This method is much older than civilization.

Hunter-Gatherers’ Playful Parenting

Playful parenting is founded on trust.

Have you ever noticed how we, as a society, use agricultural metaphors to talk about parenting and education? We speak of raisingchildren, just as we speak of raising tomatoes or chickens. We speak of training children, just as we speak of training horses. Our manner of talking and thinking about parenting suggests that we own our children, much as we might own domesticated plants and livestock, and that we control how they grow and behave. We train horses to do the tasks that we want them to do, and we train---or try to train---children to do the tasks that we think will be necessary for their future success. We do that whether or not the horse or child wants such training. Training requires suppression of the trainee's will, and hence of play. The agricultural approach to parenting is, therefore, not a playful one.

Our society's concepts of raising and training children assume a dominant-subordinate relationship between parent and child. The parent---or teacher or other parent substitute---is in charge and is responsible for the child's actions. The child's primary duty, at least in theory, is to obey. This aproach to parenting seems so natural to us that it may be hard to imagine an alternative. Yet, in the context of our long history as a species, it is new. It came with agriculture, which first appeared about 10,000 years ago. Before that, we were all hunter-gatherers and we had no agricultural metaphors to guide our parenting practices.

In this series of essays, on "Play Makes Us Human," I have been describing the social values and practices of band hunter-gatherer societies. My thesis has been that an expansion of the primate play drive in our species enabled our ancestors to adopt a far more social and cooperative style of life than that manifested by other primates (see June 4, 2009, post). Hunter-gatherers seemed to use play and humor more or less deliberately to suppress tendencies toward dominance and to foster the sense of personal freedom and equality that was essential to their livelihood. In past essays I have talked about hunter-gatherers' playful approaches to (a) government, (b) religion, and (c) productive work. Now, in this essay, I describe their playful approach to parenting.[1]

First, to give you a sense of hunter-gatherers' parenting philosophy, here is a sample of quotations from anthropologists and others who have lived in various hunter-gatherer societies and observed them closely:

• "Hunter-gatherers do not give orders to their children; for example, no adult announces bedtime. At night, children remain around adults until they feel tired and fall asleep. ... Parakana adults do not interfere with their children's lives. They never beat, scold, or behave aggressively with them, physically or verbally, nor do they offer praise or keep track of their development." (Yumi Gosso et al., "Play in Hunter-Gatherer Societies," in A. D. Pellegrini & P. K. Smith (Eds.), The Nature of Play: Great Apes and Humans, 2005, p 218.)

• "The idea that this is ‘my child' or ‘your child' does not exist [among the Yequana, of South America]. Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence--let alone coerce--anyone. The child's will is his motive force." (Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept, Revised Edition, 1977, p 90.)

• "Aborigine children are indulged to an extreme degree, and sometimes continue to suckle until they are four or five years old. Physicalpunishment for a child is almost unheard of." (Richard A. Gould, Yiwara: Foragers of the Australian Desert, 1969, p 90.)

• "Infants and young children [among Inuit hunter-gatherers of the Hudson Bay area] are allowed to explore their environments to the limits of their physical capabilities and with minimal interference from adults. Thus if a child picks up a hazardous object, parents generally leave it to explore the dangers on its own. The child is presumed to know what it is doing." (Lee Guemple, "Teaching Social Relations to Inuit Children," in T. Ingold, D. Riches, & J. Woodburn (Eds.), Hunters and Gatherers 2, 1988, p 137.)

• "Ju/'hoansi children [of Africa] very rarely cried, probably because they had little to cry about. No child was ever yelled at or slapped or physically punished, and few were even scolded. Most never heard a discouraging word until they were approaching adolescence, and even then the reprimand, if it really was a reprimand, was delivered in a soft voice." (Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Old Way, 2006, p 198.)

You might think that such indulgence would lead to spoiled, demanding children, who would grow up to be spoiled, demanding adults. But according to the anthropologists who lived among them, nothing could be further from the truth. Here is what Thomas (Old Way, p 198-199) has to say about that: "We are sometimes told that children who are treated so kindly become spoiled, but this is because those who hold that opinion have no idea how successful such measures can be. Free from frustration or anxiety, sunny and cooperative, the children were every parent's dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likable, more confident children."

Based on my reading of anthropologists' writings about many hunter-gatherer cultures, I would characterized hunter-gatherer parenting in the following way:

1. Hunter-gatherers love their children as much as we love ours. They rejoice at births, grieve at children's deaths, and enjoy their children as do we.

2. Hunter-gatherers protect young children from serious dangers, but are not overprotective. Hunter-gatherers recognize that they must arrange their environment in certain ways to protect infants and very young children. For example, those who hunt with poisoned arrows store the arrows high up, out of young children's reach. Concerning less serious dangers, however, hunter-gatherers believe it is best to let young children explore as they wish rather than restrict their exploration. For example, it is not uncommon to see toddlers poking sticks into the campfire or playing with sharp knives. Hunter-gatherers' experience is that toddlers rarely hurt themselves in these activities and that such risk is outweighed by the advantage of learning, early on, how to handle such objects. The adults believe, further, that by the time children begin to prefer the company of other children to that of adults (at about four years old), they have enough common sense to make their own decisions about what is safe or unsafe. Children of that age and older play in age-mixed groups, often some distance from adults.

3. Hunter-gatherers trust their children. Anthropologists commonly use the term indulgence to characterize the hunter-gatherer style of parenting, but I think the more fundamental concept here is trust. Parents indulge children's desires because they trust children's instincts and judgments. They believe that children know best what they need and when they need it, so there are no or few battles of will between adults and children. If an infant cries or shows even a lesser sign of distress, any adult or older child nearby responds immediately to see what is the matter and to help solve the problem. The assumption is that the infant would not communicate a need for help unless it needed help.

Hunter-gatherers believe that the instinctive drives of children to explore are balanced by instinctive fears and by knowledge of their own abilities and limitations, which lead them to temper their explorations with appropriate caution. Four-year-olds will not, on their own, wander into unfamiliar territory without the company of an older child or an adult. Children of any age will not try to leap chasms that they are physically unable to leap. Children are constantly taking risks to expand the limits of what they can do, but the risks are small. Children are designed by nature (today we would say by natural selection) to do all this, so they will learn how to cope with serious dangers when they occur.

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Comment by Aaron (Al) Lewis on July 15, 2014 at 4:19pm
You may want to also read the book The Continuum Concept.
Comment by Adisa on July 12, 2014 at 9:02am

Recently watched a documentary filmed in the Amazon, which showed a brief glimpse of the lives of the Yanomami people.  I had to smile when the video showed children as young as 3 using the same knives as the adults and helping to the foods to be eaten.  There was no concern as to them hurting themselves or trying to baby or protect them. 

This led me to searching for more information and I learned of the Korowai people who live in Papua New Guinea.  What is interesting about the Korowai is they build their homes in the trees.  I watched a video of these people working together; children, women and men building a home 115 feet off the ground.  No harnesses, no nets, no safety devices.  When the home was finished the children played in the trees as if they were 1 foot off the ground and no one was running after them telling them to stop, be careful or no.  There was also a scene when two children went off fishing without supervision. 

Finally, learned of the Hazda people of Tanzania.  Their way of life there are no leaders, they lead themselves individually but work collectively to survive.  It was even stated if a child wishes to walk away from "supervision"  no one will stop him or her because they respect them to make their own choices and decisions. 

Comment by Demedrick Jones on May 3, 2013 at 11:26am

Brother Adisa, I thank you for your post regarding "Hunters'-Gathers Playful Parenting". It reminds of the saying "It takes a village to raise a child". If you have experienced this method first hand you can truly understand and appreciate what is being said. I smile because I sense positive change in the air for the future generations. Thanks for paying it forward.

Comment by Adisa on May 2, 2013 at 5:35am

In one of my dictionaries I read in a section titled Usage Levels and Dialect Distribution. In this section there was a diagram of three interconnected circles, the first circle represented the three sets of language habits of the American English which are Formal Literary English, Colloquial English and Illiterate English.  I further read that much of the English spoken by the uneducated is the same as that of the polite conversation of cultivated people.  Wouldn't have eyes to have seen this without the aid of this topic.

Comment by Adisa on May 1, 2013 at 9:09pm

Now that I have become a grandfather, I definitely must remember these techniques.  Great information.

Comment by Brandon Imhotep on August 2, 2011 at 4:00am
This is what im talking about... nature has the answers. It's going to take some real balance to allow my children their freedom and still prepare them for the environment that they are born into! This post is right on time for me.

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