In my previous post, "Detachment Parenting," I shared some results from a recent literature survey on cultural models of infancy. I identified six factors that typically cloud a newborn's future ranging from uncertain paternity to parasitic infestation. If the fate of the majority of babies is in doubt, it follows that the community into which a child is born would be reluctant to make a deep emotional investment until the child's viability was confirmed. Our survey revealed that most societies do not automatically confer personhood upon the newborn. Instead the child is considered to exist in a liminal or intermediate state between a spirit or other world and the world of the living. In fact, it is very common to create a kind of external womb for the newborn-denying its birth.
Delayed personhood is accounted for in various ways and we find several folk theories that explain why this happens. "Not Yet Ripe" is one such theory. The denial of personhood is based on the patent deficiencies of the infant as a social being. Various attributes are singled out including, for example, the infant's softness and lack of motor control. Significantly, these folk theories are used both to explain the basis of non-personhood but also include prescriptions for turning the babies into persons; they have "directive force." (4) For example, the extremely widespread use of swaddling or cradleboard to restrain the infant is seen as compensating for and minimizing the long-term effects of the infant's softness and lack of motor control. Heat, smoke, massage and special foods also "harden" the baby.
Other areas singled out as needing ripening to transform the infant into a human being are: speech; self-locomotion; acquisition of social knowledge and skills and; intelligence. Interestingly, there is relatively little consensus regarding the age at which personhood is achieved. This could range from a few days to eight or ten years.
In a strict statistical sense, the most common rationale for withholding personhood is that the infant itself has not yet committed to being human. It is suspended between two worlds, the human world and the "other" world of spirits, ghosts, ancestors and, gods. There are several variations on this theme. In one version there is a distinct tension between the spirit or soul and the body.
Families aren't necessarily passive in the face of the infant's liminality. In the Bolivian Andes, a precise and elaborate swaddling procedure guards the infant against susto, an illness that results in the separation of body and soul (13). A caretaking style that emphasises keeping the infant in a coma-like state-always quiet and sheltered-is also often justified on the basis of insuring that the spirit doesn't flee. Of course, this policy (along with using swaddling and cradle-boards) also reduces the amount of attention that the mother must devote to the infant.
A point made in my previous post "Detachment Parenting" was that high infant mortality (among other factors) led to an emotional distancing between the newborn and its family. We have several lines of evidence from the way in which infants and children are treated in death that strongly reinforces the delayed personhood argument. First of all burial rites and mourning may be minimal or actively discouraged in the case of a child younger than five or, even as late as ten. (16) The variability is consistent with the variability in marking the age at which the child is considered a person. The attention of the family and community should be on the next child, not on the one that's died. For example, "the average duration of a birth interval is substantially shorter following an infant death than when an infant survives." (17)
When we turn to the archaeological record, excavators find that-save for ancient Egypt and during the city-state period in Athens-infants and children are buried apart from older children and adults. (21). And this strongly suggests that this distinction marked non/personhood.
To sum up our findings to this point, it seems that it is only with the dramatic decline in the rate of infant/child mortality and the conversion of children from chattel to cherubs (25) that newborns were considered fully human. We reinforce this sense of humanity by giving a permanent name at birth, by making regular eye contact and using baby-talk or motherese. Our newborns start life "owning" various items of value: their own room, high chair, crib, eating utensils and entertaining toys. Elsewhere and in the past, adults acted as if the baby was on probation and that its survival was uncertain. Furthermore, the baby's lack of the distinguishing human traits-bipedal locomotion, speech, motor control and the control of elimination signaled its not-yet-personhood. The child had to earn its humanity, usually through the aid of various prophylactic procedures and by passing certain milestones or rites of passage. In the next post I will discuss another set of folk theories of infancy that emphasize the baby's potential for good and evil.
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