Child Raising In Non-violent Cultures

Pic: Farragutful (CC)

Pic: Farragutful (CC)

Sarah McElroy writing in In Context #4: The Foundations of Peace, from 1983:

Some cultures on our planet are, or have been, basically non-aggressive, non-violent. That is, adult behavior includes few, if any, examples of war, homicide or intentional injury – physically or psychically – to other human beings. Cooperation, rather than competition, is the modus operandi, in contrast to our mainstream Western cultures. Why are there these differences? Is there anything useful we in the modern world can learn from these non-violent cultures?

There are perhaps many reasons for the varying expressions of violence in different cultures, from historic patterns to genetic propensities to economic influences. But whatever the predisposing factors are, there seem to also be some characteristic child rearing practices common to most of the known non-violent cultures. To illustrate this, I will draw on my own two years’ experience in East African villages and on the work of a number of other anthropologists contained in Ashley Montagu’s anthology, Learning Non-Aggression: The Experience of Non- Literate Societies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

Montagu credits Margaret Mead with pioneering work in the examination of aggressiveness in non-literate societies:

Years ago…in her book, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, she pointed to the existence of a strong association between childrearing practices and later personality development. The child who received a great deal of attention, whose every need was promptly met, as among the New Guinea Mountain Arapesh, became a gentle, cooperative, unaggressive adult. On the other hand, the child who received perfunctory, intermittent attention, as among the New Guinea Mundugomor, became a selfish, uncooperative, aggressive adult.

Later research among non-literate civilized peoples has substantially confirmed this relationship. . .

How were these needs “promptly met”? What did these children experience that turned them into gentle, cooperative, unaggressive adults?

Infants up through their second year are in close bodily contact with, primarily, their mothers, but also with others, usually women or older children. The Mbuti child, on about his third day of life is passed among close friends and family members, “not just for them to look at him, but for them to hold him close to their bodies. Another educational event has taken place in that young life: at the age of three days the infant boy is learning that there is a plurality of warm bodies, similar in warmth (which is comforting) but dissimilar in smells and rhythmic movements, which he may find disconcerting enough to make him cry, in protest. If that happens his mother immediately takes him back and puts him to her breast.” The infant, in all these cultures, is carried and held almost constantly, less frequently being placed near the mother where she is working. Infant presence is not an intrusion into adult life, but rather an expected and welcome part of all adult activity.

Infant needs, as communicated for example by crying, are met immediately; a fearful stimulus is removed, the breast offered, or a discomfort alleviated. Older children automatically defer to the younger ones out of pleasure and confidence in their own nurturing abilities. I remember six- year-old Tabu hurrying with pride and excitement to share with me the news that Wabi could now walk, as she released her little sister from her place on her hip, set her on the dirt at the side of my house, and beckoned, “Njoo, njoo” (“Come, come”) to the baby girl, squatting and slowly edging back and away, her hands and bare feet just inches from those of the wobbly infant.

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