Benign Neglect

An anthropologist looks at contemporary parenting.

Detachment Parenting

Historically, infants were on probation and not considered fully human.

The debates regarding parenting practice have become so polemical we might begin talking about "parenting wars." One of the latest battlefields is "attachment parenting" which focuses attention on the bonding between an infant and its mother (and father, too). First a little background. In the middle of the last century, John Bowlby, an English psychoanalyst, advanced a set of ideas about the emotional ties between a mother and her newborn now widely known as "attachment theory." (1) The theory has, since then, gathered adherents across a broad spectrum from experimental psychologists testing for evidence of "secure" versus "avoidant" or "ambivalent/resistant" attachment (2) to social workers who point to bonding failure as the root of criminal behavior. More recently, attachment theory has morphed into a kind of secular religion where mothers worship at the altar of "attachment parenting."

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This movement is well represented in two web-based organizations. Attachment Parenting International (3) promotes a variety of strategies to tighten bonds between children and mothers including lengthy prescriptions for "baby-wearing" and how best to play with one's child. The goal of (4) is to provide help for "each wounded child with attachment disorder  [which is caused by, for example] 'Caring for baby on a timed schedule or other self-centered parenting.'" One confirmed apostate in the new attachment parenting faith is noted media personality Erica Jong. She characterizes attachment parenting as "You wear your baby, sleep with her and attune yourself totally to her needs [then wonders how one can] do this and also earn the money to keep her." (5)

Anthropologists studying mother-infant relations provide ethnographic descriptions that don't square with the latest orthodoxy. Erchak in rural Liberia describes  "Casual nurturance [where Kpelle] mothers carry their babies on their backs and nurse them frequently but do so without really paying much direct attention to them; they continue working or... socializing" (6) Paradise records that "When a [Mazahua] mother holds a nursing baby in her arms she frequently has a distracted air and pays almost no attention to the baby." (7) Le Vine observed "Gusii mothers [who] rarely looked at or spoke to their infants and toddlers, even when they were holding and breast-feeding them." (8) In none of these cases did the anthropologists observe any decrement in the mental health of individuals subjected to-in attachment orthodoxy-maternal deprivation.

Bob LeVine demonstrated that these cases were hardly exotic cultural outliers in a study with Karin Norman on mainstream German infant care practices. Like Asian (10) and French (11) but unlike mainstream Americans, the German child-rearing model does not place the child at the center of the family. Its needs are met while maintaining normal, pre-birth family routines. Further, the German model safeguards against the child becoming "spoiled," verwöhnt, by excessive attention and too much accommodation to its needs and demands." (12) Consequently, compared to U.S. babies, two-thirds of their Bielefeld sample, following assessment with the "Strange Situation" protocol, was classified as "insecurely attached." As there is not a shred of evidence for widespread personality disorder in Bielefeld, the authors argue that Bowlby's theory, while appropriate for discussing institutionalized and severely neglected orphans, has no currency in the context of most families.

Based on the results of a just-completed survey of the ethnographic, archaeological and historic records on the subject of infancy, I propose to go a step further. After careful analysis of over 200 cases, the evidence suggests that, for the majority of societies, insufficient attachment is not a problem. On the contrary, I found elaborate models of infancy and childhood that seem to have been constructed expressly to discourage strong emotional ties to the newborn. Outside the contemporary elite, a number of unfavorable issues face the mother of a newborn which has lead to a broad consensus that the infant is not fully human. I will briefly review each of these factors, in turn. Not all are equally potent in every society.

High Infant Mortality and Chronic Illness

We have good infant mortality data for a range of societies from prehistoric settlements, nomadic foragers, farmers, and from complex societies in Europe and Asia. These data suggest that from one-fifth to one-half of babies don't make it to five years. We can extrapolate from these figures to conclude that miscarriages and still-births were also common by comparison to current levels. Likewise, we can expect that if half the children died then somewhat more than half were seriously ill in childhood. Indeed, in many villages studied by anthropologists the level of clinical malnutrition was 100%, as was the level of chronic parasite infestation and diarrhea. These unfavorable odds create a climate that supports withholding investment in the newborn and maintaining a degree of emotional distance. Childhood, according to the seventeenth-century French cleric Pierre de Bérulle, "is the most vile and abject state of human nature, after that of death." (12)

The Mother's Vulnerability

Another inexorable factor affecting the newborn is the threat it represents to its mother. Throughout much of human history pregnancy was treated as a serious illness. "'A pregnant woman has one foot in the grave' according to a proverb from Gascony." (12)

Childbirth was until recently extremely risky and even if the mother survives she may become the target of jealousy and witchcraft on the part of human and non-human adversaries. She and the babe are both contaminated by the process of birth and the spilling of puerperal blood. Women are also made vulnerable by the need to obey food taboos at critical junctures such as menstruation and pregnancy. These taboos often involve restricting their intake of high quality fat and protein-rich foods. But, most critical is the fact that the new mother is also likely responsible for maintaining a household, caring for husband, older children, parents or parents-in-law and making a major contribution to subsistence or the domestic economy through (for example) craftwork. The health and recovery of the mother is seen as far more urgent than the emotional health of the infant.

"The [new Ladakh] mother is plied with foods [to] regain her strength. Her health is paramount-to care for the baby and to get back to the routine household and agricultural tasks upon which the success of the household depends-while household members simply hope for the best with regard to the newborn." (13)

Alloparenting and Fostering

At the peak of her childbearing years the young mother is also a critical contributor to the household economy. Hence, most societies embrace alloparenting as the means to lighten the mother's burden and thereby increase her fertility and her productivity. Numerous studies underscore that infants are tended as often by a grandmother or older sibling as by the mother. Further the widespread prevalence of wet-nursing, adoption and fostering and, less commonly, the sale of infants suggests that the bond between mother and child should be, preferentially, "weak."

"While awake, Hausa infants are almost always in close physical proximity to one or more adult caregivers... infant signals, such as crying, are responded to promptly by adults or older children... Although Hausa infants appear to be attached to three or four different figures (including fathers), most are primarily attached to one. Importantly, the principal figure is not necessarily the mother, who is solely responsible for feeding, but rather the person who holds and otherwise interacts with the infant the most." (14)

Dysfunctional Families

The flip side of the alloparenting, "It Takes a Village" childcare pattern is that, in some societies, strife within the extended family is endemic leading to chronically dysfunctional families. Indeed, conflict is so much a part of daily life, it is reflected in the folk model of infancy. Mothers are enjoined to roll their infants in dung, refer to them with bad names, and disguise their sex (if a boy) all in an effort to deflect the envious thoughts and machinations of other women in the household and neighborhood. There may also be tension between the mother and her husband if there's some doubt about paternity or if either has a tendency to stray from fidelity. The newborn is often a lightening rod for these electric currents and may be kept discretely sequestered for quite some time.

"Sorcery is considered to be the most important reason for a [Papel] child's death.  It is seen as a serious... problem.  Because of envy, hatred, vindictiveness, or simply bad intentions some people decide to use sorcery to hurt a rival or someone they dislike.  A child is often the chosen victim." (15)

Infant Unwanted or On Probation Leading to Neglect, Abandonment and Infanticide

Only a tiny fraction of the world's societies have accorded an unconditional welcome to every new member. In societies where well-formed, full-term newborns may not survive to become helpful and able to pay back the investment made in them, the actuarial odds dictate a very careful evaluation of the newborn. Is it completely whole? Does it behave normally, crying neither too little nor too much, for example?  Is it a girl when a boy is infinitely preferred? Did it arrive "too soon" before its older and, hence more valuable sibling had been weaned? Is it unquestionably the offspring of its mother's husband? Does the mother have a husband? Again, the reasons for "not becoming attached" predominate.

"Illegitimate [Mundurucu] children are usually killed at birth, along with twins and children with birth defects.  If the child does survive it is referred to as "tun" which means excrement.  They are not abused, but they cannot marry due to their indefinite status." (16)

"Among the Songye, those defined as "bad" or "faulty" children, including albino, dwarf, and hydrocephalic children, are considered supernaturals who have been in contact with sorcerers in the anti-world; they are not believed to be human beings, and they are expected to die." (17)

Utilitarian View of Offspring

The society that spawned and embraces attachment theory is comparatively wealthy, well-educated and enjoys both low infant and maternal mortality and a low birth rate. Children no longer provide material rewards to the parents who raised them but, rather, emotional rewards and satisfaction. (18) Elsewhere, each newborn is/was subjected to a cost/benefit calculation.  The costs are considered to be high, even for wanted, healthy offspring while the benefits lie in the future. Infants not seen as able to provide a return on investment in the future are devalued.

"In Salic law [of the 6th century C.E.] who killed a free young woman of childbearing age had to pay 600 sous, is astonishing how small a case is made for the newborn, since the one who killed a male baby only had to pay 60 sous (30 sous if it was a girl)." (19)

Taken together, we have a diverse and extensive collection of factors that lead humans to treat each birth with trepidation, suspicion and anxiety. So many, many things could go wrong. Hence, we find, almost universally, an attitude of detachment towards the newborn. Indeed, if the child is not abandoned or put to death, it will form an emotional bond with the mother and she with it. Attachment is inevitable and we shouldn't be surprised to find that cultures create models for "proper" behavior vis-à-vis the infant that actively discourage the formation of too-close ties.  A principal element in such models is the notion that the infant is not yet fully human. I will review such models in my next blog, "Babies Aren't Persons."


1.     Bowlby, J. 1961. Child Care and The Growth of Love: Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin.

2.     Ainsworth, M. D. Salter, et al, 1978. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.




6.     Erchak, G. M. 1992. The Anthropology of Self and Behavior. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

7.     Paradise, R. 1996. Passivity or tacit collaboration: Mazahua interaction in cultural context. Learning and Instruction, 6: 379-389.

8.     LeVine, R. A. 2004. Challenging expert knowledge: Findings from an African study of infant care and development, In Childhood and Adolescence: Cross-Cultural Perspectives and Applications. U. P. Gielen and J. L. Roopnarine (Eds.), Pp.149-165. Westport, CT: Praeger.

9.     LeVine, R. and Norman, K. 2001. The infant's acquisition of culture: Early attachment reexamined in anthropological perspective. In The Psychology of Cultural Experience.  C. C. Moore and H. F. Matthews (Eds.), Pp. 83-104. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

10.   Chua, A. 2011. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin.

11.  Druckerman, P. 2012. Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. New York: Penguin.

12.  Heywood, C. 2001. A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times. Cambridge: Polity Press.

13.  Wiley, A. S. 2004. An Ecology of High-Altitude Infancy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

14.  Tomlinson, M., et al 2010. Attachment Theory, culture, and Africa: Past, present, and future. In Attachment: Expanding the Cultural Connections.  P. Erdmand and K. Ng (Eds.), Pp. 181-209. New York: Routledge.

15.  Einarsdottir, J. 2004. Tired of Weeping: Mother Love, Child Death, and Poverty in Guinea-Bissau. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

16.  Murphy, Y. and Murphy, R. F. 1985. Women of the Forest. New York: Columbia University Press.

17.  Devleiger, P. 1995. Why disabled? The cultural understanding of physical disability in an African Society. In Disability and Culture. B. Ingstad and S.  Whyte (Eds.), Pp. 94-133, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

18.  Zelizer, V. A. 1985. Pricing the Priceless Child: the Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books.

19.  Alexandre-Bidon, D. and Lett, D. 1999. Children in the Middle Ages: Fifth-Fifteen Centuries. Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press.


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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