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Why Children Need Community

By Peter Gray, PhD

Our indigenous roots reveal that children want and need to move beyond attachment to their parents.

I’m all for natural parenting. The basic premise of such parenting, at least as I view it, is that you trust your children’s instincts and judgments. For example, you recognize that a baby who is crying is a baby who needs something, and you try to figure out what that need is and satisfy it. You don’t let a baby “cry it out.” You recognize that throughout our evolutionary history babies and young children have always slept with their mothers or other adults or older siblings, never alone, and that sleeping alone is terrifying for many young children. You recognize that babies and children—like all of us, really—crave physical contact, and you provide it. You don’t push it when it’s not wanted, but you provide it and welcome it when it is wanted.

Attachment to the Group

The key concept here is sensitivity. To understand what a child wants and needs, and especially to understand what a nonverbal baby wants and needs, you have to be in tune with that person. You have to be able to see the world from the child’s point of view. That requires empathy. This isn’t really any different from the requirements for any other close relationship. To have a good marriage, you must be able to empathize with your spouse. To be a good friend, you must be able to empathize with your friend. Your spouse, your friend, and your child are not you; they have different needs and wishes than you do. But to have a good relationship with them, you must be sensitive to their needs and wishes.

Natural parenting is often equated with attachment parenting, and that is fine as long as we are careful about what we mean by “attachment.” Children are not designed, by nature, to attach just to the mother, or just to the mother and father. They are, for good biological reasons, designed to form multiple attachments, to many of the people in a community. It is important to recognize here that the private nuclear family, living in a house apart from others in the community, is, from an evolutionary perspective, an unnatural environment.

Throughout most of human history, prior to the development of agriculture, people lived not in houses but in what are best described as camps. The basic social unit was the band, which consisted typically of about 20 to 50 people who cooperated with one another and who moved from campsite to campsite as needed to follow the available game and edible vegetation. At each campsite they built small, temporary huts to sleep in, all clustered together. Except when they were asleep, people spent their time outdoors with all of the other band members. Marriages existed, and children had special relationships with their parents, but parents did not “own” their children in the way that people in our culture think of parents as owning their children. In many ways, the children were children of the entire band. Everyone took part in every child’s care. Everyone developed some kind of relationship with every child, and children, even babies, were active partners in forming those relationships.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense that children would want to form close relationships with many different people, not just their parents. For starters, during most of human history, parents often died before their children were grown. Losing a parent is always a very sad event, but it is not a fatal event for a child who has close relationships with others who are already involved in the child’s care. Perhaps even more important, the goal of childhood, in our culture as well as in hunter-gatherer cultures, is to become an independent being who can form relationships with lots of different people— relationships that are essential for survival and reproduction. You don’t learn to do that by paying attention just to your mother and father. You learn it by paying attention to lots of different people, who have different personalities and needs, and different things to offer. Another goal of childhood is to educate yourself— that is, to acquire the ideas, lore, knowledge, skills and values of the culture in which you are growing. If you were to try to do this by attending only to your parents, you would learn only a narrow slice of all that is out there and you would not prepare yourself well for the world.

A too-exclusive attachment of child and parent is not only unfair to the child but can also be burdensome to the mother (it usually is the mother, not the father). There is nothing natural about the idea that a woman should stop other activities and devote herself exclusively to children and domestic chores when she becomes a mother. Hunter-gatherer mothers continue their foraging activities, and continue to socialize fully with the other adults of the band and with neighboring bands. Motherhood does not isolate them; if anything, it ties them even more closely to everyone in the band, as they all enjoy relationships with the child.

Childhood Among the Efe

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing a chapter written by my Boston College colleague Gilda Morelli and her research colleagues, Paula Ivey Henry and Steffen Foerster. The chapter is based on a new analysis of data that they had collected some years ago during months of research among the Efe, who are huntergatherers living in the Ituri Forest in the Congo Basin in Africa. Their research focused on the social relationships of infants and toddlers in the bands that they observed. Here are a few of the findings:

  • When an Efe baby is born, the first to hold it are the women and children who are in the mother’s hut assisting with the birth and providing emotional support to the mother. Then the baby is passed outside the hut and held by all of the other band members who have crowded around to greet this new arrival. The mother is the last to hold her baby.

  • Efe babies are nursed not just by their mothers but also by other lactating women in the band, most of whom are not genetic relatives of the mother.

  • Timed, systematic observations revealed that 4- to 6-month-old Efe infants are in close physical and social contact with an average of nine different partners every two hours, and 18- to 21-month-olds are in contact with an average of 14 different partners every two hours! These partners include men as well as women, and children as well as adults. On average, the researchers found that infants are in contact with a single person for only three minutes before moving on to another person, throughout the day.

  • As infants grow older they play increasingly active roles in initiating contact with others, by reaching toward them, smiling, laughing, and in other ways inviting the interaction. Once they can toddle, they move on their own from person to person and begin to join other children in mixed-age play groups.

  • Efe infants and toddlers of all ages are remarkably cheerful and non-fussy, perhaps because of all the attention they receive from so many different people. The researchers reported them to be in good moods—smiling, laughing, bright-eyed and attentive—on average about 90 percent of the time that they were awake.

Not all hunter-gatherers engage in communal nursing of infants, as the Efe do, but all such cultures are apparently far more communal than we are in their care of children. Child abuse is nearly impossible in hunter-gatherer bands. If a mother or father gets irritable and acts harshly toward a child, others in the band will immediately step in and calm the parent while also gently taking the child. Because childcare is public, every person, including young children, can witness all of the childcare in the band. Nobody becomes a parent without having had lots of experience holding and caring for others’ children and witnessing many others doing so. No adult is left alone to care for a child unassisted.

How different all this is from our society!

A Matter of Trust

What can we do, in the context of our social world today, to provide the kind of caring community that children need for healthy development, and that parents also need? Perhaps developing trustful parenting in our own family lives is our first and foremost step. Can we complete a historical circle by reviving trustful parenting?

Parenting, like essentially all human behaviors, must be understood in the context of the culture in which it exists. Parenting styles derive from broader cultural values, and they help to perpetuate those values. Trustful parents do not measure or try to guide children’s development, because they trust children to guide their own development. They support development, rather than guide it, by helping children achieve their own goals when such help is requested and needed. My aims in this essay are to explain why trustful parenting worked so well for hunter-gatherers, why it was replaced by directive parenting in agricultural and industrial societies, and why conditions may now be ripe for a rebirth of trustful parenting.

Trustful parenting was well suited to the hunting and gathering way of life. Hunter-gatherers held strongly to the values of individual freedom and equality, which fostered the cooperation, sharing, individual initiative and creativity required to sustain life in a world where there was no accumulation of property or long-term storage of food. Hunting and gathering themselves require much creativity and decision-making; they are not done well by people who feel compelled by others to do them. The hunting and gathering way of life also requires self-assertion. In a society where group decisions are made through long discussions leading to consensus, in which everyone has a say, it is essential that everyone feel free to assert their ideas and wishes, and be competent in doing so. Trustful parenting was the ideal means to create the ideal hunter-gatherer.

Trustful parenting sends messages to children consistent with the needs of hunter-gatherer bands: You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your own abilities and limitations. Through your self-directed play and exploration, you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so that all can have what they need and most desire. We are with you, not against you.

The experience of hunter-gatherers was that people who grew up in this way usually became highly competent, cooperative, non-domineering, cheerful, valued members of their society. They contributed to their bands not because they felt forced to, but because they wanted to, and they did so with a playful spirit. One group of anthropologists, writing many years ago, summed all this up as follows: “The successful forager…should be assertive and independent and is so trained as a child.”

Parental Domination

With the rise of agriculture, parental styles shifted from trusting to directive and domineering. Agriculture, invented a mere 10,000 years ago, dramatically changed the conditions of human life. The value of agriculture, of course, was that it could produce more food and sustain more people in less space than could hunting and gathering. The costs, however, were severe constraints on human freedom.

With agriculture came land ownership and accumulation of property, and with that came the need to remain with one’s property and to protect it, sometimes by violent means. Also, and even more significantly, agriculture produced labor. While hunting and gathering required personal initiative, skill, intelligence, creativity and a playful spirit, much of the work of agriculture was routine and could be done by unskilled laborers.

Agriculture also resulted in larger families. With more mouths to feed, children had to work—in the fields and at childcare—to help support themselves and their siblings. With all this came the breakdown of the hunter-gatherer ideals of equality and freedom.

Agriculture set the conditions for dominance relationships and inequality. People who did not own land—including children and nearly all women— became dependent on the people who did. Landowners became lords and masters, and those without land became servants and slaves. Ultimately, throughout much of the world, this led to feudal societies in which few were lords and masters and the great majority were servants and slaves. Not surprisingly, such changes dramatically altered social values. Religions, for example, changed from being playful and egalitarian to being deadly serious and hierarchical, with messages of obedience rather than freedom. Clearly, in the context of all of this, the approach to parenting also had to change.

While hunter-gatherers needed to be independent and assertive in order to survive, most post-hunter-gatherers needed to be obedient in order to survive. And so, the goal of parenting for most people became that of producing obedient and subservient children. While hunter-gatherers parented in ways designed to enhance independence and willfulness, early agriculturalists and people in feudal times parented in ways designed to suppress these qualities. Physical beating of children was a regular and widely approved means of doing this. Children who did not work as much as they were told to work were beaten. Children who acted uppity toward their fathers or other masters were beaten. Adult women and servants were also commonly treated this way.

Many research studies have demonstrated this relationship between economic livelihood and style of parenting. For example, one large-scale statistical study published 50 years ago revealed a strong correlation between the degree to which a culture’s subsistence depended on agriculture, rather than hunting and gathering, and the degree to which its parenting practices were directed toward obedience rather than self-assertion. The rise of industry led, if anything, to even more suppression of children’s willfulness and independence. Early industry, even more so than agriculture, was labor intensive, and children provided a good share of the labor. Children as well as adults toiled long hours, under dismal conditions, and children were often beaten to keep them on task. Most people continued to depend on masters, but now the masters were lords of the factories rather than lords of the land.

It is reasonable to suppose that parents in early agricultural and industrial societies who attempted to beat their children into submission were acting for their children’s own good. To survive in conditions where survival requires obedience, you really do need to suppress your own will and learn to do, unquestioningly, what you are told. But such parenting was never fully successful. By nature, all people are willful, creative and playful. The hunter-gatherer way is the natural human way. It is impossible to beat that completely out of anyone. That is why there were always rebellions and uprisings, even at the risk of death. People cannot be trained to be ants.

Modern, Protective Parenting

Today most people are repelled by the idea of beating children into submission. Today initiative, creativity, and self-assertion are generally valued in children. In today’s world, we see that obedience is not enough. Demand for unskilled labor has declined, with those tasks being performed by machines. People must be creative and self-directed to figure out ways to support themselves. Many of the values of hunter-gatherers are espoused regularly by people today.

But we have not as a culture revived the hunter gatherers’ trustful style of parenting. Instead, we have replaced the directive-domineering parenting of feudal and early industrial forebears with a new kind of directive style, a directive-protective style. For a variety of reasons, we have come to see childhood as a highly fragile period of development. Experts are constantly telling us of the things we must protect our children from. We have come to believe that children lack the competence to make their own decisions; they must be nurtured carefully and brought along gradually to a stage at which, some day, they will have that competence.

We are told that we must protect children from all sorts of accidents, which means serious restrictions on their forms of play and exploration. We must protect them from diseases, which can be contracted from almost anything they do. We must protect them from predatory adults presumed to be lurking in every neighborhood, and from the harmful influences of peers and of older children or adolescents. We must protect them from their own foolishness; we read regularly of new data purported to prove that children — especially adolescents—are, for biological reasons, knuckleheads. We must protect children’s fragile self-esteem through constant, increasingly meaningless praise, by attending their games (which we arrange for them) and cheering for them, and by trying to arrange their lives so they never fail. And we must protect their futures, as we are told we can, by forcing them through more and more years and daily hours of an educational system that they do not embrace and does not speak to their real needs and concerns.

With all this, and with all good intentions, we deprive children today of freedom at least as much as did parents in feudal and early industrial societies. We don’t beat children, but we use all the other powers that we have as their providers to control their lives.

What would it take to revive the trustful parenting style?

Many parents would like to adopt a more trustful style, but find it hard to do so. The voices of fear are loud and incessant, and the fears are never completely unfounded. They can’t be completely dismissed. Terrible accidents do happen; adult predators do exist; delinquent peers can have harmful influences; children and adolescents (like people of all ages) do make mistakes; and failure can hurt. We are also, by nature, conformists. It is hard to swim against the current and risk the negative judgments of our parenting peers. Yet some do swim against the current, and a greater number swimming that way may change the river’s direction.

Trustful parenting sends messages to children consistent with the needs of hunter-gatherer bands:

  • You are competent.

  • You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out.

  • You know your own abilities and limitations.

  • Your needs are valued.

  • Your opinions count.

  • You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them.