Benign Neglect

An anthropologist looks at contemporary parenting.

Coercive Pedagogy

When “education” means compliance

In the first post in this series, titled The Reluctant Scholar, I described the eagerness and savvy that children apply to the enormous task of learning their culture and contrasted that with a portrait of reluctant scholars rebelling against the strictures of the classroom and the curriculum. The scenario of children happily pitching in to assist and learn their chores—using play in the early stages as an approximation and then taking baby steps through simple tasks within their grasp—is almost mythical. Nevertheless it is a common denominator in virtually all of the hundreds of ethnographic accounts of childhood around the world (1). The contrast with the image of a sullen, rebellious “student” wearing a dunce-cap in the corner of the classroom is striking.

But the village child rearing system is not entirely hands-off. We can look at what happens when there’s a gap between familial expectations for the child and their readiness and willingness to comply. One can compile a kind of “manual” of strategies that are widely employed to control children’s behavior. In much of Asia and the Pacific, there are many occasions when children aren’t permitted to behave like children. This might be during a public gathering or religious ceremony or in the presence of non-family members.

Patient spectator at Kuningan Festival in Bali.

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On Bali children are expected to control their emotions at a young age; positive emotions, fear, and jealousy should all be hidden. Emotional restraint, modesty, and cooperation are also inculcated early on in young Chinese. These expectations are enforced through shame, blaming the child for its mother’s unhappiness, for example. (2) Taiwanese mothers—with their errant child present—construct a narrative of current and past transgressions for an audience. They spotlight the child’s misdeeds in front of others in order to provoke shame. (3) Javanese cultivate the emotion of “isin…(shame, shyness, embarrassment, guilt) [so] that at any formal public occasion [children] are exceedingly quiet and well–behaved and will sit docilely …through hours and hours of formal speeches.” (4) On Fiji, the same emotions “are inculcated in the child by ridicule, mockery, laughter, or plain disapproval.” (5)

Ulithi islanders use ridicule to curb an errant child and Kaluli (PNG) mothers tease toddlers in order to discourage them from nursing and children of any age are teased when they are greedy or disrespectful. From Borneo to the American Southwest, children are warned repeatedly that improper behavior can bring the wrath of some harmful being. Dusun parents regularly use fear of the supernatural as a means of insuring that children conform to expected behavior. Parents tell children folktales with themes of violence (inflicted on) a child because of some error in his behavior. (6) Among the Kaoka on Guadalcanal “the elders tell tales of the giants called umou that…inhabit the remote mountains. These beings, they say, are ready to pounce on naughty boys and girls and carry them off to a cave, where the bodies are cooked and eaten.” (7)

If proverbs, shaming, teasing, and threats of the bogeyman aren’t effective, many societies prescribe corporal punishment. The Matsigenka (Peru) punish the lazy or uncooperative by scalding or the application of skin irritants. (8) Freeman tallies the frequency and severity of child beating on Samoa, where they “believe in the unique efficacy of pain as a means of instruction…severe discipline ...is visited on children from an early age.” (9) Corporal punishment is, thus, often seen as a legitimate tool in shaping the child’s behavior. The Rwala Bedu (Syria) utilize an arsenal of physical punishments ranging from spanking with a stick (small children) to slashing with a saber or dagger (older children). They hold that the rod of discipline leads to paradise. Mary Ainsworth recorded several episodes of physical punishment—for a variety of misdemeanors, including selfishness—in her observation in several Ganda villages. (10)

In the previous installment in this series, titled The Roots of Schooling, I brought into the discussion the earliest instances of more formal, top-down instruction: namely the initiation rite, apprenticeship and the first schools. The reader will recall that coercive tactics, particularly the assignment of onerous chores followed by physical and verbal abuse is inherent in these institutions. And, of course, the initiation rite is almost entirely devoted to changing behavior through punishment.

Not surprisingly, we find that these tools from what I’m calling “coercive pedagogy” are still applied to children’s schooling. In Asia, particularly, there is a long history of formal schooling with traditions of outstanding effort and achievement, which continues to the present. The cornerstone of this success is the relentless emotional socialization to develop powerful feelings of shame and guilt in the child that can be activated at any sign of slackened effort. The responsibility to push oneself to excel in school is fueled by the certainty that one’s family, community, even one’s ancestors’ fate hangs in the balance. Corporal punishment may also be brought to bear on the reluctant scholar, particularly in China. (11) Elsewhere, teasing, tongue-lashing and physical punishment are widely employed by both parents and teachers to “motivate” reluctant scholars. And, dare I say these methods are effective—at least to the extent of raising the level of student compliance and effort.

My point here is not that we should import our school preparedness tactics from another culture or turn the clock back to the good old days when teachers kept (and used) a paddle in the classroom (I was personally introduced to this method), but that an array of tactics to overcome children’s academic malaise and resistance are now taboo. Not only is corporal punishment in school largely banned—internationally—but shaming the student by calling attention to his/her inadequate performance is also negatively sanctioned. (12) Our fewer remaining tactics may be more socially acceptable but, perhaps, less certain of success.(13) In the next post, I’ll discuss The Reluctant Teacher showing how “unnatural” and “modern” our current ideas about the parental role are.

1. Lancy, D. F. 2008. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings, 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. Li, J., et al 2004. The organization of Chinese shame concepts. Cognition and Emotion 18: 767–797. Wu, P., et al 2002. Similarities and differences in mothers’ parenting of preschoolers in China and the United States. International Journal of Behavioural Development 26: 481–491.

3. Miller, P. J., et al 2001. Narrating transgressions in U.S. and Taiwan. Ethos 29: 159–186.

4. Geertz, H. 1961. The Javanese Family: A Study of Kinship and Socialization. New York: Free Press.

5. Toren, C. 1990. Making Sense of Hierarchy: Cognition as Social Process in Fiji. Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave–Macmillan.

6. Williams, T. R. 1969. A Borneo Childhood: Enculturation in Dusun Society. New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston. Mathews, H. F. 1992. The directive force of morality tales in a Mexican community. In Roy D’Andrade and Claudia Strauss (Eds.), Human Motives and Cultural Models. pp. 127–162. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

7. Hogbin, H. I. 1969. A Guadalcanal Society: The Kaoka Speakers. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

8. Ochs, E. and Izquierdo, C. 2009. Responsibility in childhood: Three developmental trajectories. Ethos 37: 391–413.

9. Freeman, D. 1983. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

10. Ainsworth, M. D. 1967. Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

11. Jankowiak, W., et al 2011. What observation studies can tell us about single child play patterns, gender, and changes in society. Cross–Cultural Research 45: 155–177.

12. I find it ironic that two opposing trends in US schooling policy have developed simultaneously. The first is the relentless expansion of testing to measure the student’s precise level of success. The second is the growing tendency to protect the student (and I include college students here) and parents from any real understanding of their actual performance.

 13. Kousholt, Dorte (2011), Researching family through the everyday lives of children across home and Day Care in Denmark. Ethos, 39: 98–114

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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