: 159). Infants are suckled on demand by their mothers and by other women in her absence. They are indulged and cosseted by their fathers, grandparents, and siblings. Children wean themselves over a long period and are given nutritious foods (Robson and Kaplan 2003: 156). They are subject to little or no restraint or coercion. Infants and toddlers are carried on long journeys and comforted when distressed. If they die in infancy, they may be mourned (Henry 1941/1964: 66). They are rarely or never physically punished or even scolded (Hernandez 1941: 129–130). They are not expected to make a significant contribution to the household economy and are free to play until the mid to late teens (Howell 2010: 30). Their experience of adolescence is relatively stress free (Hewlett and Hewlett 2013: 88). This paradise exists among a globally dispersed group of isolated societies – all of which depend heavily on foraging for their subsistence. They are also characterized by relatively egalitarian and close social relations, including relative parity between men and women (Hewlett et al. 1998).”

“Names such as “Boy Needed” (Oghul Gerek) or “Last Daughter” (Songi Qiz) are common for girls. (Irons 2000: 230)”

Family structure

“We now realize that mothers, fathers, and children have differing agendas. The nursing child wants to be the last child his mother will ever have so that he can enjoy her care and provisioning exclusively. The father will be opportunistic in seeking mating opportunities and display a similar fickleness toward the provisioning of his offspring. He will, in other words, spread his investment around to maximize the number of surviving offspring. The mother has the most difficult decisions of all. She must weigh her health and longevity and future breeding opportunities against the cost of her present offspring, including any on the way. She must also factor in any resources that might be available from her children’s fathers and her own kin network.”

(Of course I can think of many loving and capable fathers, not least my own partner. But I was surprised that they seem to have historically played so little role in childrens’ lives.)

Polygyny is a common traditional way of structuring families, “the great compromise” between these competing interests.

“Estimates range from 85 percent (Murdock 1967: 47) to 93 percent (Low 1989: 312) of all societies ever recorded (about 1,200) having practiced polygyny.”

“Women in a polygynous relationship gain access to a higher-ranking, reliable provider at the cost of emotional strain in sharing resources (including the husband’s affection) with others. In one study, children of senior wives were better nourished than children in monogamous unions, who were, in turn, better nourished than children of later wives (Isaac and Feinberg 1982: 632). A woman must weigh the trade-offs between marrying a young man in a monogamous union or marrying an older man and joining a well-established household as a junior wife. Studies show that, if they choose monogamy, they enjoy slightly higher fertility (Josephson 2002: 378) and their children may be somewhat better nourished (Sellen 1998a: 341). However, they are, perhaps, more likely to be abandoned or divorced by their husbands.”

Both polygyny and monogamy have their pros and cons:

“In my fieldwork in Gbarngasuakwelle, I lived (as a guest) in a large, polygynous household and the tensions were palpable. This was seen as harmful to children. The shaman (village blacksmith in this case) came often to divine the cause and, using appropriate rituals (inevitably involving the sacrifice of a chicken), would attempt to ameliorate it (Lancy 1996: 167).”

“In Uganda, monogamy has led to less stable marriages. A man, rather than bringing a second wife into the household, now abandons the first wife and her children to set up a second separate household with his new mate (Ainsworth 1967: 10–11). A typical case among the Nyansongo in Kenya describes a mother, whose childhood was spent in a large polygynous compound where multiple caretakers were always available, who must cope alone in a monogamous household. She leaves her three-year-old to mind her six-month- and two-year-old infants as she performs errands like bringing the cow in from pasture. Unfortunately, the three-year-old is simply not mature enough for this task and is, in fact, ‘rough and dangerously negligent’ (Whiting and Edwards 1988a: 173).”

As societies become more mobile and men migrate seeking employment, the likelihood that the male will abandon (or neglect) his family in the village in order to establish a new family in the city is increasingly high (Bucher and d’Amorim 1993: 16; Timaeus and Graham 1989). And, perhaps most common of all, women whose fertility is on the decline are replaced by younger wives in peak breeding condition (Low 2000: 325)”

“The abandoned spouse and her children may face severe difficulties. One might think that an obviously fertile woman would be a ‘catch,’ but ‘Having a child towards whom a new husband will have to assume step-parental duties diminishes rather than enhances a woman’s marriageability’ (Wilson and Daly 2002: 307). “

“In the case of a young, pregnant widow, ancient Roman law permitted both annulment and the exposure of the infant in order to enhance her chances of remarriage (French 1991: 21). Raffaele describes an unfortunate case in a Bayaka13 foraging band in Central Africa: 

Mimba had been in a trial marriage … her partner’s father had refused to pay the bride price and she had just been forced to return to her own family. She is two months’ pregnant, and it is a disgrace for an unmarried Bayaka woman to give birth” (Raffaele 2003: 129). Fortunately for Mimba, the tribe’s pharmacopoeia includes sambolo, a very reliable and safe herbal abortifacient, which she will use. Mimba will return to the pool of eligible mates and, hopefully, will find a family willing to pay the bride-price so their son can join her in raising a family – something she could not accomplish by herself.’”

“Studies in the USA indicate that living with a stepfather and stepsiblings leads to elevated cortisol levels, immunosuppression, and general illness (Flinn and England 1995)31 as well as poorer educational outcomes (Lancaster and Kaplan 2000: 196). Daly and Wilson find that a child is a hundred times more likely to be killed by a stepparent than by a biological parent (1984: 499).

Some form of fostering, adoption, or “child circulation” is practiced in many societies:

“Most commonly the child is transferred ‘to fulfill another household’s need for labor’ (Fée – Martin 2012: 220) as a ‘helper’ (Inuit – Honigmann and Honigmann 1953: 46). The request may be for a girl in families with a shortage of female labor (Kosrae – Ritter 1981: 46; Bellona – Monberg 1970: 132). On Raroia boys are requested as they can work in copra processing (Danielsson 1952: 120). On the other hand, the impetus may begin with a family that has a surplus of children (Bodenhorn 1988: 14), or children too close in age, or discord within the family; or as the means to defray a debt. Stepchildren are often moved out of the natal home to make way for the new parent’s biological offspring.”

Life and death

The topic that most surprised me in the book was traditional attitudes toward abortion and infanticide. I thought of life before birth control as “the bad old days” when mothers, perhaps not even understanding how babies are conceived, might be sentenced to a lifetime of childbearing and rearing against their wishes. I had never thought about how traditional a view this actually was.

“Data from a range of societies past and present suggest that from one-fifth to one-half of children don’t survive to five years (Dentan 1978: 111; Dunn 1974: 385; Kramer and Greaves 2007: 720; Le Mort 2008: 25). The first-century CE philosopher Epictetus cautioned, “When you kiss your child, say to yourself, it may be dead in the morning” (Stearns 2010: 168). 

Extrapolating from these figures I’d guess that miscarriages and stillbirths were also common by comparison with modern, post-industrial society. And I’d expect that if half the children died, then the majority were seriously ill in childhood. Indeed, in many villages studied by anthropologists the level of clinical malnutrition is 100 percent, as is the level of chronic parasite infestation and diarrhea. There are, then, ample reasons for withholding investment in the infant and maintaining a degree of emotional distance.”

“Humans have always had to cope with the loss of infants, and societies have developed an elaborate array of “cover stories” to lessen grief and recrimination (Martin 2001: 162; Scrimshaw 1984: 443). As discussed in the previous chapter, the primary strategy is to treat the infant as not yet fully human. Most importantly, if the baby is secluded initially and treated as being in a liminal state, its loss may not be widely noted.”

Some societies believed repeated miscarriages or stillbirths were caused by demons, and treated them with various attempts at exorcism. “It should be understood that these folk theories and treatments not only serve to dampen the sense of grief or loss but, more importantly, they deflect blame from the living. The Nankani have constructed an elaborate myth of the “spirit child not meant for this world” to explain away the tragedy of mother or infant death in childbirth and/or chronic infant sickness and, eventually, death (Denham 2012: 180). The alternative to, in effect, blaming the deceased child or “evil forces” is to blame the parents or other family/community member.”

“While new mothers may be evaluating the actuarial odds, we know that many are also suffering from post-partum depression or, less severely, detachment from and indifference toward their offspring. An argument can be made that this failure to bond immediately with the infant is adaptive in that it permits the mother to keep her options open, and also shields her emotionally from the impact of the infant’s death – often, a likely outcome (de Vries 1987a; Eible-Eibesfeldt 1983: 184; Hagen 1999; Konner 2010: 130, 208; Laes 2011: 100).” 

“In the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, high-altitude living imposes an extra cost on the expectant mother who does farm-work throughout her pregnancy. Her infant’s life chances, owing to inevitably low birth-weight and other complications, are sharply reduced (Wiley 2004: 6). The worth of a new child in Ladakh will always be calculated as a tiny fraction of that of his fully mature, productive mother. While the mother’s health is closely monitored and she is treated with great solicitude, her infant’s fate is of less concern. Its death will be “met with sadness, but also with a sense of resignation … they are buried, not cremated like adults” (Wiley 2004: 131–132).”

“It is not unusual for the [Ayoreo] newborn to remain unnamed for several weeks or months, particularly if the infant is sickly. The reason given is that should the child die, the loss will not be so deeply felt. (Bugos and McCarthy 1984: 508)”

“Being a “calculating” mother is not synonymous with wickedness; on the contrary, it is adaptive behavior. While the well-to-do mothers in the first section seem to “live for their children,” in the next section, we discover just how recently these attitudes have become incorporated in Western society. We will trace the fluctuating value of infants in history and see that what we now consider horrible crimes were, in earlier periods, the principal means of birth control.”

In ancient Greece, “Illegitimacy was usually a death sentence. “Identity was given by the family, and without a recognized father and family, the child had no proper guardian (kurios) since its mother could not legally fulfill such a function. Without a father, the child had no true place in the patrilineal kin structure, no right to the family name” (Patterson 1985: 115). Until at least the end of the eighteenth century, any Venetian infant of questionable parentage would have been abandoned or destroyed (Ferraro 2008).”

“While the termination of the fetus or of the infant’s life is most often the parents’ decision and we’ve seen numerous possible reasons for this behavior, societies often legitimize that decision. Overpopulation, the burden on the community of a hard-to-raise child, the social disharmony created by illegitimacy: all give the society a stake in this critical decision. Ultimately, also, the community must value the life and emotional wellbeing of its experienced, productive adult females over any potential value a tiny infant might have.”

In foraging societies, “Both men and women face significant health and safety hazards throughout their relatively short lives, and they place their own welfare over that of their offspring. A survey of several foraging societies shows a close association between the willingness to commit infanticide and the daunting challenge “to carry more than a single young child on the nomadic round” (Riches 1974: 356).”

“The Inuit, among others, were known to cull females in anticipation of high mortality among males through hunting accidents, homicide, and suicide (Dickemann 1979: 341).”

Twins, being hard to nourish, were often discarded: “Mothers are unable to sustain two infants, especially where both are likely to be underweight. As Gray (1994: 73) notes, “even today, with the availability of western medical services it is difficult to maintain twins.” On Bali, which is otherwise extraordinary in its elevation of babies to very high esteem, giving birth to more than one child at a time is seen as evidence of incest. Priests consider the birth of twins as sub-human or animal-like (Lansing 1994; Barth 1993; Belo 1980). Similarly, the Papel (Guinea-Bissau) believe that it is mufunesa to give birth to many children at the same time like animals. Pigs have many offspring. Human beings give birth to only one each time. Therefore twins have to be thrown away. If not, the father, the mother, or somebody in the village may die. (Einarsdóttir 2004: 147). 

Among the !Kung, Nancy Howell found that mothers whose toddlers had not been weaned might terminate the life of their newborn. In a society with high infant mortality (IM), an unweaned but otherwise thriving child is a better bet than a newcomer of unknown viability. The mother is expected by the band to kill one of a pair of twins or an infant with obvious defects. She would not be committing murder because, until the baby is named and formally presented in camp, it is not a person (Howell 1979: 120). 

We can juxtapose this picture – paralleled in pre-modern communities the world over – with the almost legendary affection and love the !Kung show their young (Konner 2005). Similarly, Trobriand Island (Papua New Guinea) women, who also shower affection on their children, “were surprised that Western women do not have the right to kill an unwanted child … the child is not a social being yet, only a product manufactured by a woman inside her own body” (Montague 1985: 89).”

“In farming communities, additional farmhands are usually welcomed. Still, in rural Japan, a family would be subjected to considerable censure for having “too many” children and might find themselves ostracized if they failed “to get rid of the ‘surplus’” (Jolivet 1997: 118; see also Neel 1970). Bear in mind that breastfeeding is more costly – metabolically – than pregnancy (Hagen 1999: 331). In the impoverished northeast of Brazil, women can count on very little support from their child’s father, and their own resources are meager. Hence, “child death a mingua (accompanied by maternal indifference and neglect) is understood as an appropriate maternal response to a deficiency in the child. Part of learning how to mother … include[s] learning when to ‘let go’” (Scheper-Hughes 1987b: 190). Early cessation of nursing – one manifestation of the mother’s minimizing her investment – is supported by an elaborate folk wisdom that breast milk can be harmful, characterized as “dirty,”“bitter,”“salty,” or “infected.” Another folk illness category, doença de crianca, is used flexibly by mothers in justifying a decision to surrender the child into the hands of God or, alternatively, raise it as a real “fighter.” Of 686 pregnancies in a sample of 72 women, 251 infants failed to reach one year of age (Scheper-Hughes 1987a).”

“Long before the “one-child policy,” abortion was common in China. The oldest Chinese medical text found so far, some 5,000 years in age, includes reference to mercury as an abortifacient.”

I also hadn’t thought about traditional attitudes toward children with disabilities, or children (perhaps with autism) who don’t engage in eye contact, smiling, and other behavior that charms adults. “Hrdy (in press) suggests that the infant’s gaze-following and close attention to facial expressions and moods – along with a plump body and other neotenous features – are designed to send a clear signal to its mother and other caretakers: “Keep me!””

“In earlier times, the “difficult” or unwanted child might be dubbed a “changeling” or devil-inspired spirit, thereby providing a blanket of social acceptability to cloak its elimination (Haffter 1986). In cases where mothers are forced to rear unwanted children, the young may suffer abuse severe enough to end their life. While our society may treat such behavior by the parent as a heinous crime, “This capacity for selective removal in response to qualities both of offspring and of ecological and social environments may well be a significant part of the biobehavioral definition of Homo sapiens” (Dickeman 1975: 108).”

“Changelings represent a special sub-group of “demon” children who provoke a negative response from caretakers. The changeling was an enfant changé in France, a Wechselbag in Germany, and, in England, a “fairy child.” Strategies to reverse the switch included tormenting the infant or abandoning it in a lonely spot (Haffter 1986). A Beng mother-to-be who breaks a taboo may have her uterus invaded by a snake. The snake takes the fetus’s place and, after birth, is gradually revealed by the infant’s strange behavior. “The child may be harassed and hit by stones; however, being boneless like a snake, the snake-person is thought to feel no pain” (Gottlieb 1992: 145). A Papel infant deemed abnormal may be a spirit that’s entered the mother’s uterus. Two procedures are available to determine whether the child is human, but surviving either procedure seems improbable (Einarsdóttir 2008: 251). Dogon children thought to be evil spirits are taken: Out into the bush and you leave them … they turn into snakes and slither away … You go back the next day, and they aren’t there. Then you know for sure that they weren’t really [Dogon] children at all, but evil spirits. (Dettwyler 1994: 85–86) Among the Nuer, it is claimed, a disabled infant was interpreted as a hippopotamus that had mistakenly been born to human parents; the child would be returned to its proper home by being thrown into the river. (Scheer and Groce 1988: 28) In … northern Europe, changelings were left overnight in the forest. If the fairies refused to take it back, the changeling would die during the night – but since it was not human, no infanticide could have occurred. (Hrdy 1999: 465) [For Lurs] Djenn are said to be … jealous of the baby, especially during the first ten to forty days; they might steal the baby or exchange it for their own, sickly one. A baby indicates that it might be a changeling by fussiness, weakness, or lack of growth. (Friedl 1997: 69)”

Foragers vs. agriculturalists

Attitude toward children in general seems to vary by livelihood.

“In Central Africa, systematic comparisons have been drawn between foragers and farmers in the same region. Bofi-speaking foragers follow the !Kung model. Babies are carried or held constantly, by mothers and fathers, are soothed or nursed as soon as they cry, and may wean themselves after three to four years. Children are treated with the affection and respect consistent with preparing them to live in an egalitarian society where the principal subsistence strategy is cooperative net-hunting. Bofi-speaking farmers, on the other hand, tend not to respond as quickly to fussing and crying, are likely to pass the infant off to a slightly older sibling, and are verbally and physically abusive to children, who are treated like the farmhands they are soon to be.”

“The Garo, who live in the forests of Bengal, all share in infant and childcare, and parents “seldom roughhouse with their children, but play with them quietly, intimately, and fondly” (Burling 1963: 106). In the Northwest Territory of Canada, the Inuit (aka Eskimo) would never leave a child alone or let it cry for any length of time. Infants receive a great deal of solicitous care and lots of tactile comfort, anticipatory of “the interdependence and close interpersonal relations that are an integral part of Inuit life” (Condon 1987: 59; Sprott 2002: 54).

Draper observed a similar mindset operating among !Kung foragers in the Kalahari: Adults are completely tolerant of a child’s temper tantrums and of aggression directed by a child at an adult. I have seen a seven-year-old crying and furious, hurling sticks, nutshells, and eventually burning embers at her mother … Bau (the mother) put up her arm occasionally to ward off the thrown objects but carried on her conversation nonchalantly. (Draper 1978: 37)”

Different ways children are expected to speak

“Clearly Euroamerican and Asian parents are preparing children to be more than merely competent native speakers. They encourage the development of narrative ability through frequent queries about the child’s activity, including their subjective assessments: “mothers pick up on children’s … topics, repeat and extend what their children say, and adjust their language … to support the child’s projects” (Martini 1995: 54). Toddlers are expected to hold and to voice their opinions! As parents seek “explanations” from their children, they also tolerate interruptions and contradiction (Portes et al. 1988). And this entire package of cultural routines is almost completely absent in the ethnographic record (Robinson 1988).

“In a Mayan community … children are taught to avoid challenging an adult with a display of greater knowledge by telling them something” (Rogoff 1990: 60). West African Wolof parents never quiz their kids by asking known-answer questions (Irvine 1978) – a favorite trick of Euroamerican parent-teachers. Fijian children are never encouraged to address adults or even to make eye contact. Rather their demeanor should express timidity and self-effacement (Toren 1990: 183).”

“Qualities we value, such as precocity, verbal fluency, independent and creative thought, personal expression, and ability to engage in repartee, would all be seen by villagers as defects to be curtailed as quickly as possible.25 These are danger signs of future waywardness. “Inquisitiveness by word or deed is severely censured, especially in [Kogi] women and children” (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1976: 283). “A [Sisala] child who tries to know more than his father is a ‘useless child’ (bichuola), for he has no respect” (Grindal 1972: 28). In rural Turkey the trait most valued by parents (60 percent) was obedience; least valued (18 percent) was independence (Kagitçibasi and Sunar 1992: 81).”

How do children learn?

“I discuss the prevailing view in WEIRD society – among most scholars as well as the public at large – that children’s development into mature, competent members of society depends critically on the guidance and lessons, beginning in infancy, provided by an eager parent who’s a “naturally gifted” teacher. Based on unequivocal evidence of the relative unimportance of teaching in the ethnographic record, I question that assumption as well as its evolutionary foundation.”

“De León (2012) records an episode from her Zinacantecan site where a three-year-old boy nearly runs, barefoot, through a fire. Adults do not react sympathetically. Instead, they comment that the child is flawed in not developing awareness of its surroundings, not paying close attention, and not figuring things out. There is an uneasy trade-off here. On the one hand, by indulging their curiosity about the environment and the things in it, parents insure that children are learning useful information without the necessity of parental intervention. This efficiency comes at a cost of the occasional damage to or loss of one’s offspring (Martini and Kirkpatrick 1992).”

“Active or direct teaching/instruction is rare in cultural transmission, and that when it occurs, it is not aimed at critical subsistence and survival skills – the area most obviously affected by natural selection – but, rather, at controlling and managing the child’s behavior.”

“Outside WEIRD or post-industrial society, this suite of parent–infant interaction patterns is rare. Mothers don’t often engage cognitively with infants, they may only respond contingently to their distress cues, and they probably do not gaze at them or engage in shared attention to novel objects (de León 2011: 100; Göncü et al. 2000; LeVine 2004: 161).”

In most traditional societies, children and young adults are expected to learn by observation rather than direct teaching. 

In a Guatemalan indigenous community where people use a traditional learning style to approach factory work: “The newly hired worker performs menial tasks33 such as bringing material to the machine or taking finished goods off of it, but most of the time is spent observing the operations of the person running the machine. [The new worker] neither asked questions nor was given advice. When the machine snagged or stopped, she would look carefully to see what the operator did to get it back into motion … This constituted her daily routine for nearly six weeks, and at the end of this time she announced that she was ready to run a loom … and she operated it, not quite as rapidly as the girl who had just left it, but with skill and assurance … at no time during her learning and apprentice period had she touched a machine or practiced operating … She observes and internally rehearses the set of operations until she feels able to perform. She will not try her hand until she feels competent, for to fumble and make mistakes is a cause for verguenza – public shame. She does not ask questions because that would annoy the person teaching her, and they might also think she is stupid. (Nash 1958: 26–27)”

“I provide an extended example, of mother Sua and daughter Nyenpu each weaving a fishnet. As the vignette unfolded, the main point seemed to be how little interest Sua had in getting involved in Nyenpu’s weaving. Sua claimed that her stance was typical and replicated her own mother’s attitude when she was learning net-weaving. Several other informants told me of approaching experts for help and being rebuffed (Lancy 1996: 149–150). Other ethnographers report similar tales. Reichard describes a Navajo girl who learned to weave in spite of her mother’s repulsing her interest (1934: 38), which paralleled a case from Truk of a weaver/basket-maker whose kin were unsupportive of her efforts to learn their skills (Gladwin and Sarason 1953: 414–415), and a case from the Venda tribe where a potter is vehement that “‘We don’t teach. When women make pots some (children and others) come to watch, then go and try’” (Krause 1985: 95).”

A Javanese shellfish diver responds to the question of whether she learned the practice from her mother:
“My mother! she said loudly, She drove me away! I tried to follow her to the bottom to watch, but she shoved me back. When we were on the surface again, she practically screamed at me to move OFF and find my danged abalone BY MYSELF. So we had to discard [one] cliché about how artisans learn. (Hill and Plath 1998: 212)”

There are a few cases of explicit teaching:

“There are a few cases in the literature of grandmothers conducting educational tours through the bush to acquaint their younger kin with medicinal plants (Ngandu – Hewlett 2013: 76; Tonga – Reynolds 1996: 7).”

“An interesting “work-around” for the prohibition on teaching is provided by the Fort Norman Slave [Canada], who hunt during severe winter weather and must traverse ice-fields. Fathers “instruct” sons about this dangerous environment (which comprises thirteen kinds of ice and multiple modes of travel) via a game-like quiz (Basso 1972: 40).”

Analytic thinking

While there’s a lot of knowledge being transmitted in traditional societies, like how to make and use a blowgun for hunting or how to hollow a canoe, analysis and taxonomy seem to be absent in societies where people haven’t gone to school. Lancy cites Alexander Luria’s 1930s interviews with peasants in Central Asia:

“In the first example we can see the villager reasoning from personal experience (or lack thereof) and inability or unwillingness to apply a general rule. ‘Problem posed: ‘In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the far north and there is always snow there. What color are the bears?’ Response: ‘We always speak of only what we see; we don’t talk of what we haven’t seen.’ (Luria 1976: 108)

In another problem, men and women were asked to sort and group various kinds and colors of weaving yarn (Uzbekistan is noted for its carpets). The male response was ‘men [not being weavers] don’t know colors and call them all blue.’ The women refused to impose any grouping or organization – something educated Uzbeks did quite easily – exclaiming that ‘none of these are the same’ (Luria 1976: 25, 27).

In a fishing community in Sulawesi, Vermonden found directly parallel results, with fishers resistant to discussing marine life more generally; they eschewed speaking of types of fish or of considering different ways of grouping them. Their thinking was governed by their practice (true also for Penan hunters – Puri 2005: 280 – and South American and African subsistence farmers – Henrich et al. 2010: 72). . . Had Vermonden’s informants been schooled, they might have used broader and more inclusive organizing principles and been able to display a more encyclopedic knowledge of fish.” I assume that these people did in fact know a lot about fish, yarn, etc, which were their daily livelihood, but were used to thinking in practical terms.

(I was telling Jeff the bear example at dinnertime. “It’s white,” piped up our four-year-old without prompting. She’s used to “known-answer questions” where grownups ask you things they already know, like “how many fingers am I holding up?” In traditional societies, these questions are apparently not used and would be considered absurd.)

Learning to be street-smart

While children in some societies need to learn to avoid predators and poisonous plants, Lancy also briefly covers urban environments where children must be equipped for other dangers. “A mother in a favela of Rio de Janeiro knows “intuitively that in order for her children to survive, toughness, obedience, subservience, and street smarts are necessary; otherwise, the child can end up dead” (D. Goldstein 1998: 395).”

Charles Dickens depicts a similar strategy in 19th-century London, with a father describing how he’s trained his son: “I took a good deal o’ pains with his eddication, sir; let him run in the streets when he was very young, and shift for hisself. It’s the only way to make a boy sharp, sir” (Dickens 1836/1964: 306).”

Learning through play

“Play is a truly universal trait of childhood. The one thing that children can appropriate for themselves, without the sanction of culture or explicit blessing of parents, is play. It is ubiquitous. A baby will play with its mother’s breast. The first glimmer of understanding about the natural world and how it works comes through play with objects. After its nurturing mother, the child’s first close relationships are with its playmates – usually siblings. The child’s first active engagements with the tasks that will occupy most of its adult life – hunting, cooking, house-building, baby-tending – all occur during make-believe.”

“Many of the child’s most basic needs seem to be fed by play – their need to socialize with peers and their need for physical, sensory, and, to a lesser extent, cognitive stimulation (Lancy 1980a). The demands of earning a living and reproduction gradually extinguish the desire to play. This happens earlier in girls than in boys – almost universally.”

Modern children:

“To encourage object play, we provide lots of toys, including safe, miniature tools, in various sizes, along with the dolls to use them. We also provide objects to play with that are specifically designed to facilitate the kind of cognitive complexity and flexibility that many assert is the raison d’être of object play (Power 2000). And, what is perhaps most remarkable, we sometimes intervene to “teach” our children how to use their toys or nudge them into more complex uses (Gaskins et al. 2007). I have found only one example of this in the ethnographic literature – a Wogeo father assisting his son with a miniature canoe (Hogbin 1946: 282) – and I am confident it occurs rarely. In research where the investigators created conditions designed to facilitate their involvement, East Indian and Guatemalan villagers would not intervene in their toddlers’ play (Göncü et al. 2000). It’s hard to escape the conclusion that our “micro-management” of children’s toys and play is driven by the inexorable demands of schooling.”

In contrast to play with specially provided objects, social play and pretend play are ubiquitous.

“Comparing across fifteen species of primates, observers found a statistically reliable relationship between cerebellum size and time devoted to social play (Lewis and Barton 2004; see also Fisher 1992).”

“This rapid growth in understanding – correlated with a rapidly growing brain – emerges in early childhood as two powerful motives. These are, first, to “fit in,” to be liked, appreciated, and accepted. The second motive force is a drive to become competent, to replicate the routine behaviors enacted by those who’re older and more capable. The presence of these drives accounts for the child’s ability to learn through observation, imitation, and, by extension, playing with objects and ideas in make-believe.”

“Esther Goody describes the richness and complexity of make-believe cooking in a village in north Ghana. Miniature kitchens are constructed, ingredients gathered, and soup made, all the while accompanied by singing and the construction of play scripts that mimic adult discourse. And, of course, the girls must insure that their play enfolds the younger siblings who are in their care. Boys have bit parts in these playlets as “husbands,” and are limited to commenting on the flavor of the soup (Goody 1992).”

My kids and their cousins are avid mud-soup cooks. Full participation for boys in this case

“Make-believe reveals children’s insight into the adult world. Araucania boys accurately mimic the speech and movements of drunken males celebrating fiesta (Hilger 1958: 106). Yanamamo boys pretend to “smoke” hallucinogens and then stagger around in perfect imitation of their stoned fathers acting as shamans (Asch and Chagnon 1974).”

Of course, an anthropologist in the village provides an interesting topic for pretend play: “Parenthetically, many an anthropologist has seen herself or himself reflected (unflatteringly) in the play of erstwhile subjects (Bascom 1969: 58).”

“The doll is arguably the most widely found toy and the range of materials used and designs employed is immense (Ruddle and Chesterfield 1977: 36).16 From rags tied into a shapeless bundle to high-tech baby dolls that produce a babble of baby-talk, wet themselves, and eagerly move their limbs, the variety is fascinating. While baby dolls seemed to have been a universal adjunct to Roman girls’ play, lower-class girls had infant dolls that they mock-nursed, comforted, and cleansed while upper-class girls, whose future as adults would not include childcare, dressed and primped the ancient equivalent of Barbie (Wiedemann 1989: 149–150).”

For a while, Anna had a lopsided gait when running because she carried this doll so constantly clamped under her left arm that she moved differently even when not holding it.

Not all cultures encourage play

“Play may be seen as a sign of waywardness. Bulusu’ view play as naughty (jayil) and those who play “too much” as crazy (mabap) (Appell-Warren 1987: 160). Children may be scolded for getting dirty or telling stories they know aren’t true (e.g. fantasizing) (Gaskins et al. 2007: 192). On Malaita Island, where children are expected to carefully observe and report on newsworthy events in the village, children’s fantasy constructions are discouraged; they “are mildly reprimanded with ‘you lie’” (Watson-Gegeo and Gegeo 2001: 5).

Following the Protestant Reformation, many influential authorities condemned play in general as well as specific kinds of play, such as solitary play or contact sports. Morality came to be equated with decorum and emotional restraint; “indulging children was a cardinal sin” (Colón with Colón 2001: 284). 

Similar sentiments were expressed by Chinese sages: Huo T’ao had no tolerance for play … as soon as a child is able to walk and talk, it must be taught not to play with other children. Children must practice treating one another as adults … When [children] see each other in the morning, they must be taught to bow solemnly to each other. (Dardess 1991: 76)”

When do parents play with young children?

Parents playing with babies varies a lot:

“An analysis of 186 archived ethnographies of traditional societies indicated wide variation in the amount of mother-infant play and display of affection (Barry and Paxson 1971). In a more recent comparative observational study, “Euro-American adults were much more likely than Aka or Ngandu adults to stimulate (e.g., tickle) and vocalize to their infants. As a result, Euro-American infants were significantly more likely than Aka and Ngandu infants to smile, look at, and vocalize to their care providers” (Hewlett et al. 2000: 164).21 Play with infants also seems generally less common among agrarian societies; for example, an Apache (North American agro-pastoralists) “mother sometimes plays with her baby … A father is not likely to play with a baby” (Goodwin and Goodwin 1942: 448). In hundreds of hours of close observation of parent–child interaction among Kipsigis (Kenyan) farmers, Harkness and Super (1986: 102) recorded “no instances of mothers playing with their children.””

“Among the !Kung, parents not only don’t play with their children post-infancy, they reject the notion outright as potentially harmful to the child’s development. They believe that children learn best without adult intervention (Bakeman et al. 1990: 796). The mother of a toddler not only faces potential conflict between childcare and work, she’s likely pregnant as well. I would argue that the mother’s greatest ally, at this point in the childrearing process, is the magnetic attraction of the sibling or neighborhood play group (Parin 1963: 48). The last thing a pregnant mother wants is for her child to see her as an attractive play partner. Even verbal play is avoided.”

I found this such a relief to read. The hardest stage of parenting for me was caring for an infant while being my two-year-old’s only regular playmate. She had an insatiable desire for stories, and I just wasn’t up for it.

Young monkeys play with each other, but chimpanzee mothers play with and tickle their babies. 

“Why is the chimpanzee mother providing her baby with what monkey infants get from their peers? One clue in the direction of an answer may be the group structure of chimpanzees. I observed that chimpanzee mothers spend most of their time alone with their babies. As a consequence it is the chimpanzee mother who has to give her baby this sort of interaction if he gets it at all. (Plooij 1979: 237) “

Similar forces may promote mother–child play among humans. The small band of “Utkuhikhalingmiut [Inuit are] the sole inhabitants of an area 35,000 or more miles square” (Briggs 1970: 1). Aside from the almost total lack of other children to play with, the mother–child pair is isolated inside their igloo for days on end during the worst weather. Jean Briggs observed mothers talking to their children, making toys for them, playing with them, and encouraging their language development. Further, there is every reason to believe that modern living conditions in which infants and toddlers are isolated from peers in single-parent or nuclear households produce a parallel effect. That is, like chimps in the wild, modern, urban youngsters only have access to their mothers as potential play partners. In Japan, the mother–child pair has become quite isolated, sequestered in high-rise apartment buildings.”

This sounds very familiar to me.

Learning through chores

Learning to do the chores of adult daily life is of great interest to children everywhere.

“In the Giriama language the term for a child roughly two through three years in age is kahoho kuhuma madzi: a youngster who can be sent to fetch a cup of water … A girl, from about eight years until approximately puberty, is muhoho wa kubunda, a child who pounds maize; a boy of this age is a muhoho murisa, a child who herds. (Wenger 1989: 98)”

“Generally speaking, a girl’s working sphere coincides with that of her mother: the household, kitchen, nursery, laundry, garden, and market stall. (Paradise and Rogoff 2009: 113) depict a five-year-old Mazahua girl closely following her mother’s lead in setting up an onion stand in the market – trimming, bunching, and arranging their onions. When invited to establish a satellite onion stand, “her excitement is unmistakable and she quickly takes the initiative in finding an appropriate spot and setting it up.””

“In WEIRD society, parents and adults generally take every opportunity to instruct children, even when they are patently unmotivated or too awkward and immature. The term “scaffolding” may be used to describe the process whereby the would-be teacher provides significant assistance and support so that the novice can complete a task that is otherwise well beyond his grasp (McNaughton 1996: 178). Elaborate scaffolding is rarely seen elsewhere (Chapter 5). No one wants to waste time teaching novices who might well learn in time without instruction.”

“Little girls strap bundles of leaves on their backs as babies, boys build little houses … A little girl accompanying her mother to the fields practices swinging a hoe and learns to pull weeds or pick greens while playing about … Playing with a small gourd, a child learns to balance it on his head, and is applauded when he goes to the watering-place with the other children and brings it back with a little water in it. As he learns, he carries an increasing load, and gradually the play activity turns into a general contribution to the household water supply. (Edel 1957/1996: 177)”

“In the Sepik region of Papua New Guiena, Kwoma children eagerly embrace the piglets they’re given to protect, raise, and train (Whiting 1941: 47). Talensi boys are said to possess “a passionate desire to own a hen” (Fortes 1938/1970: 20).”

“The Touareg boy progresses from a single kid (at three years of age) to a herd of goats (at ten) to a baby camel (at ten) to a herd of camels (at fifteen) to managing a caravan on a trek across the Sahara (at twenty). Preferentially, the aspirant herder interacts with and learns from herders who are slightly older, not adults. Adults are too forbidding to ask questions of or display ignorance in front of. Above all, it is a hands-on experience, as “The abstract explanation so typical of our schooling is completely absent” (Spittler 1998: 247).”

“Four-year-old Bafin has already grasped the meaning of sowing and is able to perform the various movements … he is entrusted with an old hoe as well as with some seeds so that he can gain some practice in this activity. However … he has to be allocated a certain part of the field where he neither gets in the way of the others nor spoils the rows they have already sown … As a rule, his rows have to be re-done. (Polak 2003: 126, 129)”

This is one of the few passages that got at my concern about children’s involvement in chores: it usually creates more work for the parents. It did persuade me to let Anna load the dishwasher, which she does ineptly but avidly.

Chores vs. crafts

“I was surprised to discover that, in Gbarngasuakwelle, there is a gulf between the chore curriculum and what we might call the craft curriculum. The former is often compulsory – a child may be severely chastised or beaten for failure to complete appropriate chores satisfactorily. The latter is not only entirely voluntary, but children seem to be offered little encouragement in it. Indeed, they may be actively discouraged from trying to learn a craft or otherwise complex trade.”

“Somewhat later, the child may elect to move beyond the core skills expected of everyone to tackle more challenging endeavors such as learning pottery or weaving. She or he must demonstrate adequate strength, physical skill, and motivation before anyone will deign to spend time on his or her instruction.”

Rites of passage

Most traditional societies involve some initiation ceremony to mark the transition to adulthood, may involving “days of hazing, fasting, beating, sleeplessness, and sudden surprises.”

After being raised by women, boys’ rituals often focus on separating them from the world of women:

“One element that looms large in the training of male adolescents in much of Africa and Papua New Guinea is misogyny, as noted above. There is a distinct focus on teaching boys to feel superior toward and contemptuous of women. The “text” of many messages conveyed to initiates is replete with references to women’s physical weakness relative to men and their power to pollute through menstrual and puerperal blood. Another tool in the men’s arsenal is the use of “secrets,” including sacred terms, rituals, locations, and objects such as masks. These “secrets” are denied to women on pain of death. For the Arapesh (Sepik Region), “initiation ceremonies [include] an ordeal followed by the novices being shown the secret paraphernalia … flutes, frims, paintings, statues, bullroarers” (Tuzin 1980: 26). Denying female access to powerful spirit forces aids in maintaining male hegemony. A Mehinacu girl “cannot learn the basic myths because the words ‘will not stay in her stomach’” (Gregor 1990: 484). Wagenia “women and girls belong to the social category of the non-initiated, from whom the secrets of initiation were carefully concealed” (Droogers 1980: 78).”

“Immediately following [the ordeal], the initiators drop their razors, spears, cudgels or what have you, and comfort the boys with lavish displays of tender emotion. What resentment the latter may have been harboring instantly dissipates, replaced by a palpable warmth and affection for the men who, moments before, had been seemingly bent on their destruction. As their confidence recovers itself, the novices become giddy with the realization that they have surmounted the ordeal. (Tuzin 1980: 78)”

“The Hitler Youth and the Soviet Young Pioneers both capitalized on the idealism and fanaticism characteristic of adolescence (Valsiner 2000: 295; see also Kratz 1990: 456). During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese authorities used the naturally “anti-social,” rebellious nature of adolescents in recruiting, training, and then setting them loose as “Red Guards” to destroy bourgeois, Western, or intellectual elements of Chinese society (Lupher 1995). Today, Muslim terrorist organizations easily recruit male and female adolescents to serve as suicide bombers. Again, there are fundamental biological and psychological aspects of adolescence that render them susceptible to group-think mentality. Normal standards of human decency are suspended, allowing them to commit crimes in the name of the group.”

Neither here nor there

The author describes the plight of young people who have been socialized away from their traditional cultures but not given anything good in exchange:

“Christian missions offer them the opportunity to escape the restrictions imposed by traditional rites associated, in the Sepik area, with the men’s Haus Tambaran, without successfully socializing them to embrace Western/Christian values. Similarly, in attending government schools, young males signal their abandonment of the traditional agrarian economy without actually learning enough to secure a job in the modern economy. In short, they have been led to believe they are superior to the senior men, yet bring no significant resources to the community”

“Disaffected African students, their hopes for white-collar jobs dashed by stagnant economies, are easily recruited as “rebels” (Lancy 1996: 198) and street rioters (Durham 2008: 173). Terrorists and rebel armies capitalize on the peculiarities of adolescent psychology, brought on in part by “living in limbo,” to create pliable fanatics (Rosen 2005: 157). Rosen also notes the continuity between traditional Mende warrior training, described earlier in this chapter, and the recruitment and training of child soldiers.”

The decades-long Salvadoran Civil War raised a generation of men with no livelihood other than war:
“Initiation rites in the socialization of young rebels, unlike traditional rites, do “not facilitate their social transition into responsible adulthood” (Honwana 2006: 63). Similarly, in the Salvadorian civil war, young soldiers “were not given a chance to practice and learn how to be campesinos, dedicated to subsistence agriculture … and the lack of preparation for a new, adult peacetime identity led many youth to choose the negative identity of … marero [delinquent/gang member]. (Dickson-Gómez 2003: 344–345)”

“Similarly, adolescent males living on Indian reservations suffer mortality and suicide rates three times the national average.”

Traditional cultures meet Western schools

Western schools were historically places where knowledge is crammed and beaten into children.

The story was the same in Sumeria 4000 years ago, where a student described his day: “My headmaster read my tablet, said: ‘There is something missing,’ caned me. ‘Why didn’t you speak Sumerian,’ caned me. My teacher said: ‘Your hand is unsatisfactory,’ caned me.’ And so I began to hate the scribal art” (Kramer 1963: 238–239).”

“Until fairly the 1970s, elite English boarding schools (and their US counterparts) for males weren’t all that different in terms of the constant hazing of younger by older boys, the emphasis on physical deprivation and removal from family, and daily engagement in team sports. This is probably what prompted Arthur Wellesley, the duke of Wellington, to remark: “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton.””

“The lamentations of passionate critics provide another window on the nature of schooling. These critics believed that the reluctant scholar problem could be solved by making schooling more like the experiences of the unschooled child, mixing in play, letting the child make choices, rewarding curiosity and independent learning. The fact that these pleas continue to appear over nearly two millennia suggests how enduring and intractable were the earliest ideas about the nature of schooling.”

“The idea that school should interest children was considered a radical new pedagogical philosophy in the United States of the 1840s”

But although the West has moved into a more child-centered mode, schools in the developing world remain on an old-fashioned model:

“As schools are introduced to formerly school-less communities, they much more closely resemble medieval schools than they do modern, progressive institutions. Bare, drafty classrooms, rote memorization, a scarcity of teaching materials, corporal punishment, unintelligible teachers, menial labor by students, the underrepresentation and exploitation of girls – all harken back to the dawn of schooling in the West.”

“Schools have encountered resistance from pupils who struggle to “sit still” or to meet the teacher’s gaze; from parents who’d prefer their children to be working and who reject their assigned role as “under-teacher,” prepping and supporting their child’s schooling; from patriarchal societies that impose limits on the choices available to women; and from the general public because of the very poor quality of instruction and the coercive atmosphere.”

“In a survey of childhood across history and culture, the suite of practices and teaching/learning abilities associated with modern schooling is largely absent”

An anthropologist “marvels at how facile and active the Matses children are in the natural environment, compared to what she feels is her own ineptitude. She is cowed by three- and four-year-olds who competently paddle and maneuver canoes on the wide river. She observes young boys nimbly catching and handling enormous catfish (Figure 28). And then she is struck by the painful contrast between the children’s mastery of their natural surroundings and the great discomfort and incompetence they display in the classroom. She summarizes the dilemma as ‘learning to sit still.'”

The demographic transition

A change began to happen in the Netherlands:
“In the seventeenth century, foreigners were already recording their astonishment at the laxity of Dutch parents … they preferred to close their eyes to the faults of their children, and they refused to use corporal punishment … foreigners remarked on something else: since the sixteenth century, most Dutch children – girls as well as boys – had been going to school. (Kloek 2003: 53)”

“John Locke – exiled to Holland in 1685–1688 – was profoundly influenced by what he saw. His treatise on childrearing, published in 1693, brought Dutch ideas on childcare to England (Locke 1693/1994). At the end of the eighteenth century, the Quakers also embraced population control and used various means to reduce their fertility. “The drop in the birth rate also reflected … a rejection of the view that women were chattels who should devote their adult lives to an endless cycle of pregnancy and childbirth” (Mintz 2004: 78).”

Dutch paintings of this era are no longer only stiff portraits, but depict families enjoying time together (though I’m not clear on how much the cat is enjoying this experience.)

“Teaching a cat to read,” Jan Steen, 1660s.

In developing countries, traditional methods of spacing births may be discouraged, resulting in a baby boom:

“For example, from Malaita Island in the South Pacific, traditional Kwara’ae practice was to keep men separated from their nursing wives for at least a year. However, the “abolition of the tabu system and the ascendance of Christianity has meant that … ritual separation [is] no longer practiced” (Gegeo and Watson-Gegeo 1985: 240–241). As a result, fertility has jumped and families with ten to thirteen children are not uncommon.”

Western intervention has addressed one aspect of population but not another: “The agencies that intervened to reduce infant mortality were not as ready with contraception and family-planning interventions, and the result has been masses of humanity living on the ragged edge of poverty.”

Even where it’s available, people may not be interested in birth control, despite the practical difficulties of raising lots of children. In Burkina Faso:
“There are no perceived disadvantages in having lots of children. Children are never seen as a drain on resources. The availability of food is believed to be purely a product of the God-given fortune of the child, and nothing to do with the level of resources available within the household or the number of mouths to feed [because] ‘every child is born with its own luck.’ (Hampshire 2001: 115)”

The author gets editorial at times, quipping “The rich get richer, and the poor get lots of sickly children.”

“Unfortunately, the ubiquity of infant death along with well-established coping mechanisms inures people to a phenomenon that, given the state of medical knowledge and a pharmacopeia adequate to the task, shouldn’t be happening. The wastage of young human life and the debilitating impact this has on mothers are staggering and cannot possibly be justified. And, in the West, we remain largely oblivious of the problem of child malnutrition and death in the Third World until it reaches such proportions that the story becomes newsworthy.”

Quick note on the name of this blog

When I was 21 a friend introduced me to a volume of poems by the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky. I loved them, and eventually named this blog for one of my favorite ones.

At some point I read more and found that Ladinsky’s “translations” were more like riffs on themes in Hafiz than what most people would consider translation of the original works. I’m annoyed with Ladinsky for not being clearer about this.

So, a little embarrassed, I’m going to change the attribution on the poem. It’s not 14th century but 20th century.