Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers

Child Rearing
How We Hold Them: Constant contact between caregiver and baby may contribute to the child’s improved neuromotor development. Photos: Eyecandy Images-Alamy (left); Eric Lafforgue / Gamma Rapho-Getty Images

On one of my visits 
to New Guinea, I met a young man named Enu, whose life story struck me then as remarkable. Enu had grown up in an area where child-rearing was extremely repressive, and where children were heavily burdened by obligations and by feelings of guilt. By the time he was 5 years old, Enu decided that he had had enough of that lifestyle. He left his parents and most of his relatives and moved to another tribe and village, where he had relatives willing to take care of him. There, Enu found himself in an adoptive society with laissez-faire child-rearing practices at the opposite extreme from his natal society's practices. Young children were considered to have responsibility for their own actions, and were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased. For example, if a baby was playing next to a fire, adults did not intervene. As a result, many adults in that society had burn scars, which were legacies of their behavior as infants.

Both of those styles of child-rearing would be rejected with horror in Western industrial societies today. But the laissez-faire style of Enu's adoptive society is not unusual by the standards of the world's hunter-gatherer societies, many of which consider young children to be autonomous individuals whose desires should not be thwarted, and who are allowed to play with dangerous objects such as sharp knives, hot pots, and fires.

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. We 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 Westerners who have lived with hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies speculate that these admirable qualities develop because of the way in which their children are brought up: namely, with constant security and stimulation, as a result of the long nursing period, sleeping near parents for ­several years, far more social models available to children through ­allo-parenting, far more social stimulation through constant physical contact and proximity of caretakers, instant caretaker responses to a child's crying, and the minimal amount of physical punishment.

Keep Them Close

In modern industrial societies today, we follow the rabbit-antelope pattern: the mother or someone else occasionally picks up and holds the infant in order to feed it or play with it, but does not carry the infant constantly; the infant spends much or most of the time during the day in a crib or playpen; and at night the infant sleeps by itself, usually in a separate room from the parents. However, we probably continued to follow our ancestral ape-monkey model throughout almost all of human history, until within the last few thousand years. Studies of modern hunter-gatherers show that an infant is held almost constantly throughout the day, either by the mother or by someone else. When the mother is walking, the infant is held in carrying devices, such as the slings of the !Kung, string bags in New Guinea, and cradle boards in the north temperate zones. Most hunter-gatherers, especially in mild climates, have constant skin-to-skin contact between the infant and its caregiver. In every known society of human hunter-gatherers and of higher primates, mother and infant sleep immediately nearby, usually in the same bed or on the same mat. A cross-cultural sample of 90 traditional human societies identified not a single one with mother and infant sleeping in separate rooms: that current Western practice is a recent invention responsible for the struggles at putting kids to bed that torment modern Western parents. American pediatricians now recommend not having an infant sleep in the same bed with its parents, because of occasional cases of the infant ending up crushed or else overheating; but virtually all infants in human history until the last few thousand years did sleep in the same bed with the mother and usually also with the father, without widespread reports of the dire consequences feared by pediatricians. That may be because hunter-gatherers sleep on the hard ground or on hard mats; a parent is more likely to roll over onto an infant in our modern soft beds.

Child Rearing
How They Play: Treating children as qualitatively similar to grown-ups could help them develop into tough and resilient adults. Photos: Klaus Tiedge / Corbis (left); Jackie Ellis / Alamy

Even when not sleeping, !Kung infants spend their first year of life in skin-to-skin contact with the mother or another caregiver for 90 percent of the time. A !Kung child begins to separate more frequently from its mother after the age of 1 ½, but those separations are initiated almost entirely by the child itself, in order to play with other children. The daily contact time between the !Kung child and caregivers other than the mother exceeds contact time (including contact with the mother) for modern Western children.

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.

In warm climates, it is practical to have constant skin-to-skin contact between a naked baby and a mostly naked mother. That is more difficult in cold climates. Hence about half of traditional societies, mostly those in the temperate zones, swaddle their infants, i.e., wrap the infant in warm fabric and often strap the infant to a cradle board. A Navajo infant spends 60 to 70 percent of its time on a cradle board for the first six months of life. Cradle boards were formerly also common practice in Europe but began to disappear there a few centuries ago.

To many of us moderns, the idea of a cradle board or swaddling is abhorrent—or was, until swaddling recently came back into vogue. The notion of personal freedom means a lot to us, and a cradle board or swaddling undoubtedly does restrict an infant's personal freedom. We are prone to assume that cradle boards or swaddling retard a child's development and inflict lasting psychological damage. In fact, there are no personality or motor differences, or differences in age of independent walking, between Navajo children who were or were not kept on a cradle board, or between cradle-­boarded Navajo children and nearby Anglo-­American children. The probable explanation is that, by the age that an infant starts to crawl, the infant is spending half of its day off of the cradle board anyway, and most of the time that it spends on the cradle board is when the infant is asleep. Hence it is argued that doing away with cradle boards brings no real advantages in freedom, stimulation, or neuromotor development. Typical Western children sleeping in separate rooms, transported in baby carriages, and left in cribs during the day are often socially more isolated than are cradle-boarded Navajo children.

There has been a long debate among pediatricians and child psychologists about how best to respond to a child's crying. Of course, the parent first checks whether the child is in pain or really needs some help. But if there seems to be nothing wrong, is it better to hold and comfort a crying child, or should one put down the child and let it cry until it stops, however long that takes? Does the child cry more if its parents put the child down and walk out of the room, or if they continue to hold it?

Observers of children in hunter-­gatherer societies commonly report that, if an infant begins crying, the parents' practice is to respond immediately. For example, if an Efe Pygmy infant starts to fuss, the mother or some other caregiver tries to comfort the infant within 10 seconds. If a !Kung infant cries, 88 percent of crying bouts receive a response within 3 seconds, and almost all bouts receive a response within 10 seconds. Mothers respond to !Kung infants by nursing them, but many responses are by nonmothers (especially other adult women), who react by touching or holding the infant. The result is that !Kung infants spend at most one minute out of each hour crying, mainly in crying bouts of less than 10 seconds—half that measured for Dutch infants. Many other studies show that 1-year-old infants whose crying is ignored end up spending more time crying than do infants whose crying receives a response.

Share the Parenting

What about the child-rearing contribution of caregivers other than the mother and the father? In modern Western society, a child's parents are typically by far its dominant caregivers. The role of "allo-parents"—i.e., individuals who are not the biological parents but who do some caregiving—has even been decreasing in recent decades, as families move more often and over longer distances, and children no longer have the former constant availability of grandparents and aunts and uncles living nearby. This is of course not to deny that babysitters, schoolteachers, grandparents, and older siblings may also be significant caregivers and influences. But allo-parenting is much more important, and parents play a less dominant role, in traditional societies.

Child Rearing
Illustration by Justin Metz; Source: istockphoto

In hunter-gatherer bands the allo-­parenting begins within the first hour after birth. Newborn Aka and Efe infants are passed from hand to hand around the campfire, from one adult or older child to another, to be kissed, bounced, and sung to and spoken to in words that they cannot possibly understand. Anthropologists have even measured the average frequency with which infants are passed around: it averages eight times per hour for Efe and Aka Pygmy infants. Hunter-gatherer mothers share care of infants with fathers and allo-parents, including grandparents, aunts, great-aunts, other adults, and older siblings. Again, this has been quantified by anthropologists, who have measured the average number of care-givers: 14 for a 4-month-old Efe infant, seven or eight for an Aka infant, over the course of an observation period of several hours.

Daniel Everett, who lived for many years among the Piraha Indians of Brazil, commented, "The biggest difference [of a Piraha child's life from an American child's life] is that Piraha children roam about the village and are considered to be related to and partially the responsibility of everyone in the village." Yora Indian children of Peru take nearly half of their meals with families other than their own parents. The son of American missionary friends of mine, after growing up in a small New Guinea village where he considered all adults as his "aunts" or "uncles," found the relative lack of allo-parenting a big shock when his parents brought him back to the United States for high school.

In small-scale societies, the allo-­parents are materially important as additional providers of food and protection. Hence studies around the world agree in showing that the presence of allo-parents improves a child's chances for survival. But allo-parents are also psychologically important, as additional social influences and models beyond the parents themselves. Anthropologists working with small-scale societies often comment on what strikes them as the precocious development of social skills among children in those societies, and they speculate that the richness of allo-parental relationships may provide part of the explanation.

Similar benefits of allo-parenting operate in industrial societies as well. Social workers in the United States note that children gain from living in extended, multigenerational families that provide allo-parenting. Babies of unmarried low-income American teenagers, who may be inexperienced or neglectful as mothers, develop faster and acquire more cognitive skills if a grandmother or older sibling is present, or even if a trained college student just makes regular visits to play with the baby. The multiple caregivers in an Israeli kibbutz or in a quality day-care center serve the same function. I have heard many anecdotal stories, among my own friends, of children who were raised by difficult parents but who nevertheless became socially and cognitively competent adults, and who told me that what had saved their sanity was regular contact with a supportive adult other than their parents, even if that adult was just a piano teacher whom they saw once a week for a piano lesson.

Give Them More Freedom

How much freedom or encouragement do children have to explore their environment? Are children permitted to do dangerous things, with the expectation that they must learn from their mistakes? Or are parents protective of their children's safety, and do parents curtail exploration and pull kids away if they start to do something that could be dangerous?

The answer to this question varies among societies. However, a tentative generalization is that individual autonomy, even of children, is a more cherished ideal in hunter-gatherer bands than in state societies, where the state considers that it has an interest in its children, does not want children to get hurt by doing as they please, and forbids parents to let a child harm itself.

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."

Some hunter-gatherer and small-scale farming societies don't intervene when children or even infants are doing dangerous things that may in fact harm them, and that could expose a Western parent to criminal prosecution. I mentioned earlier my surprise, in the New Guinea Highlands, to learn that the fire scars borne by so many adults of Enu's adoptive tribe were often acquired in infancy, when an infant was playing next to a fire, and its parents considered that child autonomy extended to a baby's having the right to touch or get close to the fire and to suffer the consequences. Hadza infants are permitted to grasp and suck on sharp knives. Nevertheless, not all small-scale societies permit children to explore freely and do dangerous things.

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On the American frontier, where pop
ulation was sparse, the one-room schoolhouse was a common phenomenon. With so few children living within daily travel distance, schools could afford only a single room and a single teacher, and all children of different ages had to be educated together in that one room. But the one-room schoolhouse in the U.S. today is a romantic memory of the past, except in rural areas of low population density. Instead, in all cities, and in rural areas of moderate population density, children learn and play in age cohorts. School classrooms are age-graded, such that most classmates are within a year of each other in age. While neighborhood playgroups are not so strictly age-segregated, in densely populated areas of large societies there are enough children living within walking distance of each other that 12-year-olds don't routinely play with 3-year-olds.

But demographic realities produce a different result in small-scale societies, which resemble one-room schoolhouses. A typical hunter-gatherer band numbering around 30 people will on the average contain only about a dozen preadolescent kids, of both sexes and various ages. Hence it is impossible to assemble separate age-cohort playgroups, each with many children, as is characteristic of large societies. Instead, all children in the band form a single multi-age playgroup of both sexes. That observation applies to all small-scale hunter-gatherer societies that have been studied. In such multi-age playgroups, both the older and the younger children gain from being together. The young children gain from being socialized not only by adults but also by older children, while the older children acquire experience in caring for younger children. That experience gained by older children contributes to explaining how hunter-gatherers can become confident parents already as teenagers. While Western societies have plenty of teenage parents, especially unwed teenagers, Western teenagers are suboptimal parents because of inexperience. However, in a small-scale society, the teenagers who become parents will already have been taking care of children for many years.

Another phenomenon affected by multi-age playgroups is premarital sex, which is reported from all well-studied small hunter-gatherer societies. Most large societies consider some activities as suitable for boys, and other activities as suitable for girls. They encourage boys and girls to play separately, and there are enough boys and girls to form single-sex playgroups. But that's impossible in a band where there are only a dozen children of all ages. Because hunter-gatherer children sleep with their parents, either in the same bed or in the same hut, there is no privacy. Children see their parents having sex. In the Trobriand Islands, one researcher was told that parents took no special precautions to prevent their children from watching them having sex: they just scolded the child and told it to cover its head with a mat. Once children are old enough to join playgroups of other children, they make up games imitating the various adult activities that they see, so of course they have sex games, simulating intercourse.

Either the adults don't interfere with child sex play at all, or else !Kung parents discourage it when it becomes obvious, but they consider child sexual experimentation inevitable and normal. It's what the !Kung parents themselves did as children, and the children are often playing out of sight where the parents don't see their sex games. Many societies, such as the Siriono and Piraha and New Guinea Eastern Highlanders, tolerate open sexual play between adults and children.

What We Can Learn

Let's reflect on differences in child-rearing practices between small-scale societies and state societies. Of course, there is much variation among industrial state societies today in the modern world. Ideals and practices of raising children differ between the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Japan, and an Israeli kibbutz. Within any given one of those state societies, there are differences between farmers, urban poor people, and the urban middle class and differences from generation to generation within a society.

Nevertheless, there are still some basic similarities among all of those state societies, and some basic differences between state and nonstate societies. State governments have their own separate interests regarding the state's children, and those interests do not necessarily coincide with the interests of a child's parents. Small-scale nonstate societies also have their own interests, but a state society's interests are more explicit, administered by more centralized top-down leadership, and backed up by well-defined enforcing powers. All states want children who, as adults, will become useful and obedient citizens, soldiers, and workers. States tend to object to having their future citizens killed at birth, or permitted to become burned by fires. States also tend to have views about the education of their future citizens, and about their citizens' sexual conduct.

Naturally, I'm not saying that we should emulate all child-rearing practices of hunter-gatherers. I don't recommend that we return to the hunter-gatherer practices of selective infanticide, high risk of death in childbirth, and letting infants play with knives and get burned by fires. Some other features of hunter-gatherer childhoods, like the permissiveness of child sex play, feel uncomfortable to many of us, even though it may be hard to demonstrate that they really are harmful to children. Still other practices are now adopted by some citizens of state societies, but make others of us ­uncomfortable—such as having infants sleep in the same bedroom or in the same bed as parents, nursing children until age 3 or 4, and avoiding physical punishment of children.

But some other hunter-gatherer child-rearing practices may fit readily into modern state societies. It's perfectly feasible for us to transport our infants vertically upright and facing forward, rather than horizontally in a pram or vertically but facing backward in a pack. We could respond quickly and consistently to an infant's crying, practice much more extensive allo-parenting, and have far more physical contact between infants and caregivers. We could encourage self-­invented play of children, rather than discourage it by constantly providing complicated so-called educational toys. We could arrange for multi-age child playgroups, rather than playgroups consisting of a uniform age cohort. We could maximize a child's freedom to explore, insofar as it is safe to do so.

But our impressions of greater adult security, autonomy, and social skills in small-scale societies are just impressions: they are hard to measure and to prove. Even if these impressions are real, it's difficult to establish that they are the result of a long nursing period, allo-­parenting, and so on. At minimum, though, one can say that hunter-gatherer rearing practices that seem so foreign to us aren't disastrous, and they don't produce societies of obvious sociopaths. Instead, they produce individuals capable of coping with big challenges and dangers while still enjoying their lives. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle worked at least tolerably well for the nearly 100,000-year history of behaviorally modern humans. Everybody in the world was a hunter-gatherer until the local origins of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, and nobody in the world lived under a state government until 5,400 years ago. The lessons from all those experiments in child-rearing that lasted 
for such a long time are worth considering seriously.

From The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright 2012 by Jared Diamond.