Everything You Think About Mothers and Childhood Is Wrong

Sure that, thanks to experts, we're raising our kids "right"? Guess again

Posted Nov 22, 2013

Developmentalist Jean Piaget famously observed that "play is the work of children." But in some places, work is the work of children. And that's not a bad thing.

In her wonderful book Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children, anthropologist Meredith Smalls synthesizes and interprets the ethnographic data on childhood, interspersing it with her own personal narrative of being a mother in Ithaca, New York. In the industrialized West, she and other anthropologists note, childhood is a time of minimal responsibility, increased play time and formalized education. We are pretty righteous in our belief that it's the best thing to do and "what children need." A professional caste of childhood experts--developmental psychologists, parenting journalists, pediatricians, educators—reenforces our convictions.

But from a cross-cultural perspective, the way we do childhood is an anomaly. You could even say it's wrong. The ethnographic data shows that world-wide, childhood is a time of work and responsibility. On average, in other cultures children are net contributors to the household by age seven, helping out with chores in the kitchen, fetching water and firewood and perhaps most importantly, playing a big role in caring for younger siblings. Many kids begin to help out with such tasks as early as age three.

We're not talking about children forced to work in factories here, but children tending to ducklings or livestock, or holding a baby while a mother or father attends to other business nearby. Many of these tasks are actually "fun"—all are certainly truly helpful to parents. Among the traditional Maya families of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, anthropologist Karen Kramer told Smalls, children are considered assets. "They work really, really hard," she observes, and thus they are not only valued, but valuable. Similarly, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy observes that in many West African countries, there are proverbs like "When you have a child, you have a life" and "A man with children cannot be poor." In these cultures, having a child makes you rich not just figuratively, but literally. In the West, in contrast, where children don't pitch in as often or contribute as much, we believe that children are precious—but also a tremendous financial burden.

So our relatively affluent kids are luckier, right? Surely they must be happier with these idyllic, work-free, doted-upon childhoods? And kids who work must be miserable. Right? Smalls notes that actually, there are markedly higher levels of self-reported happiness in cultures where children help out. Parents do not report feeling depleted or depressed by childcare duties as they do in the West. And children who work in the household tend to have high self esteem and few behavioral issues, because their contributions are necessary and their roles are clear.

This comes as no surprise to evolutionary biologists and anthropologists who focus on childhood, like Barry Bogin. He tells us that kids are essentially wired to help out. Childhood, he and anthropologist Anne Zeller maintain, did NOT evolve so kids could learn to read and write or think better than other primates. No, childhood came about so kids could help adults raise younger kids, so adults could have more kids. That's right, childhood evolved so grown ups could shift the intensive labor of childrearing to others, in order to reproduce again. And the kids get good childrearing and pragmatic life skills by helping out, increasing the likelihood that they themselves will have kids who have kids. Helping out improves parents' fitness and kids' as well.

What does all this mean for modern moms? Give your kids some chores, something they can handle that you might otherwise do yourself "because I can do it faster." Let the big one be in charge of the little one, while you oversee it from a safe distance. Let them figure it out. Let them work. Here's betting they will do a pretty good job, and feel pretty good about themselves, after. And as for you, the ethnographic data is clear: you'll like your kids more and resent them less when they're making your life easier and pitching in.

 See the photo essay on primatesofparkavenue.com

Further reading

Blaffer Hrdy, Sarah Mother Nature

Blurton Jones, NG, Hawkes, Kristen, O'Connell, JF (1999) "Grandmothering and the evolution of homo erectus"

Bogin, Barry (1995) "Evolutionary hypotheses for human childhood," Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 40: 63 - 89.

Hawkes, Kristen (1998) "Hadza children's foraging," Current Anthropology 36: 688 - 700.

Zeller, Anne, (1994) "A role for women in hominid evolution," Man 22: 528 - 57.