Traditional Human Wisdom of Child Development

For the first 200,000 years of the human species we were all hunter-gatherers, nomadic tribes of people scattered about the Earth living in sync with the natural ecology of our bountiful planet.  It is only in the past 10,000 years, with our development of agriculture and herding, that we developed what we like to call “civilization”, which according to Wikipedia is…

A sometimes controversial term that has been used in several related ways. Primarily, the term has been used to refer to the material and instrumental side of human cultures that are complex in terms of technology, science, and division of labor. Such civilizations are generally hierarchical and urbanized. In a classical context, people were called “civilized” to set them apart from barbarians, savages, and primitive peoples while in a modern-day context, “civilized peoples” have been contrasted with indigenous peoples or tribal societies.

Though hunter-gatherer societies (the “indigenous peoples” and “tribal societies” of the above definition) still exist in parts of the world today, the overwhelming majority of we humans live in more complex “civilized” societies, where we generally consider ourselves to have progressed and to be better off than our “primitive” kin.  That judgement of being better off has come into some question in the past 100 years with our legacy of devastating world wars, genocides, environmental degradation, and a continuing unequal distribution of resources leading to many of us having way more than we need and many of the rest of us having too little.

Others who have researched what life is really like in hunter-gatherer societies (based on archeology and studying those societies that still exist today) have made some surprising and perhaps uncomfortable observations.  These include that people generally spend less time working and are happier than in civilized societies.  It begs the question, what is the whole point of civilization?

It is a question worth pondering.  Though there are some debated archaeological indications of more egalitarian societies since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, our recorded history for most of the past 3,000 years has featured civilizations where the overwhelming majority of people were disenfranchised and controlled by a small elite – slaveholders controlling slaves and later feudal lords controlling serfs.  Even in classical Greek society, cited as the precursor of modern democracy, the enfranchised citizenry was a small percentage of the population, with most of the male population some form of slave and all women – even the mothers, wives and daughters of the elite male citizens – essentially chattel of their fathers or husbands.  It is only in more recent centuries that the notion of universal human rights emerged, and human society has moved in that direction.  Today most if not all civilized cultures acknowledge that male human beings cannot be held as chattel.  But many societies today still treat women and children essentially as property.  But even with this broader enfranchisement, many millions of even these enfranchised people live under the control and even domination of others.

In contrast, most archeology and current observation of hunter-gatherer societies finds them to be much more egalitarian.  Based on these societies being the precursors to our civilizations, one could make the (perhaps cynical) argument that the most salient feature of civilization has been the domination of most human beings by a self-selected elite, and that many of the “advances” in civilized society have been about developing new ways of exercising increasing control over ever more aspects of society and ever larger number of other people.

Even in the most “advanced” Western societies, nowhere is the domination associated with civilization more evident than in the attitudes about and the resulting treatment of children.  The conventional civilized assumption is that adults should protect and control their children “for their own good” and to foster their development, at least until those children reach the age of majority.  Underpinning this assumption is one or more of several other assumptions.  Some people assume that it is natural human behavior to cloister, control and protect their children whenever possible.  Others assume that though this may not be natural human behavior, it is one of the most important relatively recent “advances” of human civilization to protect young humans from the difficult and even harsh realities of real life.  This assumption is often based on the observation that human society has become so complex and difficult to navigate that a person needs extensive training for decades before they can be trusted to participate in that society in any significant way.  Maybe in an earlier agrarian age it was appropriate for children to do chores on the family farm, but in our industrial society all kids need to be cloistered in schools until they are sufficiently trained and otherwise prepared to function adequately in society.  This is seen as a much more advanced approach than the extensive child labor of the earlier industrial period.

A Different Adult-Child Dynamic in Hunter Gatherer Societies

So within the context of these assumptions we have some recent observations by thoughtful people of the role and status of children in current hunter-gatherer type societies.  I wrote a previous piece about an article in the July 2 edition of New Yorker magazine titled, “Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost?”, where anthropologist Elizabeth Kolbert took a critical look at the “rules of engagement” between young people and their parents, based on studying everyday life for a group of middle class Los Angeles families. Kolbert contrasted the irresponsibility among middle class American youth and young adults with a portrait of a very functional and responsible child named Yanira in a hunter-gatherer society as documented by anthropologist Carolina Izquierdo.

A member of another family, Yanira, asked if she could come along. Izquierdo and the others spent five days on the river. Although Yanira had no clear role in the group, she quickly found ways to make herself useful. Twice a day, she swept the sand off the sleeping mats, and she helped stack the kapashi leaves for transport back to the village. In the evening, she fished for crustaceans, which she cleaned, boiled, and served to the others. Calm and self-possessed, Yanira “asked for nothing,” Izquierdo later recalled. The girl’s behavior made a strong impression on the anthropologist because at the time of the trip Yanira was just six years old.

Just six years old but, ironically, exhibiting more of a sense of capability and responsibility than most U.S. teens! The implication being that our conventional American parenting practices are dysfunctional and we need to reexamine and change them significantly.

Now I read a piece by scientist and historian Jared Diamond, “Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gathers” for The Daily Beast.  It’s based on his most recent book, The World Until Yesterday.  You may have read Diamond’s previous bestseller, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, where he explains the political and economic dominance of Western society is not primarily caused by cultural or racial differences, but originated in environmental differences – geographic and ecological – amplified by various positive feedback loops. It is a fascinating theory Diamond has put forward and I would recommend anyone interested in the history and development of human society to check it out.

Anyway… back to his more recent piece based on his new book.  Diamond apparently has been studying hunter-gatherer societies in New Guinea for nearly half a century, and compares the child-rearing practices of some of these societies with the conventional practice in our society.  Writes Diamond…

I find myself thinking a lot about the New Guinea people with whom I have been working for the last 49 years, and about the comments of Westerners who have lived for years in hunter-gatherer societies and watched children grow up there. Other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-­confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children.  We see that people in small-scale societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do, and they spend no time at all on passive entertainment supplied by outsiders, such as television, videogames, and books.

Our Passive Culture of External Control

Interesting that Diamond, as a scientist, scholar and writer, is defining even books as “entertainment”!  I could make a counter argument that each of the activities he cites can involve gaining important insights or (in terms of games) developing important skills.  But I’m particularly struck by his call out of the passivity of much of what we do in our culture.  We so often frame learning, particularly learning in schools, as a passive exercise of reading, listening and watching rather than doing.  Our young people are expected to spend much if not most of their time in such passive pursuits in order to properly develop into adults.

Focusing on what’s different about their child-raising practices, Diamond writes that he and fellow academics studying these “small scale” societies…

Are struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children. These are qualities that most of us admire, and would like to see in our own children, but we discourage development of those qualities by ranking and grading our children and constantly ­telling them what to do. The adolescent identity crises that plague American teenagers aren’t an issue for hunter-gatherer children.

The above reads to me like an indictment of conventional schooling and parenting practice in our society.  Certainly instruction, ranking and grading is the stock and trade of the bulk of our schools that follow conventional education practices.  And many parents feel they would be irresponsible if they did not constantly instruct and control their children, and routinely judge their behavior.  Are these practices really diminishing the development of our kids, and the overall development of the human species in the larger context?

Differences in Child-raising Practices

Diamond goes on in his piece to detail at least two profound differences in the way hunter-gatherers raise their kids as compared to how we conventionally raise ours.  They give their kids much less autonomy when they are very young, but then much more once kids develop the ability to walk and talk.  Babies and toddlers are constantly in close physical contact with their parents and other contributing adults, being carried by adults during the day and sleeping beside them at night, quickly attended to when they cry, and continually bathed with affection.  Once beyond that “tender” age, the practice is reversed and even their young children are given autonomy beyond what many in our society give adolescents.

Emblematic of the difference in the raising of infants and toddlers is our society’s conventional stroller versus the hunter-gatherer’s sling.  Diamond writes…

One of the commonest Western devices for transporting a child is the stroller, which provides no physical contact between the baby and the caregiver. In many strollers, the infant is nearly horizontal, and sometimes facing backward. Hence the infant does not see the world as its caregiver sees the world. In recent decades in the United States, devices for transporting children in a upright position have been more common, such as baby carriers, backpacks, and chest pouches, but many of those devices have the child facing backward. In contrast, traditional carrying devices, such as slings or holding a child on one’s shoulders, usually place the child vertically upright, facing forward, and seeing the same world that the caregiver sees. The constant contact even when the caretaker is walking, the constant sharing of the caregiver’s field of view, and transport in the vertical position may contribute to !Kung infants being advanced (compared to American infants) in some aspects of their neuromotor development.

Once the hunter-gatherer child no longer needs to “ride” and can walk and speak for themselves, they are generally granted an autonomy that a society like ours (what Diamond calls a “state society”) might well consider criminal child neglect…

That theme of autonomy has been emphasized by observers of many hunter-gatherer societies. For example, Aka Pygmy children have access to the same resources as do adults, whereas in the U.S. there are many adults-only resources that are off-limits to kids, such as weapons, alcohol, and breakable objects. Among the Martu people of the Western Australian desert, the worst offense is to impose on a child’s will, even if the child is only 3 years old. The Piraha Indians consider children just as human beings, not in need of coddling or special protection. In Everett’s words, “They [Piraha children] are treated fairly and allowance is made for their size and relative physical weakness, but by and large they are not considered qualitatively different from adults … This style of parenting has the result of producing very tough and resilient adults who do not believe that anyone owes them anything. Citizens of the Piraha nation know that each day’s survival depends on their individual skills and hardiness … Eventually they learn that it is in their best interests to listen to their parents a bit.”

Cultural Assumptions about the Threshold for Societal Participation

So in the Martu culture it is considered the greatest of injustices to impose on a child’s will, even on a three-year-old.  Ponder how different our culture is in regards to controlling a young person’s will.  If we aren’t constantly managing our young people then we are subject to laws regarding child neglect.  So our children we cloister at home, in daycare or in schools.  Why we do that says so much about our contemporary post-industrial society and what we feel are the appropriate rules of engagement between young people and adults.

One of the reasons we do so is because we generally believe that our society is too dangerous, too uncaring, to impersonal, even predatory towards unchaperoned young people.  These apparently are the downsides of our post-industrial society that we are willing to accept for all the other pluses that it brings us, like the opportunity for some of us to earn lots of money, have nice homes, fancy cars, the latest appliances, take exciting vacations, and get medical care for our lifestyle-driven illnesses (yeah… some sarcasm there).  Young people can’t be expected to participate on their own in such a human-unfriendly society until they have had a decade or more of rigorous training, including numerous opportunities to practice participation in highly controlled venues like schools, classes and camps.

Another reason is that our society is so complex that the skills our young people will need to learn in order to contribute to it in a meaningful way are complex as well, and only mastered after extensive and focused effort. To address this issue, our collective will as expressed in our state laws is that all our kids must have at least thirteen years of state-designed formal basic education.  The roles that our kids will play in adult society are so complex that we don’t even feel our kids can make informed choices about what special expertise they will pursue until they have completed this thirteen year survey of a broad range of academic disciplines, particularly language arts, social studies, math and science.

Much or most of this training is controlled by adult experts with our kids as mostly passive recipients of approved knowledge. We view this basic formal training as so critical that we are willing to collectively pay for it, whether we have children or not.  So critical also, that we are not willing to trust kids or their parents to direct it, and instead rely on the collective wisdom of each state’s best experts to define a standardized curriculum.  And if our kids’ parents fail to ensure this basic training happens, they can be charged with child neglect.  Sounds kind of forbidding when it’s put this way, but isn’t this the reality that many of us are in denial of?

Reexamining our Child Development Paradigm

Beyond this enforced basic education, we believe that most kids generally need another four to ten years of more advanced education in a particular specialty that society requires to continue its complex functions.  But is perhaps twenty years or more of mostly passive academic instruction, separated from the real world, really the best way for a human being to develop the skills to survive and prosper, even in a complex high-technology society?  Are our anthropologists perhaps alerting us that “the emperor has no clothes” and that we have forgotten some of the basic conditions that foster optimal human development?  Even though we live in a complex society could we somehow approach child development in a way that leveraged a natural human urge to contribute to the real world from a much younger age than the mod twenties?

What if we figured out a way to start to engage our five and six year olds in the real world?  Like the six-year-old Yanira (featured at the top of this piece) who asks and is allowed to join an expedition with adults (not her parents) and can actually assist with tasks she has learned to do.  Or think about the wonderful young six-year-old, Hushpuppy, in the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, who tends to her ailing father Wink and participates fully in her small community (essentially a hunter-gatherer type community in a backwater bayou of Louisiana), including gathering and cooking food, and interacting like a full-fledged human being with adults in her small community.

I strongly believe that scientists like Diamond are pointing the way to a much more effective approach to human development.  An approach that allows young human beings to never surrender or sublimate their innate drive to contribute to the lives of the people around them.  An innate drive that I believe drives optimal human development, something that has gotten lost in the application of the control model in the last 5000 years of human civilization.

We Already have Grasped this Path

There have been many great thinkers among us that have already figured this out and have tried, mostly unsuccessfully it seems, to point us in this direction.  John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner, Maria Montessori, Aurobindo Ghose, Inayat Khan, and others have championed a much more holistic approach to the formal education of young people.  Homer Lane, A.S. Neill, John Holt, Ivan Illich, Francisco Ferrer, Yaacov Hecht, and others have gone a step further and championed a developmental process even beyond formal educational structures.  Prodigious thinkers like Albert Einstein have reminded us that “imagination is more important than knowledge”, and that the human ability to self-synthesize new knowledge is so much more significant than our ability to absorb existing wisdom.

Imagine if our six and seven-year-olds could be as capable as Yanira and Hushpuppy.  Given such a “precocious” start to their development, imagine where they could be by age eighteen, perhaps way beyond where most eighteen-year-olds are today.  Given the increasing complexity of our society, aren’t we crippling our future if we don’t give our young people the most effective environment to develop in?  An environment of self-direction that is our natural state, somehow forgotten by all this sound and fury of civilization?

Click here to read my follow-up piece on this subject.

4 replies on “Traditional Human Wisdom of Child Development”

  1. It’s not that I disagree with what you’re saying, Cooper, but the immersion-type parenting you’re talking about is, quite literally, impossible for many people in modern American society. Two (or more!) incomes have become necessary to cover even basic expenses for families in many places, and I just don’t see that changing anytime soon.

    So the question then becomes, how can we accomplish raising children in an “immersive” fashion when we are forced to spend the vast majority of our time away from them? And how can and should teachers respect these basic principles of child development in the face of ever-increasing scrutiny, judgement, and standardization?

  2. Amy…. thanks for your comment and your to the point rhetorical questions! Just FYI I am getting more of a discussion of my piece going on Daily KOS where I also post my pieces and tend to get a lot more feedback. You can check that discussion out at…

    Since you write as well regarding human development, you might like to join our “Education Alternatives” group on Daily KOS as a contributor, or at least a commenter. We would love to have your perspective on things and it might give you a wider audience if you are looking for one.

    Please let me know!

  3. Amy: I think a great option is a schooling co-op, where a child is taught in many different ways, with many different people, including working along side adults in “working” environments. There are alternatives out there, and ways to make them work, with working parents, or a working single parent. Yes, it can be daunting, because it’s not the “norm,” and making it work can seem like extra effort and extra money. But, for a parent who wishes to break this cycle of dumbing down our children, I think that many can (and do) find a way to search for, and work with, an alternative.

  4. SD… I agree with you that a key underlying goal should be to allow for and even facilitate many educational paths, from conventional formal instruction to self-directed informal pursuit of one’s interests and participation in the real world. Then given the wide range of venues for learning, the opportunity to try a little of this and a little of that and find your “groove” to participate in life while developing oneself.

    Thanks to both you and Amy for the comments!

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