2/1/13 - the role of allo-parents in child-raising

In today's selection -- for most of mankind's existence, the role of "allo-parents," care-givers other than the biological parents themselves, was much more significant than it is today -- increasing the chance of survival for children and helping develop such attributes as early independence and precocious social skills:

"What about the child-rearing contribution of care-givers other than the mother and the father? In modern Western society, a child's parents are typically by far its dominant care-givers. The role of 'allo-parents' -- i.e., individuals who are not the biological parents but who do some care-giving -- has even been decreasing in recent decades, as families move more often and over longer distances, and children no longer have the former constant availability of grandparents and aunts and uncles living nearby. This is of course not to deny that babysitters, schoolteachers, grandparents, and older siblings may also be significant care-givers and influences. But allo-parenting is much more important, and parents play a less dominant role, in traditional societies. 

"In hunter-gatherer bands the allo-parenting begins within the first hour after birth. Newborn Aka and Efe infants are passed from hand to hand around the campfire, from one adult or older child to another, to be kissed, bounced, and sung to and spoken to in words that they cannot possibly understand. ... In many hunter-gatherer societies, older grandparents often stay in camp with children, enabling the parents to go off and forage unencum­bered. Children may be left in the care of their grandparents for days or weeks at a time. Hadza children who have an involved grandmother gain weight faster than do children without involved grandmothers. Aunts and uncles also serve as important allo-parents in many traditional societies. For instance, among Bantu of Southern Africa's Okavango Delta, the strongest influence of an older male on a boy is not from the boy's father but from a maternal uncle, the mother's oldest brother. In many societies, brothers and sisters take care of each other's children. Older siblings, especially older girls and especially in farming and herding societies, often play a major role as care-givers of younger siblings.

"Daniel Everett, who lived for many years among the Piraha Indians of Brazil, commented, "The biggest difference [of a Piraha child's life from an American child's life] is that Piraha children roam about the village and are considered to be related to and partially the responsibility of ev­eryone in the village." Yora Indian children of Peru take nearly half of their meals with families other than their own parents. The son of Amer­ican missionary friends of mine, after growing up in a small New Guinea village where he considered all adults as his 'aunts' or 'uncles,' found the relative lack of allo-parenting a big shock when his parents brought him back to the United States for high school.

"As children of small-scale societies grow older, they spend more time making longer visits to stay with other families. I experienced one such case while I was studying birds in New Guinea and hiring local people as porters to carry my supplies from one village to the next. When I arrived at one particular village, most of the porters from the previous village who had brought me there left, and I sought help from people of any age ca­pable of carrying a pack and wanting to earn money. The youngest person who volunteered was a boy about 10 years old, named Talu. He joined me, expecting to be away from his village for a couple of days. But when we reached my destination after a delay of a week caused by the trail becom­ing blocked by a river in flood, I sought someone to stay and work with me, and Talu volunteered again. As it thus worked out, Talu remained with me for a month until I finished my study and he walked back to his home. At the time that he had set out with me, his parents had been away from the village, so Talu just came, knowing that other people in the vil­lage would tell his parents on their return that he had gone off for a few days. His village friends who also came along as porters and then returned to the village would have told his parents more than a week later that he was going to stay for an uncertain length of time longer. It was evidently considered normal that a 10-year-old boy would decide by himself to go away for an indeterminate length of time.

"In some societies those lengthy trips of children without their parents become lengthened even further into recognized adoptions. For example, after the age of 9 or 10, Andaman Island children rarely continue to live with their own parents but are adopted by foster parents, often from a neighboring group, and thereby help to maintain friendly relations be­tween the two groups. Among the Ihupiat of Alaska, adoption of children was common, especially within Ihupiaq groups. Adoption in the modern First World is primarily a link between the adopted child and the adoptive parents, who until recently were not even told the identity of the biological parents, so as to preclude an on-going relationship of the biological par­ents with the child or with the adoptive parents. However, for the Ihupiat the adoption served as a link between the two sets of parents and between their groups.

"Thus, a major difference between small-scale societies and large state societies is that responsibility for children becomes widely diffused be­yond the child's parents in the small-scale societies. The allo-parents are materially important as additional providers of food and protection. Hence studies around the world agree in showing that the presence of allo-parents improves a child's chances for survival. But allo-parents are also psycho­logically important, as additional social influences and models beyond the parents themselves. Anthropologists working with small-scale societies often comment on what strikes them as the precocious development of social skills among children in those societies, and they speculate that the richness of allo-parental relationships may provide part of the expla­nation.  


Jared Diamond


The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies




Copyright 2012 by Jared Diamond


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