Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Trustful Parenting: Its Downfall and Potential Renaissance

Can we complete a historical circle by reviving trustful parenting?

imageParenting, like essentially all human behaviors, must be understood in the context of the culture in which it is embedded. Parenting styles derive from broader cultural values, and they help to perpetuate those values.

In my last post, I talked about hunter-gatherers' playful style of parenting. That essay was part of a series on hunter-gatherers' playful approach to all of social life. I used the term playful there to refer to an attitude of treating others as equals rather than as superiors or subordinates. In the series I contrasted hunter-gatherers' playful approaches to government, religion, productive work, and parenting to the more dominance-based approaches that have held sway in all subsequent cultures.

In play, nobody may dominate the behavior of another person; each player must be allowed to make his or her own decisions, within the boundaries set by the rules of the game, and all must have a say in establishing the rules. A playful style of parenting, then, is one in which parents do not attempt to dominate children's behavior, but rather allow children maximal freedom to make their own moment-to-moment and day-to-day decisions. Playful parents allow their children to make their own decisions because they trust their children's instincts and judgments.

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In this essay I use the term trustful parenting, rather than playful parenting, to describe the hunter-gatherers' parenting style, because its meaning is more obvious. Trustful parents do not measure or try to guide children's development, because they trust children to guide their own development. They support, rather than guide development, by helping children achieve their own goals when such help is requested and needed. My aims in this essay are to explain why trustful parenting worked so well for hunter-gatherers, why it was replaced by directive parenting in agricultural and industrial societies, and why conditions may now be ripe for a rebirth of trustful parenting.

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Trustful parenting was well suited to the hunting and gathering way of life.

As I pointed out in previous posts, hunter-gatherers held strongly to the values of individual freedom and equality, which fostered the cooperation, sharing, individual initiative, and creativity required to sustain life in a world where there was no accumulation of property or long-term storage of food. Hunting and gathering themselves require much creativity and decision-making; they are not done well by people who feel compelled by others to do them. The hunting and gathering way of life also requires self-assertion. In a society where group decisions are made through long discussions leading to consensus, in which everyone has a say, it is essential that everyone feel free to assert their ideas and wishes and be competent in doing so. Trustful parenting was the ideal means to create the ideal hunter-gatherer.

Trustful parenting sends messages to children that are consistent with the needs of hunter-gatherer bands: You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your own abilities and limitations. Through your self-directed play and exploration you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so that all can have what they need and most desire. We are with you, not against you.

The experience of hunter-gatherers was that people who grew up in this way usually became highly competent, cooperative, non-domineering, cheerful, valued members of their society. They contributed to their bands not because they felt forced to, but because they wanted to, and they did so with a playful spirit. One group of anthropologists, writing many years ago, summed all this up as follows: "The successful forager . . . should be assertive and independent and is so trained as a child."[1]

With the rise of agriculture, parental styles shifted from trusting to directive and domineering.

Agriculture, invented a mere 10,000 years ago, dramatically changed the conditions of human life. The value of agriculture, of course, was that it could produce more food and sustain more people in less space than could hunting and gathering. The costs, however, were severe constraints on human freedom.

With agriculture came land ownership and accumulation of property, and with that came the need to remain with one's property and to protect it, sometimes by violent means. Also, and even more significantly, agriculture produced labor. While hunting and gathering required personal initiative, skill, intelligence, creativity, and a playful spirit, much of the work of agriculture was routine and could be done by unskilled laborers. Agriculture also resulted in larger families; with more mouths to feed, children had to work--in the fields and at childcare--to help support themselves and their siblings. With all this came the breakdown of the hunter-gatherer ideals of equality and freedom.

Agriculture set the conditions for dominance relationships and inequality. People who did not own land--including children and nearly all women--became dependent on people who did own land. Landowners became lords and masters, and those without land became servants and slaves. Ultimately, throughout much of the world, this led to feudal societies in which few were lords and masters and the great majority were servants and slaves. Not surprisingly, such changes dramatically altered social values. Religions, for example, changed from being playful and egalitarian to being deadly serious and hierarchical, with messages of obedience rather than freedom (see June 18, 2009 post). Clearly, in the context of all of this, the approach to parenting also had to change.

While hunter-gatherers needed to be independent and assertive in order to survive, most post-hunter-gatherers needed to be obedient in order to survive. And so, the goal of parenting for most people became that of producing obedient and subservient children. While hunter-gatherers parented in ways designed to enhance independence and willfulness, early agriculturalists and people in feudal times parented in ways designed to suppress these qualities. Physical beating of children was a regular and widely approved of means of doing this. Children who did not work as much as they were told to work were beaten. Children who acted uppity toward their fathers or other masters were beaten. Adult women and servants were also commonly treated in this way.

Many research studies have demonstrated this relationship between economic livelihood and style of parenting. For example, one large-scale statistical study published 50 years ago revealed a strong correlation between the degree to which a culture's subsistence depended on agriculture, rather than hunting and gathering, and the degree to which its parenting practices were directed toward obedience rather than self-assertion.[2]

The rise of industry led, if anything, to even more suppression of children's willfulness and independence. Early industry, even more so than agriculture, was labor intensive, and children provided a good share of the labor. Children as well as adults toiled long hours, under dismal conditions, and children were often beaten to keep them on task. Most people continued to depend on masters, but now the masters were lords of the factories rather than lords of the land.

It is reasonable to suppose that parents in early agricultural and industrial societies who attempted to beat their children into submission were acting for their children's own good. To survive in conditions where survival requires obedience, you really do need to suppress your own will and learn to do, unquestioningly, what you are told. But such parenting was never fully successful. By nature, all people are willful, creative, and playful. The hunter-gatherer way is the natural human way. It is impossible to beat that completely out of anyone. That is why there were always rebellions and uprisings, even at the risk of death. People cannot be trained to be ants.

Modern conditions have fostered a directive-protective style of parenting.

Today many if not most people are repelled by the idea of beating children into submission. Today initiative, creativity, and self-assertion are generally valued in children. In today's world, we see that obedience is not enough. Non-skilled labor has declined, replaced by machines, and people must be creative and self-directed to figure out ways to support themselves. Many of the values espoused by hunter-gatherers are espoused regularly by people today.

But we have not as a culture revived the hunter-gatherers' trustful style of parenting. Instead, we have replaced the directive-domineering parenting of feudal and early industrial forebears with a new kind of directive style, a directive-protective style. For a variety of reasons we have come to see childhood as a highly fragile period of development. Experts are constantly telling us of the things we must protect our children from. We have come to believe that children lack the competence to make their own decisions; they must be nurtured carefully and brought along gradually to a stage at which, some day, they will have that competence.

We are told that we must protect children from all sorts of accidents, which means serious restrictions on their forms of play and exploration. We must protect them from diseases, which can be contracted from almost anything they do. We must protect them from predatory adults presumed to be lurking in every neighborhood, and from the harmful influences of peers and of older children or adolescents. We must protect them from their own foolishness; we read regularly of new data purported to prove that children and especially adolescents are, for biological reasons, knuckleheads. We must protect children's fragile self-esteems through constant, increasingly meaningless praise, by attending their games (which we arrange for them) and cheering for them, and by trying to arrange their lives so they never fail. And we must protect their futures, as we are told we can, by forcing them through more and more years and daily hours of an educational system that they do not embrace and does not speak to their real needs and concerns.

With all this, and with all good intentions, we deprive children today of freedom at least as much as did parents in feudal and early industrial societies. We don't beat children, but we use all the other powers that we have as their providers to control their lives.

What would it take to revive the trustful parenting style?

Many parents would like to adopt a more trustful style, but find it hard to do so. The voices of fear are loud and incessant, and the fears are never completely unfounded. They can't be completely dismissed. Terrible accidents do happen; adult predators do exist; delinquent peers can have harmful influences; children and adolescents (like people of all ages) do make mistakes; and failure can hurt. We are also, by nature, conformists. It is hard to swim against the current and risk the negative judgments of our parenting peers. Yet, some do swim against the current, and the number swimming that way may change the river's direction.

Over the course of the next two or three posts I'll address directly the question posed in boldface above. I'll talk about the trustful parenting that I experienced as a child and about the challenges of trustful parenting today and ways of meeting those challenges.

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Notes
[1] Devore, Murdock & Whiting (1968). In Richard B. Lee & Irven DeVore, Man the Hunter, p 337.
[2] Barry, Child, & Baron (1959), "Relation of Child Training to Subsistence Economy," American Anthropologist, 61, 51-63.]

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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