Monday, July 1, 2013

The children of civilization

Many aspects of child development that are assumed to be due to natural maturational process are in fact idiosyncratic features of the specific culture doing the assuming. Ethnographic research has shown that many "universals" of child development are anything but universal. Even some of the most sacred cows of Western psychology have been beheaded on the altar of cross-cultural comparison.* 

For example, the notion that a close mother-child attachment bond is absolutely critical has been dispelled by studies of cultures in which only a very weak bond between mother and child occurs. Mothers in one culture rarely speak or engage in eye contact with their children—even while nursing—until the child is able to talk to them. Yet the children grow up apparently without any emotional or cognitive deficits. Another culture engages in what by Western standards would be considered brutally extreme authoritarian child rearing practices. Yet the children grow up with many psychological attributes that are diametrically opposite of those that strict authoritarian parents are supposed to cause.

If there is one thing that can be said about childhood in different cultures it's that it is extremely varied—varied both in the time course and varied in terms of the thoughts, treatment, and expectations concerning children.

But even allowing for this wide variability, the Euro-American approach to childhood is extremely unusual with respect to other cultures both past and present. Our thoughts, treatment, and expectations concerning children are unique in numerous ways (for instance, the fact that children are thought of as "precious little treasures" despite the fact that we have unmatched levels of child abuse, neglect, and abandonment, or the fact that their education is highly structured and state/community-regulated, or the fact that childhood lasts for over two decades and is legally partitioned by arbitrary benchmarks based entirely on chronological age).

Perhaps that's because Euro-American civilization is not a "culture" per se. Civilized children are not allowed to follow the dictates of a natural developmental unfolding that would gently guide them into an emotionally-rich and fulfilling lifestyle embedded in meaningful cultural traditions. Civilized children are not allowed to grow organically into their roles in society. Instead, they are forcefully programmed for insertion into the bureaucratic tissues of a cold inhuman mechanical leviathan.

*See: Lancy, D. F. (2008). The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. New York: Cambridge

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