In January, I purchased the newly published second edition of “The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings,” by David F. Lancy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), hoping it would provide me with some food for thought on the cold, dark winter nights. When the crocuses sprouted in April, I had slogged only halfway through its 533 pages (of which 104 are a list of references) and set it aside.
It has the heft of college text, but it is really more of a heavily referenced opinion piece. The author is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Utah State University, Logan, and his primary message is that how we value our children and how we choose to raise them here in North America should not be considered a benchmark against which to judge the way other societies treat their children. To emphasize his contention that we should not consider ourselves the norm, he refers to us as part of the WEIRD world (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democracies).
Nearly every page includes at least one observation by an anthropologist that illustrates how different we are from many other societies. Not everyone values young children as cherubs the way we do. In some cultures, children are barely tolerated until they are old enough to contribute to the group. In some cultures, they are treated as no more than chattel.
While we believe that parents, certainly mothers, should play a critical role in the raising of children, there are many societies in which mothers are considered essential only for birthing and providing nutrition until the child is weaned. Children are left to be raised by other members of the society. Often, it is older siblings or cousins who assume the role we associate with parenthood.
The diversity of attitudes and child-rearing practices that Professor Lancy lays out in his tome is fascinating, even shocking at times, but after a few hundred pages one gets the message. But what I and every other parent want to know is if there is a common thread in these diverse cultures that can help us define the “natural” or the “best” or the “correct” way to parent our children. This question is particularly vexing for us in the WEIRD as we have become more heterogeneous, diverse, and multicultural. Most new millennium parents have no cultural tradition to fall back on, or if they have one it is likely to be very different from their partner in parenting. The result is that many parents find themselves on a constant, anxiety-driven search for the proper way to raise their child.
It’s not entirely clear to me how he arrives at it, but Professor Lancy offers his opinion on how we WEIRDs should raise our children. He feels we are taking the job of parenting far too seriously, and as a result, are meddling in a process that is best left to play out on its own. He observes, as do I, that children learn best by doing and imitating, not by being taught. Parents, specifically “involved” parents, are not a necessary requirement of successful child rearing. This message may come as an ego-busting shock to some parents. On the other hand, it should be liberating and guilt assuaging for parents whose careers and lifestyles limit the time they can spend with their children.
While I agree with Professor Lancy’s observation that much of the parenting that is done our society is unnecessary, and even at times counterproductive, the problem is that our society doesn’t offer many alternatives that provide the children an environment in which they can learn by doing and imitating. For example, grouping child care and preschool by age isolates young children from older children who can provide powerful role models for skill development. Unrealistic parental and provider fears about injury build barriers that rob children of opportunities to learn and grow.
The fact that here in the WEIRD families tend to have low birth rates makes it unlikely that parents will back off from overfocusing on their children. However, with help from knowledgeable and experienced experts in child health and behavior – pediatricians – there may be hope that some parents can learn to step back and let their children learn and develop in a more natural way.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping with a Picky Eater.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .