We live in a neontocracy, a world that revolves around the needs of children far beyond the basics of food and material comfort. It seems vital to maintain children’s happiness, status, self-esteem and protection, and to provide constant stimulation.
Anthropologist David Lancy of Utah State University (who coined the term neontocracy), writes that modern parenting bucks the historical and ethnographic record. In “Raising Children”, he picks apart the good and bad in this parenting.
Abandoning harsh practices (sending the kids into the forest in hard times, or enslaving them) is surely good, but the new ways can leave many “kidults”, ill-prepared to enter a complicated, adult world and even feed rising levels of mental illness, stress and suicide.
A strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver (parent, aunt, adopter and so on) is said to be crucial. Yet for most of history, and across all cultures to varying extents, the emphasis was for the mother not to get too emotionally invested in a newborn or young infant who might die or sap her energy and health, and consequently the well-being of the family or community.
Centuries ago, high infant mortality gave Western societies a more utilitarian view of the cost-benefit of children. Lancy cites a 6th-century Frankish law which decreed that the fine for killing a young woman of childbearing age was 600 sous, compared with just 60 sous for a male baby and a mere 30 for a female one.
Modern practices such as co-sleeping, on-demand feeding and constant parent-child play – now associated with attachment parenting, should serve both parties well or be abandoned. “We must not let the pendulum swing so far that other family members, or even the very fabric of family life, must suffer to stave off the dubious threat of reactive attachment disorder,” Lancy cautions.
And another problem: the “everyone’s-a-winner” mentality is doing children, society and the economy no good. Obsessed with children’s happiness, US parents, “tolerate mediocre academic performance and rail against teachers who expose our children’s failings”. In Connecticut, he says, teachers are banned from marking pupils’ work with red ink to avoid damaging their self-esteem. While parenting styles promoting achievement and compliance with social or family rules, like that of the “Tiger mother”, are met with a backlash. But as Lancy notes there is no evidence that high-achieving children are at particular risk of harm. But this doesn’t mean we need more schooling or formal education. Our forebears thought learning through observation, play and autonomy were critical. In our quest to shield children from harm, we may be undermining their natural inclination to learn adult survival skills, social and practical, and so extending childhood and “failure-to-launch”. Benign neglect is a better pathway to having a well- adjusted child.
Children and adults can be creative throughout life by learning how to harness kids’ passions through collaborative projects and play – it fosters creativity.
We need a balance between freedom and structure to encourage creativity. Play – and the freedoms it unlocks – is key. For the good of all and for maximum creativity, it is time to unwrap the seedlings from the cotton wool in which we have enwrapped them, plant them in rich soil and make sure they don’t grow up into another generation of overprotected kids.
( An edited and foreshortened version of a review in New Scientist by Shaoni Bhattacharya of. “Raising Children: Surprising insights from other cultures“ by David Lancy, published by Cambridge University Press, and “Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating creativity through projects, passion, peers, and play” by Mitchel Resnick, published by: MIT Press).
My take: what I perceive is a mass self-absorption (or selfishness) on the part of the young. They are apparently not being taught consideration and care for others. This bodes ill for a world facing the huge disruption of climate change, when working together and thinking of other human beings will be needed to get the human race through that further crisis.