Stand back, tiger moms. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings exposes how most cultures eschew intensive parenting entirely in favor of what we could politely call benign neglect, but often sinks down to completely ignoring the needs of children, even being quite cruel with them. The author’s thesis is that current Western societies have created a neontocracy, where children are highly valued and often dictate the lives of their parents, whereas most of history and the rest of the world functioned and functions as a gerontocracy, where elders own the power. Drawing on hundreds of published anthropological studies, the author shows how children are often seen as not quite human in traditional societies. They are fed and protected, to some degree at least, but they also easily discarded if they are not quite wanted or not quite right. He describes societies where children are routinely left to their own devices, or in the care of barely older siblings. (A favorite anecdote for me was that of young girls playing tag by bumping the infants on their backs: they lose if the babies cry!) He tells of cruel puberty rites, strictly enforced by the elders.
One conclusion that is clear from the book is that there are many, many ways to raise children, from harsh to kind, and that the differences clearly owe more to cultural differences than differences between the children. And the author is not afraid to attack the lunacy f pure neontocracy. But I was puzzled, even shocked by his repeated concern that moving away from traditional methods of child rearing creates large negative impacts on children. I can appreciate that societal transitions will cause some amount of dislocation in the short run, but surely there are benefits to lightening children’s chores, to sending them to schools, or to disallowing polygamous marriages.