After spending the last 40 years observing children and community in traditional societies in Papua New Guinea, South America and Asia, anthropologist David Lancy has written a book.
Called Raising Children: Surprising Insights from Other Cultures, Dr Lancy documents his observations of the way parents are bringing up children in hunter-gatherer groups and farming villages; offering a new perseptive for us modern parents, who have become exceptionally good at encouraging ourselves and each other to overthink every aspect of our children's lives.
As journalist Bruce Bower wrote in his article about the book for Science News:
“It’s not that Western parents and kids are somehow deficient. But we live in a culture that holds historically unprecedented expectations about how to raise children.
“Examples: Each child is a unique individual who must be allowed to make decisions independently; children are precious and innocent, so their needs are more important than those of adults; and kids need to be protected from themselves by constant adult supervision.”
Amen to that. Just reading that list is a little exhausting.
Dr Lancy believes there are three main areas of traditional parenting that we Western parents can benefit from putting into practice:
1. Allow for make believe in real life
According to Lancy, hunter-gather and village children play in groups of mixed ages ‘acting out and even parodying adult behaviors’. All aspects of adult life become part of their dialogue, from relations between the sexes to religion. Hunting for 'props' to give life to their games, is part of their play and Lancy says the children even give each other roles and decide what their ‘characters’ will say.
2. Let kids play collaborative games
Unlike our playdates where we adults spend most of the time hovering around our children 'just in case' they need something, Lancy says children in traditional societies are literally free to make and negotiate their own games and rules with minimal adult supervision. Not only does it encourage children to literally 'make their own fun', Lancy says it engenders a spirit of trust and autonomy and mixed-aged play could even reduce instances of bullying.
3. Put young children to work
The toys of choice for children in the traditional societies that Lancy researched were often miniature versions of tools or utensils used in everyday life. He said these toys and games that allowed children to 'mimic' real life gave them opportunity to learn, but also encouraged them to actually muck in and help the adults in their community with everyday tasks.
Wherever possible Lancy recommends getting young children – even those as young as three - to help with household chores. But as he says, getting kids to help demands flexibility and patience on behalf of the parents. So don't forget to drop your own standards a little!
And now for the best bit...
Perhaps the most fascinating of all Lancy’s observations is that all this focus on free play and autonomy in traditional societies completely eradicates the inevtiable cries of boredom. The children, he says, just learn to entertain and rely on themselves.
Sounds pretty good to me.
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