Benign Neglect

An anthropologist looks at contemporary parenting.

Nanny Angst

Why all the stress over the employment of professional child minders?

I live in the state of Utah which ranks near or at the bottom in publicly funded support for day care. Furthermore, the dominant LDS church, unlike churches in other parts of the country does not make unused facilities available to day care providers. Aside from an underlying fiscal conservatism, the failure to support day care rests on notions of morality and on folk beliefs about child development. The moral arguments are baldly expressed:

"It is of great concern to all who understand this glorious concept that Satan and his cohorts are using scientific arguments and nefarious propaganda to lure women away from their primary responsibilities as wives, mothers, and homemakers. We hear so much about emancipation, independence, sexual liberation, birth control, abortion, and other insidious propaganda belittling the role of motherhood, all of which is Satan's way of destroying woman, the home, and the family- the basic unit of society." (1)

Church views on the essential role played by mothers are clearly stated:

"This divine service of motherhood can be rendered only by mothers. It may not be passed to others. Nurses cannot do it; public nurseries cannot do it; hired help cannot do it-only mother...can give the full needed measure of watchful care." (2)

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While these views are somewhat extreme, it is clear to me that most Americans share some version of the notion that child care rendered by anyone other than the biological mother is bound to be less adequate and that the child's prospects will be diminished by some degree. The fact that these views persist in spite of overwhelming evidence that the mother's employment and use of professional child care are not associated with any measureable diminution in child welfare (3) suggests that they have deep roots in contemporary US culture.

Toradja Granny and Grankids
Toradja Granny and Grankids
David Lancy photo
In the remainder of this essay, I would like to contrast our folk model of the mother-child relationship with earlier models. First, all such models incorporate the idea that the entire extended family is responsible for child care. The preferred caretaker (also referred to as an "allomother") is typically a grandmother or an older, female sibling. Grandmothers are considered especially appropriate care takers for the newly weaned child as they provide succor and stability at a time of emotional stress. In Botswana, it "is not uncommon for children to call their mothers ‘sisi' [sister] and their grandmothers ‘mother.'" (4) Indeed, scholars have argued that menopause creates a stage in the human life-cycle expressly to enable no-longer-bearing women to devote their remaining lifespan to the care of their grandchildren. (5)


Malagasy sib caretaker
Malagasy sib caretaker
David Lancy photo
After grandmothers, older sisters are preferred as care takers. In a massive survey of the ethnographic record, Weisner and Gallimore found that 40% of infants and 80% of toddlers are cared for primarily by someone other than their mother, most commonly, older sisters. (6) No less a personage than our current Secretary of State claimed that she, "like many firstborn children, learned to care for children by baby-sitting my two younger brothers." (7)

While older brothers and fathers are less often involved with child care, Barry Hewlett has documented some dramatic exceptions, especially among highly-egalitarian foraging bands. (8) Several other scholars have documented the great flexibility inherent in allomothering as babies and toddlers are, literally, passed around among extended family members even for feeding.

Turning now to more complex society, we see a transition, at least among the upper classes, from care taking shared among family members to professional or extra-familial care. The role of wet-nurse may well have a claim on the title "world's oldest profession" as indicated by the spectacular tomb of Maya, King Tut's wet nurse, discovered in the last decade. Wet nurses were ubiquitous in ancient civilization and one of the hallmarks of modernization and rise of a large middle class is the greater and greater emancipation of mothers.

"...sending infants out to nurse was one of the first luxuries women demanded...experts of the day...proceeded to advise on how to choose a nurse...she should be healthy...of a good disposition, since they believed that the milk somehow contained the nurses' personal traits. One biographer noted that Michelangelo's nurse was a stonecutter's wife, by way of explaining his interest in sculpture." (9)

Kourotrophos
Kourotrophos
David Lancy photo
Wet nurses may have been the first of a parade of caretakers. Sculptures and paintings give us many clues to domestic life in ancient Greek and Roman society. Graves have yielded thousands of small statuettes of women holding children, these represent the kourotrophos or nanny. The kourotrophos was assisted/succeeded by a nutrix, an educator and a pedagogue all with different but complimentary roles to play in the child's development. (10)

In the modern era, we can look to Europe, Scandinavia and Italy, in particular, for a continuation and expansion of the shared care taking model. Sweden has perhaps led the way in creating an elaborate state supported structure to provide high quality care, from birth. The child is allocated a fundamental right to the best care available, regardless of the income, time available, competence and inclinations of its biological parents.

In short, it is probably a fair statement that our emphasis on the full time ministrations of the child's biological mother is unprecedented in the annals of culture. We should not treat the employment of nannies as some unfortunate but necessary deviation from the ideal but rather as a continuation of child care practices that have prevailed throughout most of human history.

1. Tanner, N. E. (1974). No greater honor: The woman's role. Ensign, January: 7-11.

2. Packer, B. K. (1993). For time and all eternity. Ensign, November: 21-25.

3. Brooks-Gunn, J., Han, W., and Waldfogel, J. (2010). First-year maternal employment and child development in the first 7 years. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 75(2): 1-147.

4. Durham, D. (2008) Apathy and agency: The romance of agency and youth in Botswana. In J. Cole and D. Durham (Eds.), Figuring the Future: Globalism and the Temporalities of Children and Youth. (pp. 151-178). Sante Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

5. Hawkes, K., O'Connell, J. F., Blurton Jones, N. G., Alvarez, H., & Charnov, E. L. (2000). The Grandmother Hypothesis and Human Evolution. In Adaptation and human behavior: An anthropological perspective, L. Cronk, N. Chagnon, and W. Irons (eds.), (pp 237-258). Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

6. Weisner, T. S. and Gallimore, R. (1977). My brother's keeper: Child and sibling caretaking. Current Anthropology, 18(2): 169-190.

7. Clinton, H. R. (1996). It Takes a Village. New York: Simon and Schuster.

8. Hewlett, B. S. (1991). Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal-Infant Care. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

9. Sommerville, J. C. (1982). The rise and fall of childhood. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

10. Bradley, K. R. (1991). Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

11. Dahlberg, G. (1992). The parent-child relationship and socialization in the context of modern childhood: The case of Sweden. In Roopnarine, J. L. and Carter, D. B. (eds.) Parent-Child Socialization in Diverse Cultures, (pp. 121-137). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

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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