(!Kung grandmother and child)
There’s an unspoken belief that the hunter gatherer way of life is an early, more ‘natural’ form of human society. Attachment parenting has placed a great deal of emphasis on the positive examples set by contemporary hunter gatherer parenting with a sometimes explicit implication that we are being more ‘natural’ by following the advice that they give. Many of the ideas have now become mainstream and benefited from further scientific studies to back them up. Skin on skin contact after birth, breastfeeding on demand, empathetic discipline rather than fear based discipline etc. However, controversies over crying it out, baby wearing and co-sleeping have also made it a source of tension and confusion amongst many parents.
So who are these hunter gatherers that seem to have it all sorted with their loved, attached babies and children? Well, in the case of attachment/natural/gentle parenting much of the advice all stems from research on just one group in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia: the !Kung. These guys have been studied by anthropologists, psychologists and other researchers since at least the 1950’s. They’re so used to researchers they now accept that they must just be extremely interesting people!
Today I just want to focus on one paper that studies infant crying amongst the !Kung. Crying it out is mega controversial and differences of opinion can break friendships but what I want to highlight is whilst the !Kung do seem to set a wonderful example of parenting, at least to my eye, it is also extremely hard for us to replicate.
The !Kung are believed to have one of the closest mother-infant relationships ever studied. On average !Kung infants are never left to cry for any significant time, one minute being the absolute maximum and only with new borns who cry more anyway. However, the mother alone only responds to the infant for less than half of the time. The rest of the time she is either helped by someone else in the community, or someone else responds instead. On top of this it is extremely rare for a mother to be alone with her infant. This makes me cry a bit on the inside. The hours I’ve spent alone with my babies, at home, in the park, down the shops. Even when I’ve been with friends or other parents if the baby cries or needs something it’s me who responds. Imagine having that much help and support?
So all the attachment parenting gurus are telling us that not only do we need to be the best mother we can be but we also need to be all the other people in the community. !Kung mums are not expected to do this alone so why are we? It’s no wonder so many of us get depressed.
Being open to new ideas from other cultures can only be positive but to neglect the context in which these ideas are found is telling only half of the story. I for one love how the !Kung raise their children but I live in a big Western city far away from my family, I’d love more company and more support but in the absence of that I can only do my best.
This is mostly derived from the article by Melvin Konner called Who Responds To Crying
If you want to know more about the !Kung this is a classic paper by James Woodburn