Sparing the rod

Since I don’t have any children of my own, I’m reluctant to criticize the way others bring up their kids. Yesterday I was struck, however, by the contrast between the relatively permissive style of Eva’s parents and constantly scolding style of Morgan’s. For what it’s worth, I should note that I am not unsympathetic to the old-fashioned idea that children should be expected to conform to the realities of the adult world to some extent. I am uncomfortable with the approach taken by many more liberal parents my age who are reluctant to punish their offspring at all, and who try hard never to raise their voices. But I realize that, in feeling that way, I’m ignoring not only abundant evidence from ethnography but even the ideals of the political tradition with which I most identify, both strongly suggesting that, if children can be “spoiled,” it is not by permissiveness per se.

One of the most valuable contributions of the 150 year-old tradition of anarchism in the West has been to draw attention to the fundamental importance of child-rearing practices. How else to engineer social acceptance of dominance hierarchies, coercion, inequality, punitive “justice,” etc., except through the thorough indoctrination of children? To this day, church, school and family, joined by the ever-more-powerful mass media, share the burden of inculcating obedience to authority. Studies show, for instance, that around 80% of the time spent in public schools is consumed by activities unrelated to actual learning – unless one takes the cynical view that learning to follow arbitrary orders and to internalize a strong sense of inferiority are necessary to the development of citizenship.

The anarchist critique didn’t come out of a void. My geographer-brother Mark (Eva’s dad) is fond of pointing out that two of the founding figures of modern anarchism, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus, were geographers who drew numerous lessons from the study of non-Western cultures. More generally, strong circumstantial evidence suggests that 17th- and 18th-century European constitutionalist theory was at least inspired, if not actively shaped, by the example of the Iroquois and other Eastern Woodland Indian confederations.

Be that as it may, there’s little doubt that over the last five hundred years, travelers’ and missionaries’ accounts of American Indians have provided the strongest counter-example to the rigid social patterns of northern Europeans. However romanticized or distorted these accounts, I can’t help thinking that the knowledge that “another world is possible” played an essential role in the growth of the Western liberal and radical traditions. In 18th-century Pennsylvania and New Jersey, two peripatetic missionaries from the radical Pietist sect the Moravians, John Heckewelder and David Zeisberger, were open-minded enough to observe and describe the customs of Indians in great detail. Historical anthropologist and psychologist Anthony F. C. Wallace drew heavily on their accounts in the introductory chapter of his book King of the Delawares: Teedyuscung, 1700-1763 (Syracuse University Press, 1990 [1949]):

“The normal personality in the undamaged, aboriginal Delaware [i.e., Lenape] society seems, like that of most Indians of the northeastern woodlands, to have been remarkable for equanimity in the face of physical misfortune and for superficial equability in face-to-face social relationships. This throttling of overt signs of dissatisfaction and hostility stood in striking contrast to the bumptious, rough-and-ready aggressiveness of the invading whites.

“The formation of this type of equable personality can be traced to the treatment and education of the child. Eighteenth-century observers agree that punishment of any kind was avoided. The children, said Zeisberger, ‘follow their own inclinations, do what they like and no one prevents them, except it be that they do harm to others; but even in that case they are not punished, being only reproved with gentle words. Parents had rather make good the damage than punish the children, for the reason that they think the children might remember it against them and avenge themselves when they have attained maturity.’ Heckewelder agreed that the instruction of the young was never ‘done in an authoritative or forbidding tone, but, on the contrary, in the gentlest and most persuasive manner; nor is the parent’s authority ever supported by harsh or compulsive means; no whips, no punishments, no threats are ever used to enforce commands or compel obedience.’

“The attitudes thus described do not suggest an intense feeling of emotional interdependence among the members of the family, so much as a discreet care not to antagonize one another. Under such conditions, it seems that the individual would not be likely to develop the sort of punishing conscience demanded by European society. Social cooperation would be achieved by an individual’s calculating avoidance of antagonizing his opponents, rather than by any powerful inner sanctions of conscience.

“This attitude of wary politeness was generalized by the Delawares into a Weltanschauung that included the world of animals as well as of men. Toward the brute creation the Delawares preserved a respectful mien; animals valued for their flesh or skins, like the bear, were not treated with casual brutality but were killed with ceremony and in some cases addressed by the hunter as noble enemies . . .

“Among a people who did not have much experience of punishment in childhood, there was little opportunity for the development of a Jehovah-like god who dispenses favors to the good and chastises the wicked. There was, certainly, a Great Spirit who was the creator and maintainer of the natural system of the world. But the individual Delawares reckoned not with him but with a personal guardian, who was usually an animal spirit, like the Bear, who watched over and helped the Indian in the manifold crises of life. This Guardian Spirit revealed himself to the Indian youth in a dream or vision; and to him the Indian sang a sacred song describing the vision. The various ceremonies of the annual calendar consisted largely of the recitations of these visions.”

In a later book on the Iroquois, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (Random House, 1969), Wallace elaborates upon many of these themes in his portrait of a closely related (though linguistically distinct) people:

“The cultivation of the ideal of autonomous responsibility – and the suppression of its antimony, dependency – began early in life. Iroquois children were carefully trained to think for themselves but to act for others. Parents were protective, permissive, and sparing of punishment; they encouraged children to play at imitating adult behavior but did not criticize or condemn fumbling early efforts; they maintained a cool detachment, both physically and verbally, avoiding the intense confrontations of love and anger between parent and child to which Europeans were accustomed. Children did not so much live in a child’s world as grow up freely in the interstices of an adult culture. The gain was an early self-reliance and enjoyment of responsibility; the cost, perhaps, was a life long difficulty in handling feelings of dependency . . .

“The mother’s feeling for her children was intense; indeed, to one early observer it appeared that ‘Parental Tenderness’ was carried to a ‘dangerous Indulgence.’ Another early writer remarked, ‘The mothers love their children with an extreme passion, and although they do not reveal this in caresses, it is nonetheless real.’ Mothers were quick to express resentment of any restraint or injury or insult offered to the child by an outsider. During the first few years the child stayed almost constantly with the mother, in the house, in the fields, or on the trail, playing and performing small tasks under her direction. The mother’s chief concern during this time was to provide for the child and to protect it, to ‘harden’ it by baths in cold water, but not to punish. Weaning was normally not attempted until the age of three or four, and such control as the child obtained over its excretory functions was achieved voluntarily, not as a result of consistent punishment for mistakes. Early sexual curiosity and experimentation were regarded as a natural childish way of behaving, out of which it would, in time, grow. Grandparents might complain that small children got into everything, but the small child was free to romp, to pry into things, to demand what it wanted, and to assault its parents, without more hazard than the exasperated mother’s occasionally blowing water in its face or dunking it in a convenient river.”

Child-rearing practices vary enormously from one society to the next. Even among societies we may consider peaceful (including the early Moravians and, if not the Iroquois or Delaware, certainly the Algonquian-speaking Montagnais-Naskapi of Labrador) it is impossible to generalize, for example, about the relative valuation of individual autonomy vs. social dependence. But I think one can say about a great many village societies around the world what Anthony Wallace writes about the Iroquois, that “Behavior [is] governed not by published laws enforced by police, courts, and jails, but by oral tradition supported by a sense of duty, a fear of gossip, and a dread of retaliatory witchcraft.” Maintaining a peaceful, just and harmonious society without any social constraints whatsoever will probably always remain an unrealizable ideal.

And I know if I had a kid, sooner or later she would get her butt whacked.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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