Despite being my family’s primary daytime parent, I’ve read extremely few parenting guides. Zero, as it happens, unless you count Everywhere Babies (if you’re interested, here is a previous post where I discussed this baby-wrangling treasure) or Far from the Tree.
Personally, I count Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree as a parenting guide. I was very nervous about the prospect of having a kid. I worried that I’d be a rubbish parent. I worried that I’d have an unmanageable kid. Then I read Far from the Tree, and I stopped worrying. K & I decided to forgo prenatal genetic testing; Solomon had convinced me that we could love whomever we received. And he taught me the one essential lesson I needed to set me on my journey to becoming at least a tolerable (I hope!) parent: relax.
I’d recommend that any parent-to-be (or parent, or person, honestly … it’s a lovely book) read Far from the Tree. But for the moment, here’s my favorite passage from the book, one that both stresses the importance of accepting what happens and accepting people, including your own children, for who they are:
People of higher socioeconomic status tend toward perfectionism and have a harder time living with perceived defects. One French study said baldly, “The lower classes show a higher tolerance for severely handicapped children.” An American study bears out that conclusion, inasmuch as higher-income families are “more apt to stress independence and self-development,” while lower-income families emphasize “interdependence among family members.” Better-educated more-affluent families are more likely to seek placement for their children, and white families do so more often than minority families, though disturbingly high numbers of minority parents lose children to foster care. I did back-to-back interviews with a white woman who had a low-functioning autistic son, and an impoverished African-American woman whose autistic son had many of the same symptoms. The more privileged woman had spent years futilely trying to make her son better. The less advantaged woman never thought she could make her son better because she’d never been able to make her own life better, and she was not afflicted with feelings of failure. The first woman found it extremely difficult to deal with her son. “He breaks everything,” she said unhappily. The other woman had a relatively happy life with her son. “Whatever could be broken got broken a long time ago,” she said. Fixing is the illness model; acceptance is the identity model; which way any family goes reflects their assumptions and resources.
A child may interpret even well-intentioned efforts to fix him as sinister. Jim Sinclair, an intersex autistic person, wrote “When parents say, ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.’ Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”
Once I had Solomon’s advice in hand (& re-typed & ready to share with you, dear reader!), why would I bother reading another parenting guide? Any time I come to a situation that Solomon didn’t address, I simply close my eyes and imagine what a cave person attempting to raise a daughter to participate in our technologically-magical information-based economy would do. Most of the time that imagined cave person (me, in fact) would simply feel perplexed (you’re telling me that your telephone is also a camera??), but sometimes cave dad would probably coo & pat his daughter’s belly, or else read her another book.
I love learning, though. If I had access to a good book on parenting, I’d read it! I simply assumed that I wouldn’t like most of the ones I could find at the bookstore.
That’s why I was so excited when I read Michael Erand’s New York Times article earlier this year, titled “The Only Baby Book You’ll Ever Need.” Here, let me quote a few lines from the introduction:
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.
That sounds exactly like what I’d enjoy reading! A book about parenting that’s descriptive, not proscriptive. And I’ve loved reading pop anthropology books ever since paying a quarter for a lovely hardcover edition of Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape at a library book sale in Evanston, Illinois.
I have to assume that the first edition of the recommended book, David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings, was very different from the current second edition, which was published in February of this year. Because the book I read was intensely proscriptive. Yes, Lancy documents a wide variety of parenting strategies. But he also makes abundantly clear his opinion that those parenting strategies would not be appropriate in our culture.
I didn’t mind. Lancy’s book is quite good, and his ideas about what makes good parenting align closely with my own. But someone who’d read the Times article might expect the book to be very different from what it is.
As with Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur (would you count a work of feminist philosophy as a parenting guide? If so, perhaps I’d read one after all. My previous post about Dinnerstein’s book and parenting is here), Lancy’s foremost prescription is equality — most conspicuously, since not all cultures have multiple races, castes, or tiers of wealth, he’s referring to gender equality:
There is a world in which children almost always feel “wanted” and where “there is no cultural preference for babies of either sex.” Infants are suckled on demand by their mothers and by other women in her absence. They are indulged and cosseted by their fathers, grandparents, and siblings. Children wean themselves over a long period and are given nutritious foods. They are subject to little or no restraint or coercion. Infants and toddlers are carried on long journeys and comforted when distressed. If they die in infancy, they may be mourned. They are rarely or never physically punished or even scolded. They are not expected to make a significant contribution to the household economy and are free to play until the mid to late teens. Their experience of adolescence is relatively stress free. This paradise exists among a globally dispersed group of isolated societies — all of which depend heavily on foraging for their subsistence. They are also characterized by relatively egalitarian and close social relations, including relative parity between men and women.**
** Thinking of Malinowki’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders, I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.
And shortly thereafter, Lancy makes explicit that many of the parenting practices he’s documenting are horrible. For instance, misogyny is rampant throughout the world, to such an extent that a significant fraction of female children are never even born. This is rotten, & if enough parents choose to do this they’re even dooming their own (male, presumed heterosexual) children. There parallels between this behavior and choosing not to vaccinate a child with a healthy immune system — in both cases, children are doomed if all parents make the same selfish choice, either because there won’t be enough women for the next generation to form families, or because the herd immunity relied upon to protect freeloaders will be lost.
Both China & India, where sex-selection of unborn children is rampant, are attempting legislative correctives. In China, they’ve outlawed the practice, and in India they’ve instituted monetary incentives for female progeny… although that is conceptually problematic as well. Here’s Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen from their book An Uncertain Glory:
To illustrate, consider the recent introduction, in many Indian states, of schemes of cash incentives to curb sex-selective abortion. The schemes typically involve cash rewards for the registered birth of a girl child, and further rewards if the girl is vaccinated, sent to school, and so on, as she gets older. These schemes can undoubtedly tilt economic incentives in favour of girl children. But a cash reward for the birth of a girl could also reinforce people’s tendency to think about family planning in economic terms, and also their perception, in the economic calculus of family planning, that girls are a burden (for which cash rewards are supposed to compensate). Further, cash rewards are likely to affect people’s non-economic motives. For instance, they could reduce the social stigma attached to sex-selective abortion, by making it look like some sort of ‘fair deal’ — no girl, no cash. The fact that the cash incentives are typically lower for a second girl child, and nil for higher-order births, also sends confusing signals. In short, it is not quite clear what sort of message these cash incentives are supposed to convey about the status and value of the girl child, and how they are supposed to affect social attitudes towards sex-selective abortion. As mentioned earlier, the workings of social norms is critically important in this kind of area of values and actions, and it is important to think about the possible effects of cash transfers on social norms and their role, and not just about economic self-interest.
Paying parents for their misfortune of raising a girl still perpetuates misogyny. And setting minimum standards on her care (you receive money if she’s vaccinated, if she attends school) likely results in that bare minimum being given.
And now, let me get back to Lancy’s horror:
More commonly, we find that the infant’s sex is highly salient in determining its fate. Some years ago, I came across a United Nations report, on the cover of which was a picture of a mother holding on her lap a boy and a girl of about the same age, possibly twins. The girl was skeletal, obviously in an advanced state of malnutrition, the boy robust and healthy. He sat erect, eyes intent on the camera; she sprawled, like a rag doll, her eyes staring into space. That picture and what it represented has haunted me ever since.
That’s not a value-less scientific description. Which is fine. I’m happy that Lancy’s book (the current edition, at least) is proscriptive. Because Erand’s article, which included lines such as, “The book does not render judgments, like other parenting books we know,” also mentioned tidbits like, “In Gapun, an isolated village in Papua New Guinea, children are encouraged to hit dogs and chickens, and to raise knives at siblings.”
Really? David Lancy doesn’t judge parents who give their children unsupervised access to knives?
Oh, wait. He does. He thinks that letting kids play with knives is bad. From The Anthropology of Childhood:
On Vanatinai Island in the South Pacific, “children … manipulate firebrands and sharp knives without remonstrance … one four year old girl had accidentally amputated parts of several fingers on her right hand by playing with a bush knife.”
And, later, Lancy is even more explicit. Yes, different cultures use different parenting strategies. To prepare a child for relatively simple life in an agrarian village — especially if you give birth to eight children and will be happy if only four of them survive — it’s fine to ignore them and expect them to learn what they need to know by watching their elders. But attempting equivalent parenting strategies in our culture would, in Lancy’s opinion, invite disaster:
At the outset of this chapter, I set up a juxtaposition. One view holds that, to succeed in life, children require the near-full-time attention of a mother who treats childrearing as a vocation and prepares herself assiduously. A contrary view is that this is a task best shared among a variety of individuals, a village. What can we conclude? I would argue that, to prepare a child for life in the village, it is neither necessary nor an efficient use of scarce resources to put the burden on any one individual. However, to prepare a child for the modern world, spreading the responsibility among a variety of individuals — none of whom is in charge — invites disaster. Hillary Clinton, in It Takes a Village, tries to apply the village model to the modern situation. She argues for improvements in schools and social service agencies, an increase in library and playground facilities, and after-school programs — among other things. All these proposals are helpful, but all these agents — teachers, librarians, playground supervisors, Boys & Girls Club volunteers — cannot, collectively, substitute for a dedicated, resourceful parent. They are not related to the child and, in our society, the village is not responsible. The parent is. At best, these agents can only assist the parent in fulfilling their plan for the child.
Having said that much, I want immediately to disavow any claim that this task requires the full-time ministrations of the child’s biological mother. There is overwhelming evidence — not reviewed here — that fathers, adoptive parents, lesbian partners of the biological mothers, and grandparents can all do a fine job. Any of them, or the child’s mother, can and usually do avail themselves of an array of supplementary caretakers. A working mother, in particular, may well bring home cultural, intellectual, and, certainly, economic resources that a non-working mother cannot provide.
So parenting in contemporary society is at least somewhat like physics, as it is tough to insure the child’s future success and a close, lasting filial relationship. But, ultimately, we come full circle in that, as long as a reasonably competent and caring individual is in charge, the more loving, intelligent, and dedicated helpers surrounding the nest, the better off the twenty-first-century child will be.
Lancy writes that those village children’s lives are often bad, and that imported practices from Western nations have made them even worse:
Numerous studies have shown the deleterious effects on children’s health in the agriculturalist’s pursuit of the “production” strategy. However, as the land is brought fully into cultivation, population-limiting mechanisms (such as the post-partum sex taboo) should develop to curtail further growth. And this seems to have happened in many, many cases. However, Western influence in the past hundred years seems to have dismantled these mechanisms, including, especially, abortion and infanticide. Improved nutrition and healthcare for mothers has no doubt brought benefits. But missionary efforts to stamp out “pagan” practices like polygyny also undermined the post-partum taboo on intercourse, even while they simultaneously blocked the introduction of modern contraceptives. Additionally, “fashion” and commercial interests pushing infant “formula” have drastically reduced the number of infants being breastfed [breastfeeding is often an effective contraceptive. Also, my computer marks “breastfed” and “breastfeeding” as spelling errors. Yeah paternalistic misogyny!]. The result has been, in many parts of the world, population growth outstripping opportunities for either employment or improved food production.
Lancy even ends The Anthropology of Childhood with a powerful statement about economic & medical ethics. Indeed, it’s difficult to read this as being anything but proscriptive:
Even though we recoil from discussions of children as chattel, our current policies, in fact, turn children into commodities with a precise dollar value. Effectively, we embrace the notions that anyone can have a child, everyone can have as many children as they want, infertility can be circumvented, and the fetus is human and deserves whatever measures are available to keep it alive, regardless of any handicaps or defects it may harbor. The net result of our mindset is that the marketplace decides the fate of children. In poor countries, food shortages mean many potentially sound children will suffer malnutrition and neglect. Wealth in the “North” that might be sent “South” to vaccinate, educate, and feed these children is, instead, spent at home on expensive technologies and caretakers to keep alive children whose quality of life is non-existent. While sick, premature babies born to the well-off will survive through “miracles” of modern medicine, the poor will lose their otherwise healthy children to preventable diseases.
To me, this is a sensible proscription to make — it is similar to my own reasoning for abandoning a career in biomedical research. Medical spending will continue to spiral out of control if we focus on preserving life at all costs with no concern for quality of life, and by wasting that money we perpetuate egregious harm through economic hardship.
So, I was thrilled to read David Lancy’s book. I assume you’d like it too, given that you still seem to be reading my post about it.
Just, don’t go into it expecting a descriptive work devoid of value claims. Because that’s not what you’re getting, at least not if you read the current edition.
And I’m still trying to figure out why Erand had such a different impression. Because, sure, it’s possible that the first edition was extremely different. But I think the confusion is more likely related to a point I made at the beginning of this essay: when I imagine myself as a cave person trying to raise his daughter, I have to imagine that cave dad raising his daughter for our world. Not his world.
It’s a common mistake when people discuss human evolution. Like, paleo diets? Seems like a reasonable idea, trying to eat what humans evolved to eat. But humans also evolved for constant motion & early death. If that’s the way you’re planning to live, then, sure, you’ve got a valid argument for eating that way. If not, the argument seems much less compelling.
Here’s where the problem comes from in Erand’s piece. He writes:
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 contrast, in ‘pick when green’ cultures, including our own, it’s never too early to socialize babies or recognize their personhood.
But, Lancy makes clear why “pick when ripe” cultures made the choices they did. As in, huge infant mortality meant that high-investment parenting would probably be wasted: why should that parent care that a kid was on track for greatness if the kid then dies at three? And the potential “greatness” that was perceived to be within reach was pretty meager anyway — even a neglected child could eventually catch up and learn to farm well enough.
Whereas a parent who expects his or her children to survive, and who will only attempt to raise one to three (instead of seven to ten, with 60% of them dying young), should invest a lot of time. Especially if you’re hoping for some complex, modern version of “success,” something involving happiness, for instance, and money.
And, yes, Lancy also thinks you should teach your children to do chores.