Benign Neglect

An anthropologist looks at contemporary parenting.

Leave the Kids Alone

Playing with one's children is not vital to their development.

Karen mother playing mouth harp while nursing.
Brian Sypkerman photo

My 15 minutes of fame occurred in July 2007. A month earlier I'd published an academic article with the forgettable title (the editors rejected a snappier one) "Accounting for Variability in Mother-Child Play." (1) Chris Shea, an enterprising essayist, picked up on the article and used it in a very provocative Boston Globe column with the marquee-worthy title "Leave the Kids Alone." (2) My phone really did ring quite a bit in the ensuing weeks and I participated as a guest in numerous, respectable, radio call-in shows here and abroad, including Brian Lehrer's show on WNYC.

Shea's take-away message from my article was that parent-child play had been drastically oversold. I certainly hadn't argued that it was necessarily a bad thing but that we shouldn't be alarmed by its absence or fear for the mother's or child's psyche. And I expressed concern about the public promotion of parent-child play in other societies and strata of our own society where it is absent.

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The thesis of my article-buttressed by many citations-was that, throughout history and in the majority of the world's cultures, adults rarely play with children. Indeed, there are many societies, carefully described by anthropologists, where babies are fed on demand, protected from danger and the elements, but not talked to or played with-and they turn out just fine. I suggested that in the last two decades, nurture had turned into nature. That is, the child-care practices of the dominant culture had become "natural." Child psychologists, textbook authors, policy makers and granting agency personnel all belong to that dominant culture and tend to see its practices and their behavior as "normal." If, however, childhood viewed using a multi-cultural lens, a very different picture emerged.

Fame was fleeting  and I kept my day job, continuing to research and write about children and culture in an academic vein. But I had been rewarded by the expressions of relief and gratitude from many who called in or posted to the shows' websites. These were mothers who had felt guilty about not playing more with their children or, worse, not enjoying it when they did. And there were also many comments from members of my generation (really old) to the effect that, "My parents never played with me, nor did the parents of my peers play with their children," thus affirming my claim that this was a historically very recent phenomenon.

Of course, parent-child play is not the only innovation in the culture of childhood. Another change-not necessarily an improvement-has been the diminution in children's free play in the outdoors. In mid-September, I was invited to speak at a symposium organized by the Evolution Institute at Binghampton University (http://bnp.binghamton.edu/) on the theme: "Restoring Outdoor Play." One of the co-organizers, Peter Gray, writes a Psychology Today Blog called "Freedom to Learn" and one of the featured presenters was Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps and editor at large of Psychology Today.

There was some very good chemistry at work as scholars and reformers found common ground. I came away with the conviction that there were lessons for modern parents in the parenting practices of indigenous peoples-something I've studied for over 40 years. Casting about for a suitable name for the Blog, it struck me that the major difference between the lives of village kids and our cherubs is that the former have so much more freedom, a condition captured by the phrase "benign neglect." In this blog, I will write about dozens of areas where our US approach differs from that of our global counterparts, sometimes to the benefit of our offspring, sometimes to their detriment. The contrasts will surprise you! But let me also leave the door open for readers' queries. Together we can try and tease apart what aspects of childhood are normative or universal and what aspects are by-products of cultural change.

1. David F. Lancy (2007) Accounting for variability in mother-child play. American Anthropologist, 109(2): 273-284.

2. Christopher Shea (2007) Leave the Kids Alone. Boston Globe, July 15th.
http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/07/15/leave_...

Photo: Karen tribeswoman and infant, Myanmar. Bryan Spykerman photo.

 

David Lancy, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Utah State University and author of The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.

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