The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time

The World (Of Parenting) Until Yesterday

What Jared Diamond says about traditional fathers in his new book

Jared Diamond has a new book out, “The World Until Yesterday.” That’s reason for many of us to turn to some technology to find it online, or maybe head to a nearby bookstore. For in our Internet-graced world, we can throw around ideas concerning fatherhood via books and blogs, even if our ancestors and many people today resort to other means—observing, talking and doing—to develop paternal behaviors. Diamond’s book contrasts various features between urban, educated, technological folks and members of small-scale hunter-gatherer and farming (what he calls “traditional”) societies, featuring anecdotes from his decades-long experiences in New Guinea. What does he have to say about traditional fathers?

In a visceral anecdote illustrating New Guinea justice, he recounts a father negotiating “sorry money” as compensation for his son’s accidental death stemming from a motor vehicle accident. As some other anecdotes also suggest, related to trade and bride exchange, there’s a story to be told of fathers playing political roles. In a world without professional lawyers and courts, a father may be one of the guys to negotiate economic and social relations that help advance the well-being of his kids. Additionally, in a world without a paid police force or standing army, a father may offer his protective services to his wife, children, and community at large. If men from enemy groups want what you have (wife, pigs), then it helps if you have someone willing to deter or avenge attempts to seize them. As men age, and become fathers, they may also accrue land and livestock in some traditional societies, marking them as important resource holders able to help or hinder their offspring’s reproductive futures based on how they allocate those resources.

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Diamond summarizes: “[]Fathers play a significant role in food provisioning, protection, and education in most human societies…Fathers’ involvement tends to be greater for older children (especially for sons) than for infants…” He highlights the Aka, who provide more direct care of their infants than do fathers of any other society. He notes that in some sex-segregated New Guinea societies, sons from age six onwards might spend more time with their fathers in men’s houses. Regarding older fathers, some may serve as the repositories of a society’s collective, unwritten wisdom. The details on dads are otherwise quite limited.

However, Diamond devotes a chapter to traditional child-rearing, in which much of the contents have relevance to parenting generally, even if not focused on fathering. The patterns he records have long been noted by others, but the impact of Diamond’s best-selling ways ensures that these discussions reach a wider audience than face-to-face or online anthropology courses. To borrow his words, “We see that people in small-scale societies spend more time talking to each other than we do, and they spend no time at all on passive entertainment supplied by outsiders, such as television, video games, and books. We are struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children. These are qualities that most of us admire, and would like to see in our own children, but we discourage development of those qualities by ranking and grading our children and constantly telling them what to do. The adolescent identity crises that plague American teen-agers aren’t an issue for hunter-gatherer children. The Westerners who have lived with hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies speculate that these admirable qualities develop because of the way in which their children are brought up: namely, with constant security and stimulation, as a result of the long nursing period, sleeping near parents for several years, far more social models available to children through allo-parenting, far more social stimulation through constant physical contact and proximity of caretakers, instant caretaker responses to a child’s crying, and the minimal amount of physical punishment.”

This outlook on traditional parenting and child development can color how a parent or other stakeholder thinks about the best ways to raise the next generation. It also says something about the common ways that fathers in traditional societies prove their mettle. Yet many members of small-scale societies, as Diamond recounts in his conclusions, embrace the jobs, healthcare, education, and opportunities of the larger world. The numbers would suggest that could lead to fewer kids, less allo-parenting, greater social anonymity, and more technologically-wired kids, as the world until yesterday shades into today’s world.

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the coauthor of Fatherhood.

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