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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!'”

Attention

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.

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.)

Nutrition

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.”

Wild animal welfare in Hans Christian Andersen

Continuing the theme of wild animal suffering in children’s lit

Hans Christian Andersen’s stories involve a lot of suffering of both human and animal varieties. “The Ugly Duckling” takes a brief detour from describing the duckling’s repeated social humiliations to describe being a waterfowl in winter:

The winter grew cold – so bitterly cold that the duckling had to swim to and fro in the water to keep it from freezing over. But every night the hole in which he swam kept getting smaller and smaller. Then it froze so hard that the duckling had to paddle continuously to keep the crackling ice from closing in upon him. At last, too tired to move, he was frozen fast in the ice.

Thumbelina” likewise details bird hardship in the Danish winter:

In the middle of the floor lay a dead swallow, with his lovely wings folded at his sides and his head tucked under his feathers. The poor bird must certainly have died of the cold. Thumbelina felt so sorry for him. She loved all the little birds who had sung and sweetly twittered to her all through the summer. But the mole gave the body a kick with his short stumps, and said, “Now he won’t be chirping any more. What a wretched thing it is to be born a little bird. Thank goodness none of my children can be a bird, who has nothing but his ‘chirp, chirp’, and must starve to death when winter comes along.”

“Yes, you are so right, you sensible man,” the field mouse agreed. “What good is all his chirp-chirping to a bird in the winter time, when he starves and freezes?

Not that different from “The Little Match Girl“, in which a child freezes to death on the streets of Copenhagen:

She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.

Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her!

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. Interesting that an author who didn’t shy away from human suffering in his fairy tales also didn’t shy away from animal suffering.

Notes on Oneida community

Passages I highlighted about the Oneida community from Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings. The Oneida Community was a Christian communal society founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York.

“At the community’s peak, three hundred Oneida “Perfectionists” lived an intensely intimate, intellectual existence in a rambling, Italianate mansion. They saw their community as an earthly branch of the Kingdom of Heaven, a sort of portal through which the millennium would come to earth. Under the influence of their utopian forebears, the Perfectionists renounced private property, raised their children collectively, embraced gender equality, perfected a novel form of birth control, experimented with every health fad of their day, pursued rigorous self-improvement, practiced a complex system of free love, and initiated an unprecedented experiment in eugenics.”

…..

Early decision from the founder on cooking:

“When it occurred to him that the practice of eating three hot meals a day subjected women “almost universally to the worst of slavery,” he simply stopped it. The thirty-odd members of the Putney community ate one sit-down meal in the morning and then foraged for themselves from an open pantry “as appetite or fancy may suggest.” The door to the pantry was marked with a card bearing the motto “Health, Comfort, Economy, and Woman’s Rights.””

…..

After the woman he loved married someone else, Noyes decided that “complex marriage” in groups was the proper way for Christians to live. He was a virgin at the time.

“By the 1860s, with three hundred people living at Oneida and Wallingford, the Perfectionists’ struggle against “the marriage system” was going surprisingly well. While moralizing critics described the community as an “orgy” or “brothel” or “harem” or “seraglio” or “whoredom,” the Perfectionists insisted upon their own conservatism. Their erotic delight, they pointed out, came with all the usual pledges and sacrifices of the marriage bed. Any two Oneida lovers, by dint of their membership in the community, were obligated to support each other through sickness and health, to hold all of their wealth in common, and to care for any offspring born of their coupling. . . . Sex, as practiced within the community, was understood as a sacrament—“a more perfect symbol of [a union with Christ] than eating bread and drinking wine,” as Noyes put it.

“Every adult in the community was loosely ranked according to a system of “ascending” and “descending fellowship.” To hasten spiritual growth, novices were encouraged to go to bed with those who were more enlightened. In practice, this meant that the young or recently converted slept with older, more experienced Perfectionists. . . . [such as the founder, Noyes].

“At Oneida, unlike at so many other sexed-up religious enclaves, the May–December loving went both ways. “Spiritually ascendant” older women erotically baptized teenage boys. Given that the mechanics of male continence were difficult for young men to master, receiving their sexual education from postmenopausal women offered one practical benefit: there could be no risk of an unplanned pregnancy.”

Seems to me this still holds benefit for Noyes, though. If the young men are paired with older women, it leaves young women available for older men.

…..

Women in the community designed a costume suited to work:

“The result was a long-sleeved blouse and a matching knee-length skirt worn over loose “pantalets.” They called it “the uniform of a vital society.” After some snickering, all of the women in the community adopted it. This so-called short dress was soon supplemented with elastic sneakers, which, like true utopians, they called “the final shoe.”

…The women at Oneida cut their hair shoulder length or shorter, a style then associated with adolescent girls. While their sisters in the World routinely spent an hour arranging combs, pins, and extensions atop their heads, the women of Oneida boasted that they went directly from bed to the breakfast table. “Any fashion which requires women to devote considerable time to hair-dressing,” they announced in the community paper, “is a degradation and a nuisance.”

“In the 1860s, a group of community women started an “express service” to convey visitors and packages back and forth between the mansion and the nearby train depot. The venture presented local non-Perfectionists with the jarring sight of “unattended” women in sporty dresses and childlike haircuts loading parcels, wrangling horses, and operating a prosperous enterprise.”

…..

“Labor “bees” were common at every utopian colony of the era, but the Perfectionists raised them to an art. They held bees for every large task—brick making, planting, broom corn harvesting, bag stitching, vegetable picking, and fruit preserving. “Working in storm,” as they called it, made tedious jobs go fast and gave the communists an economic edge over their neighbors. Neither “isolated” householders nor wage-paying bosses could quadruple or halve their workforce from day to day. The Circular regularly trumpeted the efficiencies of the system. Four thousand quarts of strawberries were picked in a single day. A barn was raised in a weekend. A large trap order was filled in one night. One “storming company” was tasked with stitching the bindings of nine hundred religious pamphlets. They ran out of printed matter so quickly that they went looking for other things to sew, turning their needles upon a large heap of flour sacks in need of darning. Laboring in “mixed company”—especially when combined with breaks for cake or brief bouts of fiddle-accompanied contra dancing—helped give tiresome undertakings a flirtatious, festal atmosphere.”

…..

“In July 1852, at the height of the Observer-stoked outcry over complex marriage, the communists opened their gates to a skeptical public, inviting people to come in and be impressed. That event, a free “strawberry festival,” was the first of countless subsequent picnics, performances, and concerts, all of which were orchestrated for the pleasure of the World. The outreach worked. The Perfectionists’ upstate neighbors gradually became their best defense against periodic attacks by crusading politicians and churchmen. When the district attorney in Utica agitated for the community’s expulsion, a prominent local businessman wrote Noyes, promising that “the people in this vicinity will not consent to have you disperse.”

. . . .”An illustration on the cover of the magazine Puck depicted a clutch of scowling churchmen gesturing toward the peaceable commune. “Oh, dreadful!” reads the caption. “They dwell in peace and harmony, and have no church scandals. They must be wiped out.””

…..

“A community notice from 1858 declared that “child-bearing, when it is undertaken, should be a voluntary affair, one in which the choice of the mother, and the sympathy of all good influences should concur.”

“The community’s unusual method of birth control was surprisingly effective. Among roughly two hundred sexually busy adults, there was, on average, about one accidental pregnancy each year, a rate that compares favorably with that of modern birth control pills. Those few men who were unable to master male continence were paired with those women who were, in the poignant euphemism of the day, “past the time of life.” In 1852, the Circular boasted that “the increase of population by birth, in our forty families, for the last four years, has been considerably less than the progeny of Queen Victoria alone.””

….

“As the community prospered, the Children’s House became increasingly deluxe. A large, steam-heated playroom was outfitted with indoor seesaws, balance beams, swings, and a miniaturized wood shop in which a group of boys attempted to build themselves a “flying machine.”

. . . .The children conducted their own sort of self-governance. In 1851, they raised their small hands in support of a series of resolutions denouncing their homemade dolls as a medium of “the mothering spirit”: “This doll-spirit that seduces us from Community spirit in regard to helping the family and that prevents us from being in earnest to get an education is the same spirit that seduces women to allow themselves to be so taken up with their children that they have not time to attend to Christ, and get an education for heaven.” After a discussion about their “idolatrous” toys, the children voted to put their dolls to the flame. The little boys were particularly “loud in their clamors for the great massacre.” Following the vote, a group of nine- and ten-year-old girls stripped their dolls of the bloomer-style outfits they had sewn for them and, one by one, tossed the toys into the woodstove. When the burning was over, “all hands rejoiced in the condemnation.””

….

After thirty years of a deliberately limited birthrate and cautious recruitment from outside, Noyes announced the start of a positive eugenics program (“stirpiculture”, from the Latin for “stem,” as “eugenics” wasn’t coined for another twenty years) in 1869.

“The ability to actually achieve “scientific combination”—as opposed to the “promiscuous scrambling” of the World—was opened by the twin innovations of male continence and complex marriage. In hindsight, Noyes’s hat trick of erotic experiments form a chain. Male continence, first inspired by Harriet Noyes’s birthing traumas, created the possibility of complex marriage. And it was complex marriage, the community’s civically oriented ménage à trois-cent, that made their experiment in controlled breeding possible.

For a time, selections were made by a six-member committee that included two Yale-educated physicians. Mostly the selections were left up to Noyes and his inner circle. Like breeders of flowers or dogs, the Perfectionists had to choose which traits they were aiming for. While the intelligence and health of the volunteers were taken into account, the main criterion was a highly subjective notion of spiritual inspiration. On the dubious assumption that good sex makes good babies, mutual attraction between volunteers was considered a plus. Practically speaking, the Perfectionists had their ideal target close at hand. “The existence of Noyes,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “simplified the breeding problem for the Communists, the question as to what sort of men they should strive to breed being settled at once by the desirability of breeding another Noyes.” Not surprisingly, Noyes personally fathered a sixth of all the “stirpicults.” Ultimately, a total of fifty-three women and thirty-eight men were selected. They pledged themselves as “ ‘living sacrifices’ to God and true Communism” and went upstairs in pairs.

“Between 1869 and 1879, forty-five “stirpicults” were born. They were raised and nursed by their biological mothers for nine months and then transferred to the nursery of the Children’s House, where they were cared for by specially selected teachers and generally fussed over by the entire community. The biological parents renounced all rights of parenthood.

“In 1891, after the breakup of the community, Anita Newcomb McGee, a final-year medical student at Johns Hopkins who specialized in gynecology, studied the stirpicults for a report in the American Anthropologist. By then, the eldest were twenty-two. McGee found that most of them had been impressive students, with both boys and girls earning scholarships to top universities. With a single exception, all were perfectly healthy. Many were unusually tall. They were highly literate, and when they convened at the Mansion House each summer, they entertained themselves with debate competitions and concerts. With the exception of Noyes and a few other lawyers and clergymen, the volunteer parents had all originally been farmers, laborers, and craftspeople. All but one of the stirpicults (a machinist) pursued nonmanual professions. Among the eldest boys in the group—those for whom a career could reasonably be predicted in 1891—there were medical students, law students, businessmen, a math prodigy, and a successful musician. The eldest girls, in the estimation of Dr. McGee, were also bound for intellectual careers. One was a scholar of Greek at a women’s college; another was studying the new kindergarten system. Of course, much, if not all, of the stirpicults’ success in life can be attributed to their carefully administered upbringing in the Children’s House and the intellectual, self-improving tenor of the community in which they were raised.

Ironically, the stirpicults’ main “failing” was a distinct lack of faith.”

One interesting thing about this is that it goes against a lot of modern findings that institutions are terrible places to raise young children 24/7. It seems that a community of loving and motivated adults was able to do a very good job at institutional childrearing. I don’t know much about kibbutizim but that would also be an interesting area to look about this.

….

Ultimately the community disbanded after failing to find a suitable leader to replace the aging Noyes (he tried to install his son, who was a flop.) Many younger members wanted to try monogamous marriage. Noyes fled to Canada in 1879 after it looked likely that the town would charge him with statutory rape, and the community ended complex marriage at his recommendation. The community lasted two more years before disbanding. The transition from group marriage to monogamy was extremely difficult, as members who had thrown themselves into arrangements radically different from mainstream nineteenth-century society now tried to live in a halfway arrangement neither here nor there, in the blended family to end all blended families.

In the same year, an unpopular ex-member assassinated president Garfield. I’d be curious to know whether this association, even by  a member the community found unpleasant and unstable, would have done them in if they hadn’t already been disbanding.

….

The book covers five American utopian movements, of which I found Oneida and the Shakers the most interesting. If you liked these passages, I’d recommend the rest of the book.

Children’s lit as source for intuitions about animals?

People have wildly different intuitions about what kind of lives wild animals have and whether their lives contain more enjoyment or suffering.

I suspect that opinions about this vary a lot by how you view nature. Before the Romantic era, nature/wilderness was not seen as a charming place. Nature was what made you die of exposure or starvation.

I don’t know what people in a pre-industrial society would say if you ask what kind of life a mouse has. Maybe they’d think the question too silly to answer. But I suspect they wouldn’t have the intuition I had for most of my life, that being an animal would be kind of charming and fun.

Some of this is being raised in the era of the environmentalist movement, with its emphasis on the beauty and wonder of nature and the importance of preserving habitats so that wild animals can do their thing.

But In raising kids, I keep noticing another influence: almost all the depictions of animals they see are cute anthropomorphized ones.  There are old Aesop-type animal stories with anthropomorphized animals that talk to each other, but the genre really expanded in the 20th century, starting with Beatrix Potter’s 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The illustrations make the depictions especially salient.

(There’s a whole other topic of how farms and farm animals are depicted  which is only on old-fashioned non-industrial farms run by the like of Old MacDonald — but I’ll stick to wild animals here.)

In many books the animals are just stand-ins for humans: think Goodnight Moon or The Berenstain Bears where the characters live in houses and go to school. But even the ones where animals do animal activities leave out most of the things that might be unpleasant for actual animals, like starvation or being eaten. The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s only problem is a stomachache after eating too many pickles and cupcakes.

Another factor is that children’s books are designed to be read at bedtime, so a large portion of them end with the characters going happily to sleep. My favorite cozification of animals is Ashley Wolf’s illustration of the Raffi song “Baby Beluga”, where the (fish-eating) whales snuggle fish as we read

When it’s dark, you’re home and fed
Curl up snug in your water bed.

So naturally kids conclude that wild animals have charming, pleasant lives.

These animals aren’t living in a dirty hole getting rained on without enough to eat; they’re nice middle-class animals. And we definitely don’t talk about r-selection.

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Two Bad Mice

Lightsabers and cinder-maids

I’ve been enjoying Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  But she does get alarmist at times, as in this take on 1980s television:

In surveys of parents and teachers across the country, Levin found that, rather than engaging in creative play, children began imitating what they saw onscreen, reenacting rote scripts with licensed products. Whether in Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon, their play became homogenized. Nor was there evidence that their stories were evolving, that they were making the kind of inner meaning out of their dramas that would provide psychological resolution, as they once had. . . . As for guns that are not “really” guns, Levin told me, “We’re fooling ourselves if we think those are better. When you give kids a light saber, you know exactly what they are going to do with it, and every kid who has one will do the exact same thing. There is no creativity there.”

Huh?

I remember playing with a friend after he got seriously into Nintendo games. Around age nine, I saw him and feared he had become boring, gotten sucked into a screen. But when we ran around on the playground, his games were both imaginative and Nintendo-themed. He assigned us all different colors of Yoshis to be, and we ran around dodging imaginary mushrooms and jets of flame. I was relieved that he was still the same person.

And lightsabers? At the peak of our Star Wars stage, my best friend and I staged lightsaber battles with yardsticks. We were doing what children have done for centuries: playing with toy swords. The fact that Lucasfilm got us interested in it doesn’t change that.

I don’t think my children will become more violent people for playing with “war toys.” (Once again, I like Teacher Tom’s take on this.)  And I don’t think getting interested in a setting, whether it’s Greek myth or Mario Brothers, is likely to make them less imaginative.

I guess I do see an argument for non-specific toys. A yardstick can be lots of things, but a plastic lightsaber is pretty much always a lightsaber.

Orenstein also gets into the quagmire of whether to expose children to fairy tales, and if so, which ones.  I was raised loving Grimms’ and Andersen’s tales, which my parents read to us nightly, and the Disney movies, which we mostly watched at the neighbor’s house. My Cinderella play involved both carrying tea sets like the Disney one, and sitting in the fireplace, like the German one.  (I was deeply upset when my parents varnished our slate hearth, since the shiny new surface didn’t give me the feeling of sitting among the cinders.)  I was as familiar with Ariel’s happy ending as with the little sea-maid who “looked towards the east for the first blush of morning, for that first ray of dawn that would bring her death.”

And I’m pretty sure I came out okay.

Book recommendations in jail

Most of the inmates at the jail can visit the library occasionally, but the ones on certain units can’t go.  So they rely on staff, including me, to supply them with books.  Everything I do as a mental health clinician is supposed to have a clinical purpose – any reading material is supposed to be chosen to help clients cope with stress, etc., and not just for entertainment. But I do it more because I can’t help myself, because I can’t imagine being locked up and having nothing to read.

Currently there’s a something of a racket in Hunger Games books going on. One of my clients has read the first book and got the third from the library, and now he’s holding the third one captive until he can read the second book. Another client told me she read the second book, so I found out who she lent it to and got the second woman to promise to give it to me when she’s done. (She’s likely to help me out because I’ve been keeping her supplied with Twilight novels for a month now.)  Then my first guy can read the second book and the third, and when he’s done I can get the third book to the two women. I will feel so accomplished if this plan works.

I have a client who asks for classics, saying she doesn’t want her brain to rot when she’s in solitary confinement.    Recently I got her Edith Wharton’s 1905 House of Mirth, telling her it’s about a woman who realizes she needs money, so she decides to marry a rich man but has all kinds of problems with relationships and money and ends up with a bad reputation and a drug problem. My client laughed and said she looked forward to reading it, because it sounded exactly like her.

I once came onto a unit bearing a few copies from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series to add to the unit bookshelf. A woman spotted them from across the room and exclaimed, “Oooh, those books are like crack!”  And she would know.

My selections aren’t always so successful.  I brought some Edith Wharton to a man who had begged me for novels and poetry.  He slid it back under the door of his solitary cell with disdain, saying he was only willing to read British literature because he finds American authors have “a dearth of poetic language.”   Never mind that it meant another week with no new books until my next visit.  His standards were firm.

We have a copy of Les Misérables in the mental health office that nobody is brave enough to bring to a client. In its favor, it has lots of characters the clients would love – a good-hearted prostitute who’s down on her luck, an ex-con who tries to do the right thing but keeps getting caught up by a vindictive cop. But it gets passed over due to the huge size and intimidating prose.

Not all the inmates are put off by big books, though. One of my clients is currently enthused about a history book (I suspect it’s Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States) that he found being used as a doorstop on his unit.

Another man told me he’d never had time to read much Dickens before.  “I can’t believe how funny it is!”

There’s a lot of demand for dictionaries. Some people use them to check, when they’re using big words in their raps and love letters, that they’re using them correctly. But it took me a year to realize that much of the demand is because some of the illiterate inmates believe they can learn to read and write from a dictionary. There are a few books intended for speakers of other languages, but not much for native English speakers who never actually became literate.

Parenting books are also in high demand. Most parents learn as they go and see their child develop, but a lot of the clients haven’t had custody of their children in a while – it’s hard to jump to parenting a 4-year-old when you basically haven’t seen her since she was 2.

One of my coworkers had a client ask her for a copy of “Men’s Health” magazine. She couldn’t find one, but brought him “Positive” magazine instead, which had some healthy-looking men on the cover. Afterwards he told her kindly that he was able to get the magazine into the trash without anyone noticing, and to please not bring him no AIDS magazines next time. Another coworker had a similar experience with a randomly-chosen novel that turned out to be about gay men. Now we’re careful to evaluate books for gayness, lest we endanger our clients.

For more on the life of books in prison, see librarian Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books.

What needs to be done

I was struck by the descriptions of nursing in Louisa May Alcott’s Work: A Story of Experience  (not the greatest novel, but a fascinating take on women’s careers in 1860s Boston). The last of the professions our heroine turns her hand to is wartime nursing, just as the author did in the Civil War.

A senior nurse commends the heroine:

“You are a treasure, my dear, for you can turn your hand to any thing and do well whatever you undertake. So many come with plenty of good-will, but not a particle of practical ability, and are offended because I decline their help. The boys don’t want to be cried over, or have their brows ‘everlastingly swabbed,’ as old Watkins calls it: they want to be well fed and nursed, and cheered up with creature comforts. Your nice beef-tea and cheery ways are worth oceans of tears and cart-loads of tracts.”

. . . . Mrs. Sterling, Jr., certainly did look like an efficient nurse, who thought more of “the boys” than of herself; for one hand bore a pitcher of gruel, the other a bag of oranges, clean shirts hung over the right arm, a rubber cushion under the left, and every pocket in the big apron was full of bottles and bandages, papers and letters.

The 1860s were a pivotal time in the development of nursing – in England, Florence Nightingale was just founding the first secular nursing school. Clara Barton, “the angel of the battlefield”, was gaining the experience that she would use to professionalize American nursing. But at the time Alcott trained, nursing involved no formal education, no study of biology. Both nursing and medicine in general were at such a basic stage that nurses were basically trying to keep the patients from bleeding to death, and if possible to keep them comfortable and in good spirits.

Given how much actual medical care nurses are now responsible for, I’d much rather have a nurse who can put the right drug in the IV line than one with “cheery ways.” But some combination of both would be nice.

Currently, medical and social services are segmented enough that I’m a little envious of 19th-century nurses’ ability to actually do tasks that they saw needed doing. Help a client call his mother? No, that’s the caseworker’s job. Get a client in solitary confinement the Danielle Steel novel she’s asking for to pass the time? That’s the librarian’s job, except he never seems to make it up to the tenth floor. Helping a bulimic client brainstorm about how to drink more fluids – that would probably be the nutritionist’s job if he hadn’t been laid off.

At its best, I think social work includes things beyond talk therapy. Getting a cup of coffee for a woman who just arrived at the domestic violence shelter with two children and a trash bag of belongings. Spending a therapy session helping a client write a resume. Getting a pair of reading glasses for the hospital patient who lost hers. Getting a Spanish-language Koran for the prisoner who wants to read his holy book in his own language. No, it doesn’t take a master’s degree to do any of these things, and when they need to be done en masse it’s worth having someone whose job that is. But when random needs come up, sometimes it’s better to just get the job done.

Some favorites

Fiction:

March, Geraldine Brooks.  The world of Little Women seen through less rosy glasses, complete with Marmee’s unhappy marriage and what Mr. March was doing during the Civil War.

The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle.  Dreamy, comic, odd.  Molly Grue might be my favorite character in literature.

St. George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges, ill. Trina Schart Hyman

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers.  My favorite of the Peter Wimsey detective novels – but it’s more about 1930s feminism and about the love story than about the mystery.

Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn.  A dystopia in which letters of the alphabet are successively banned.

Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes, Wendy and Clyde Watson.  Very Vermont.

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters.  The underclass of Victorian London, an insane asylum, a plot twist, and a love story.

Work, Louisa May Alcott.  A virtually unknown novel by the author of Little Women.  A young woman’s career in 1850s Boston, complete with socialites, prostitutes, escaped slaves, Quakers, and a Henry David Thoreau stand-in.

Nonfiction:

Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Judith Martin.

The DSM-IV-TR, American Psychiatric Association.  I know it’s unpopular to actually like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but it’s fascinating.  I haven’t read the new one yet.

Memoir:

All Souls, Michael Patrick McDonald.  South Boston.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi.  Iran.

Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt.  Ireland.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel.  By the author of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.

Movies:

The Philadelphia Story.  Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant.

Tootsie.  Still one of the best takes on gender I’ve ever seen.

Victor/Victoria.  Julie Andrews gets a little less wholesome.

Poetry:

William Butler Yeats.  Dreamy.  Unrequited.

John Donne.  Runs the gamut from romantic to sexy to religious.  I’m glad I discovered him early enough that I wasn’t put off by the 17th-century gender stuff.

Hafiz/Daniel Ladinsky.  Apparently the poems “translated” by Ladinsky are Ladinsky’s riffs on themes by the 14th-century Persian mystic and poet Hafiz, not an actual translation.  I still like the poems, though.

Literary criticism

I found this review written inside the cover of a library copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

You’d have to have 6 personalities to get jiggy with this shit.  Playin the role of everybody like a creep Just to understand it.  Tell me that aint some Bullshit.  

To Be? Or Not to Be? Definatly – NOT TO BE

I have to say, I love the idea of this person reading the play aloud.