I’m currently reading The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond. It’s a look at modern hunter gatherer and traditional small farming communities and explores how they structure their lives. Diamond takes pains not to romanticize these societies, he draws attention to the bad as well as the good (for example, infanticide, either deliberately or through neglect). While reading the chapter on parenting in traditional societies, I was really struck by how different things are in the US where I lived from the societies that humans evolved in and were more acclimated to.
In hunter-gatherer societies, the care of children is spread out among the whole tribe. While mom is the primary caregiver, dad, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are all readily available to help if mom needs a break or is busy doing something else. A new infant is frequently passed from caregiver to caregiver. Considering how intensive caring for a new infant is, this must be a tremendous help to a new mother!
Considering in the US, childcare is highly concentrated in the hands of the parents, particularly the mother, I think it’s little wonder women are struggling with postpartum depression and feeling overwhelmed by caring for their children. We live in houses separated from other people in our neighborhoods, not to mention separated from our families. This may have been the society we built, but it was not the society we evolved in.
The other thing that struck me was the notion of egalitarianism for children in hunter-gatherer societies. For an adult to impose his or her will on a child is considered a grievous offense. Physical punishment is seldom or never used while it is permissible for children to hit their parents (they are expected to grow out of it at a certain age). Children in hunter-gatherer societies are left to play with dangerous objects such as knives and near fires. Adults in those societies tend to have burn scars.
I tend to hold egalitarian views even for my children. They are little people, trying to figure out this world, and I have to show respect to them. In general, I only try to intervene with them when they are going to hurt someone else or hurt themselves.
I also believe that the less I intervene, the better. For instance, if Buddy puts his clothes on backwards, which he often does, I don’t make him turn them around. Either he’ll do it himself (which he’s started to) or he’ll ask me for help (if they ask for help I’ll give it). If he doesn’t want to wear his jacket I don’t press the issue, but I’ll carry one in our hiking bag. If he gets cold enough he will ask for it. If he hits a difficult part of the hiking trail I give him time to figure it out for himself. Same with Sissy, who sometimes takes five minutes to buckle herself in her car seat, but she does it herself (and yes, I check to make sure everything is tight and properly done). In general I try not to impede on their autonomy.
One day my kids are going to be adults, and I do not want to be doing everything for them at that time. So I give them as much responsibility as possible so they learn to take care of themselves. I’m the anti-helicopter parent.
And it’s the hurting themselves is where a lot of the hang ups come in.
In theory, I like a lot of the ideas of the Free-Range Parenting movement. Despite what we see on the news, child abductions are rare. And I would love to let my son, who is five, go and play in the woods on his own like I did when I was five.
Here’s the thing. When I went in the woods when I was five, I lived on an Air Force base and went into the woods with about 5-8 other children. This being an Air Force base, all of our parents knew each other, and further, security was extremely tight. If one of us children fell or was hurt, we would usually divide ourselves, one into a group of children who would wait with the wounded child and the second being the group that went to get a parent.
And it was the same in hunter-gatherer societies. Everyone knew everyone, children played in large groups, and the adults would watch over each other’s kids.
In the US, our society is no longer set up like that.
I rarely see my neighbors, even though the ones who live right next to us have about seven kids whose ages overlap with mine (they come from a culture where men and women who are not married are not allowed to socialize, if I see the father he does not acknowledge me, though the few times I’ve talked to his wife she was really nice). Yet with our big houses, our multitude of indoor entertainment, we just somehow never make it outside to see our neighbors. And while we don’t use the garage for parking our cars (we let our cat in the garage) plenty of other neighbors do, so you don’t even see them entering and leaving their house!
Further, as often as I use the park by my house, I am strangely an anomaly in my neighborhood. Most people with small kids do not regularly walk down there with them. It’s either an infrequent occurrence or they drive down. I have had yet to find another family that is at that park as often as we are. Further, when I take my kids to the trails by the creek, I am for the most part the only parent doing it. Occasionally a frisbee golfer will have a kid in tow.
By and large, I don’t worry about a stranger kidnapping my kids. I worry about an off roader running them over. Or one of them falling in a cactus patch. Or finding a poisonous snake. Or falling in the creek and getting caught by a strong current and drowning. Or tripping and spraining their ankle. Heck, when I was pregnant with Sissy I was walking my dog and found a mountain lion walking up ahead of me on those trails. Um, me and my 65 pound German Shepherd promptly turned around and headed home.
And while some societies are structured so that children are monitored even if not by people who are their parents, the society I live in is not! If I sent Buddy to play in the woods by himself and anything happened, it’s likely that no one would be there to witness it and get help. Heck, sometimes I get to a certain part of the woods and think about how hard it would be to give an ambulance directions to where we are if there is an emergency and wonder how reckless it is to go alone with two small children into the woods even though I always take my phone with me. In truth while we never get more than 2000 feet from the main park with the playgrounds, the woods is thick enough and there are enough hills and crevices that no one would know what is happening in some of the places we trudge through, especially now that I’m going into places the off roaders have not encroached on.
While there are a lot of benefits about our modern society, I think something we lost along the way is community with the people we live close in proximity to. My close relationships are not with people who live in the neighborhood. The drawback is the burdens of raising children fall solely on me and my husband. Our neighbors are not going to look out for them. They will not go into the woods with a group of neighborhood kids to watch each other’s backs. Somehow we lost that social support.
And that’s why I think parenting is so stressful in this modern age. We evolved in a society where it took a village to raise a child. We don’t have that anymore.