Thoughts on “The Anthropology of Childhood” by David Lancy

As noted previously, The Anthropology of Childhood is excellent, and now I can say that it is excellent throughout. There are too many points to summarize the book effectively or even to hit many of its main points. One could productively read it with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, since both books argue, sometimes implicitly, that upper-middle class Western child-raising practices have become crazed, neurotic, and conceivably even counter-productive (and almost certainly counter-productive in life-satisfaction terms). Consider this example, from Anthropology:

An interesting contrast can be made with WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic] society, where girls are not usually assigned sibcare [sibling care] duties and where young mothers labor alone without the guidance of their old female relatives. “The relative isolation of the nuclear family . . . means that each woman rears her newborn infant from scratch” and young, urban mothers are unprepared for squalling, active, and very unhappy babies (Hubert 1974: 46–47). The foibles of clueless parents have proven to be quite entertaining, as evidenced by “reality” TV shows such Nanny 911, which aired in the USA between 2004 and 2007, and Supernanny (2004 – 2011), in which a competent nanny brings order and harmony to dysfunctional families.

anthro_of_childhoodYet almost no one considers this point, or many similar points.

Wealth may enable a wide range of non-adaptive behaviors and beliefs that can be sustained primarily because we’re rich enough to sustain them. Bedrock beliefs held by many Westerners about the nature of humans and families are actually culturally selected, and some of those beliefs surprised me. Nerds, however, may be unpopular because nerds often attempt to interject facts into belief- and feeling-based conversations; I suspect many citations to The Anthropology of Childhood, and especially the sections on infanticide, will not go down well.

Still, self-deception also helps explain why so many people adapt seemingly non-functional behaviors; Charles Murray describes many of those behaviors in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, a book that like many true books that puncture popular beliefs is deeply unpopular in many quarters. Most people can, if they choose to, easily see whether their partners exhibit traits related to fidelity, tenacity, conscientiousness, grit, and so forth—but many if not most of us choose to ignore these obvious signals. Our values are observed everywhere.

There seems to be a growing bifurcation in American society between crazed, neurotic, and anxious upper-middle class two-parent households in which little Madison needs ice-skating lessons, soccer practice, oboe lessons, and round-the-clock enrichment activities, or else she’ll never be a “success” and will become a drug-addicted prostituted without even a public-school degree, and single-parent low-income households in which any babysitter is a good babysitter and survival is everything. The former need to chill out and the latter… I actually don’t see a good public policy for the latter, though both the political left and right have many strongly held opinions, neither of which have done much to countervail the larger trends Murray describes. Another writer, Michel Houellebecq, describes them as well, though much more obliquely.

The Anthropology of Childhood is, as Michael Erardjan suggests in the New York Times, going to become my go-to baby gift for those who have recently spawned, though careful readers may find sections disconcerting:

Another common tactic used by new mothers is to exaggerate the resemblance between the newborn and their husband [. . .] In spite of the confidence with which humans claim “he looks just like his father,” experimental studies show that babies cannot be reliably paired to their parents on the basis of appearance (Pagel 2012: 315). Studies in our monogamous, adultery-condemning society have shown that 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not (Buss 1994: 66–67), so the baby’s anonymous appearance confers a survival advantage.

If 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not, one has to ask what kinds of fictions prevent a society in which DNA testing is cheap and easy from automatically doing so as a matter of standard practice. The answers may get very ugly very fast.

I want badly for Lancy to write an advice column; something like Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is beautifully written and yet so utterly conditioned by contemporary American beliefs, and so utterly unfamiliar with cross-cultural comparisons or evolutionary biology. Read it anyway—that beauty! that feeling!—but read it with Lancy. Compare and contrast. Imagine what Lancy might say about the myriad of problems medicated, neurotic Americans experience, or think we experience. Most contemporary advice columnists are as much repositories of conventional thinking as religious figures were a century or two ago. Lancy is different. Lancy knows things. But the things he knows we instinctively want to reject—which is why reading him is so valuable.

The Anthropology of Childhood and the common rejoinder to your friends’s parenting delusions

The only baby book you’ll ever need” has been widely shared for good reason, and as of this writing I’m about 15% through The Anthropology of Childhood but know it’s going to become the default gift to reproducing friends. Something about American culture seems to bring out neuroticism in people doing what billions of others have done before them; see also Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Expensive, large-scale programs like New York’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) or the national Early Head Start (EHS) get launched under the assumption that more schooling, earlier, is better for children, it is not obvious that that is true: “While schooling for us may begin with the fetus (if you can believe the hype about expectant mothers listening to Mozart), most societies don’t see children as readily teachable until their cognitive and linguistic skills have mature. This change usually occurs during the fifth to seventh year [. . .]” (16).

anthropology_of_childhoodInsights occur at the national and personal level. I for example was a mostly unhappy child and adolescent, not I think due to my parents or circumstances or whatever but due to inner disposition, and I interestingly became happier when I realized that we’ve not evolved to be happy: we’ve evolved to survive and reproduce. I wish someone had pointed that out earlier. Happiness may or may not be a byproduct and our default “happiness point” probably varies substantially by individual. Furthermore, in an evolutionary sense happiness may be much more contingent than it is widely considered to be in contemporary America: “In the decision to create a child – whether in an Ethiopian village or elsewhere – their wellbeing and happiness is rarely the issue” (26). And farmer societies tend to take small children and put them to work, while forager societies tend to take steps to limit the number of total children had because children take much longer to become economically viable.

To return to my own experience, even as a child I found other children brutal and stupid. Yet almost no one speaks to this idea. Lancy notes that “Our own society views children as precious, innocent, and preternaturally cute cherubs. However, for much of human history, children have been seen as anything but cherubic.” That was my intuition and still is to some extent; few others, apart from Camille Paglia and Robertson Davies have made this point. It may be wrong but it’s barely part of the debate. Many cultures consider babies and small children “sub-human” (16). To be clear, I’m not arguing that American society should do so, but I am arguing that we should know more about our species’s own history and the contingency of our own widespread practices and assumptions.

This topic may, however, be especially resistant to inquiry; childhood and parenting may be particularly fraught because almost everyone has opinions on them (and every adult has been a child) but few of us try to figure out what the research says. The Anthropology of Childhood is a $40 academic book and thus may not be a particularly accessibly way of entering the mainstream, but it should be better known.

It is the sort of book that will repay rereading many times over; this post was meant to be a link, but the writing kept pouring forth until it was a post. Lancy writes that the book began as a short article that was 500 words over his journal’s limit, and he just kept going. It could be read in conjunction with Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood successfully.

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