Anthropologist Gives Non-Judgemental Baby Advice—Don't Listen!
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From the NYT:

The Only Baby Book You’ll Ever Need


SOUTH PORTLAND, Me. — LIKE many parents, I have a particular book I like to give to friends when they announce they’re pregnant for the first time. It is the book I read early in my wife’s pregnancy, blurting out passages about everything from birth, baby minding and child rearing to education, work and discipline. But you probably won’t find it in the baby section of your local bookstore. “The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings,” by David F. Lancy, is an academic title — but it’s possibly the only book that new parents will ever need.

The book, which first appeared in 2008 and is about to be published in a second edition, is a far cry from “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Professor Lancy, who teaches at Utah State University, has pored over the anthropology literature to collect insights from a range of culture types, along with primate studies, history and his own fieldwork in seven countries. He’s not explicitly writing for parents. Yet through factoids and analysis, he demonstrates something that American parents desperately need to hear: Children are raised in all sorts of ways, and they all turn out just fine.

Except for the ones that die.

Children in Fiji, for example, are not allowed to address adults, or even make eye contact with them. In Gapun, an isolated village in Papua New Guinea, children are encouraged to hit dogs and chickens, and to raise knives at siblings.

Then, again, maybe if they weren’t pulling knives on each other all the time as children they’d have a better place to live by now than an isolated village in Papua New Guinea.

I took a larger point from all this — namely that humans have a tremendous capacity for living inside their culture and accepting those arrangements as natural, and finding other arrangements weird, unnatural, even abhorrent.

Cultural anthropology is striking for its aversion to critical thinking. One of the weirder aspects is that every cultural group is treated as equally informative. To an outsider, the Chinese, say, would seem like a high priority to study and teach: there are a billion of them, they’ve been around for thousands of years, they’ve culturally absorbed conquerors, they have nuclear weapons, and they’re buying up all the golf courses in California.

But to an anthropologist, the Chinese barely compare to the Trobriand Islanders, the Nuer, and the Yanomamo.

One source of this déformation professionnelle is the perfectly reasonable antiquarianism of anthropologists. A bad measles outbreak could wipe out the Yanomamo so it’s a good thing somebody studies up on them before they’re gone.

Another is that some anthropologists are more interesting, forceful, and charismatic than others, so their tribes get more ink.

But anthropologists have tended to warp their ideology to fit their professional needs.

In the first year of my son’s life, I found myself pondering things like baby rattles. Where do they come from? Why do we give rattles to babies? Are there cultures where babies don’t get rattles? (Indeed, there are.)

One thing you quickly learn after your babies become toddlers is that they have strong opinions of their own about what toys they should be given.

… That norm is that children are expected to earn their keep, starting at a very early age (or they are tolerated as semi-supernatural forces, the “changelings” of the book’s title). Worldwide, there is little formal schooling; most knowledge is learned through play and imitation. Kids may spend more time overseen by older siblings than adults. Fathers have very little to do with their children. And adults in most cultures rarely, if ever, play with their children as extensively as we do with ours.

… The real divide isn’t between people who co-sleep and those who don’t, or between those who use cloth diapers and those who use disposables. It is between what Professor Lancy, in lectures, has deemed “pick when ripe” cultures versus “pick when green” cultures.

In the “pick when ripe” culture, babies and toddlers are largely ignored by adults, and may not be named until they’re weaned. They undergo what he calls a “village curriculum”: running errands, delivering messages and doing small-scale versions of adult tasks. Only later are they “picked,” or fully recognized as individuals.

In other words, children tend to die in large numbers, so why get all sentimental over them? Of course, this is partly self-fulfilling.

In contrast, in “pick when green” cultures, including our own, it’s never too early to socialize babies or recognize their personhood.

Professor Lancy calls the American way of doing pick when green a “neontocracy,” in which adults provide services to relatively few children who are considered priceless, even though they’re useless. …



We take our cultural practices as a timeless given, but I was fascinated to read the historical origin of our modern neontocracy: 17th-century Netherlands. Wealthy and urbanized, the Dutch middle class began treating their children as inherently valuable, not as future labor.[Right, a Pieter de Hooch painting of a Dutch mother and child, 1658.] Birthrates dropped because more children survived infancy; the pampered offspring could be trained at an early age. We can blame the political philosopher John Locke for our current child-rearing preoccupations. He carried Dutch ideas back to England in the 1680s, where Protestant radicals like the Puritans and Quakers picked them up. We, and our “godlike cherubs,” as Professor Lancy calls them, are their heirs.

I’m not sure I wholly believe this story about Locke, just as the earlier stories about Rousseau later inventing modern child-rearing in Emile aren’t fully persuasive.

But 17th Netherlands was a pretty good culture.


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