It seems that the only thing we American moms love to read more than articles about the fake wars that we’re supposedly engaging in with each other is books and articles about how everyone else is better at parenting than we are. The French, the Chinese, everyone does it better than us stupid, indulgent, American moms.
The newest entree in to this canon of abuse literature is an article in The New Yorker. The article starts off with a description of Yanira, a six year old of the Matsigenka tribe of Peru who goes off on a hunt with her parents and other community members and makes herself useful by sweeping the tent and cooking the food. Miss Industrious 2012 is compared with a stupid, lazy American boy of the same age who won’t (or maybe can’t) even tie his own shoes.
The article goes on down the familiar path we all love bemoaning the state of today’s children and more importantly the lax skills of their parents.
What always amazes me about these articles and books is how they manage to separate issues of parenting and child rearing from the larger culture. Parents and children are part of the culture in which they live and the way they parent and behave is in part a reflection of that culture. Not just in a “wow there’s a lot of violence on TV and now the kids are hitting each other” way, but in a deeper way. We parent and teach children based on the needs of our culture.
Years ago when I worked at the Chicago Children’s Museum an anthropologist came to talk to us about play around the world. The only form of play that’s universal across all cultures is play fighting and war play. In fact, it’s universal across many species as well. When you watch my children wrestle and tumble with each other you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between them and Masai children, not to mention tiger cubs.
Why is war play universal? Because wherever you live, you need to learn to defend yourself and you need to have at least some form of physical development. As a side note, doll play and pretend nurturing is not universal, but that’s only because in many cultures an eight year old doesn’t need a doll to dress up and burp, she has two or three younger siblings for which she’s responsible.
The six year old in the New Yorker article doesn’t help with chores because her parents know something that we don’t. She helps with chores because she’s part of an agricultural/hunting society (I’m sure there’s a precise term for that). In agricultural societies there is no work-life balance, work is life, and children are part of that life. Today the little girl sweeps the tents and observes as the older girls do a different task, in a few years, she’ll move up to the next task and then on to the adult tasks. They are not “chores” as we think of them at all. In our culture, chores are something a child does so that we think we’re teaching responsibility before they get on with the real business of childhood, play. Basically, Yanira is an unpaid intern and she will be for the rest of her life.
My child does not know how to wield a machete not because I don’t believe children are capable but because it will never serve her or me any good for her to learn to do so. She helps with chores where she is helpful. She sorts the laundry into light and dark and scrubs dirty spots on the floor when I mop. Why? Because in our tribe that helps save me time. She does not fold the laundry or sweep the floor, why? Because it would not only not be helpful, it would cause more work for me. Again, Yanira of Peru isn’t helping because her parents are enlightened, she’s helping because their work is something that actually can be sped up by her help. Believe me, just like parents in this country, if their work involved her tying her shoes in a timely manner, she wouldn’t be doing that herself.
We live in a hyper-literate society and it’s beneficial to us for children to have an extended period of immaturity where they have time to develop their imaginations. We praise reading and make believe and experimenting because those are the skills our children will need not only to be successful in this society but to keep this society moving.
As a Jew, I of course worry that my children, with their backtalk and their inability to listen to or follow directions would make it very difficult for us to hide or escape from the Nazis, but even I have to admit that the ability to hide from Nazis is not the main skill a mom in Oak Park, Illinois should be trying to impart to her children.
I’m not saying that all of our children couldn’t stand to take on a little more responsibility. I’m certainly not saying that our culture and educational system don’t have some screwy, paradoxical ideas about childhood. I’m also certainly not saying that we can’t learn from other cultures.
But, I am saying that maybe, just maybe the issues are bigger than whether or not I make my child clear her plate or practice piano. Maybe the issues are bigger than whether French women can eat quietly with children. Maybe we should stop blaming ourselves and look at the bigger picture.