A Lesson From New Guinea: Your Kid Is Going to Be Fine

Jared Diamond's new book shows that there are many ways to rear a child.

Circle Films

My nine-year-old has been begging me for a while to let him walk alone to his friend's house, half a block and two not-very-busy-street-crossings away. I finally let him do it, inspired in part by an anecdote from Jared Diamond's latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?. Diamond is talking about his work among the traditional (or as he sometimes calls them, "small-scale") societies of New Guinea.

When I arrived at one particular village, most of the porters from the previous village who had brought me there left, and I sought help from people of any age capable of carrying a pack and wanting to earn money. The youngest person who volunteered was a boy about 10 years old, named Yuro. He joined me expecting to be away from his village for a couple of days. But...Yuro remained with me for a month...It was evidently considered normal that a 10-year-old boy would decide by himself to go away for an indeterminate length of time.

If a New Guinean kid could go wandering away from home for weeks at a time, I figured my son could probably go up the block.

Diamond's goal in The World Until Yesterday is (as his book's subtitle suggests) to compare modern and traditional societies and think about what the latter may have to teach the former. One of the main areas in which people in modern societies can learn from traditional societies, Diamond argues, is in the realm of childcare.

If, like me, you know a fair number of hippies, a lot of Diamond's suggestions (about long-term breastfeeding, for example) will be familiar. Still, it's interesting to see the way in which alternative practices here in the United States are standard operating procedure in small-scale societies, and may have been standard operating procedure for most humans across most of the globe not so long ago in evolutionary time.

For instance, among the !Kung of Southern Africa and other hunter-gatherer groups, nursing typically continues for three years or longer. Part of what makes this type of nursing possible is almost constant contact between mother and child, or at least between some adult and the child. "A cross-cultural sample of 90 traditional human societies identified not a single one with mother and infant sleeping in separate rooms," Diamond says. He concludes "that current Western practice [of separate rooms for mother and child] is a recent invention responsible for the struggles at putting kids to bed that torment modern Western parents."

Of course, there are aspects of traditional child-rearing practices that Americans probably wouldn't want to adopt. Infanticide, for one. For another, parents in some traditional societies often let their very young children play with fire and knives, with the predictable result that many infants burn and cut themselves.

Other practices, too, have downsides that Diamond doesn't fully explore. For example, long-term breast feeding isn't feasible for most working mothers in our culture. You could certainly try to pass policies to make it possible for women to have longer leave with their infants, and you can also try to change cultural mores to recognize that it's a valid and in some ways admirable choice for a woman to decide to be a stay-at-home mom. But surely it's also important to recognize that not all women want to breast feed their kids for three years. Women are no longer chained to their babies all the time: that may have downsides, but it's got definite benefits too, and we shouldn't forget the second just because the !Kung remind us of the first.

Similarly, Diamond expresses admiration for the way in which New Guinea children from some traditional cultures are encouraged to share. He describes one game in which children are each given a banana, which they cut in half; they eat one half and then pass the other on. This happens numerous times, so that each child is dependent on the fairness of the others. Such activities contrast strongly with American games, which emphasize winning and individual victory.

Folks who live in traditional societies and move to the US are struck forcefully by the contrast; Diamond quotes one person as musing, "In Africa you share things.... But in the U.S., if you acquire something valuable, you keep it for yourself and don't share it." On the one hand, this can certainly be seen as an indictment of, and a challenge to, American culture. But it's also an indication, I think, that American children, winning games and all, are being prepared specifically to live in American culture. As a parent in this culture, you probably need to instill a bit of competitiveness and ruthlessness if your kid is going to be comfortable in, and successful in, the culture we've got, no matter what dreams you dream of a culture we might have.

I'm not saying that small-scale societies have nothing to teach us. But I think it can sometimes be a little too easy to abstract this practice or that practice, without acknowledging how closely it is intertwined with other aspects of the culture that may not be easily (or desirably) transferred. Diamond acknowledges as much in the conclusion to his chapter on child-rearing, where he admits that it's difficult to know which practices had what effect, and how exactly they were beneficial. It's his sense he says, that people in small-scale societies have "greater adult security, autonomy, and social skills". But those are "just impressions", and they're difficult to prove or quantify.

Still, Diamond argues, even if we can't be sure that small-scale societies have better child-rearing methods, we do know that "hunter-gatherer rearing practices that seem so foreign to us aren't disastrous, and they don't produce societies of obvious sociopaths." As one example, pediatricians in the US warn that a child sleeping with its parents may be in danger of being crushed. But, as Diamond says, these fears seem significantly overblown if, as the evidence suggests, most children through most of human history slept with their mothers and fathers without the species smothering itself out of existence. Similarly, parents in many small-scale societies generally pick up infants as soon as they start crying, and never strike or spank their children. The kids so raised are not spoiled; on the contrary, from the evidence Diamond presents, they seem if anything less selfish and more socially adept than their peers in the industrialized world.

It would be easy to turn Diamond's discussion of childcare into yet another set of finger-wagging commandments—"Breast-feed forever and carry the child everywhere or you're a bad mother!" It seems like it might be more useful, though, to see his findings as an indication that child-rearing, not to mention children themselves, can be a lot more flexible than we think. Let the kids sleep in your bed or put them in a crib; walk them to the playdate or let them walk down the block themselves—either way, it's probably not that big a deal. Children have been growing up every which way for a long time, and you've got more leeway than you think.