. . . yeah, I probably don’t mean that the way you’d think.
This isn’t that the children are our future, or that we are only renting here and giving up our damage deposit when that was supposed to be for them instead. I’m talking, as usual perhaps, about the Nurture Assumption, and today more about the book by Judith Rich Harris than the assumption itself.
Ms. Rich Harris has the most wonderful writing voice. I imagine any man or reasonably flexible woman who has read her has fallen in love; I certainly did. So, the nurture assumption, that we all assume that we mould our children somehow into acceptable adults is the primary proposition in the book, but it is perhaps the second largest point in it that it seems to be our childhood peer group that moulds our personalities instead. Now, I’m ignorantly arrogant and suspicious, so I haven’t quite made my mind up about that bit just yet, there may be more to it, but if it’s true, or mostly true – and it is, at least mostly – then human culture is children’s culture, right? Or rather, human culture is developmentally arrested at some point in childhood.
Ladies, I have to ask – does this strike a chord, a feminist chord? Haven’t you always known you’re up against grown men’s bodies inhabited by the souls of angry young boys?
The basic, aboriginal scenario she described (from many years of reading and writing textbooks on the subject) is a village of sixty to a hundred and sixty people, perhaps three main family lines, and mothers having babies every two or three years – at which point the previous child is weaned and let outside to join the children’s group. Here, we learn and grow, and graduate to have our own children. Adult personality testing shows our grown personalities to show far more conformity with the children’s peer group than with our parents.
Sometimes if we’ve only just heard this, I imagine it takes a second to sink in, but another way to state the scenario Rich Harris describes (I don’t think she put it this way), is this: we are somehow immune to intergenerational learning and we mostly don’t know a thing that every child doesn’t know. Maybe we can learn throughout our lives (I hope so, I’m about to retire and planning to keep trying), but our ability to pass it on to children is severely impeded once we are of breeding age ourselves!
Now, I think that’s a sort of an argument for a general cause to support some vague idea of our adult “children’s culture,” but I have something of my own to add, namely that the means and ways of this “influence” and “socialization” that happens in the children’s group happen to be the same ways and means that parents are so valiantly trying to justify with the nurture assumption: abuse. Abuse in a generic sort of sense, sure, but in all senses.
We can say that parents use rough methods at home and that the children perhaps emulate, or we can say that the parents have only just exited the children’s group where that was the way of life as well, the ways and means of conformity and organization, and that they simply carry on as they always have in the group, albeit with younger children for perhaps the first time. It’s a circle of life sort of thing. Personally, I have chosen to blame the parents for this vicious cycle, because for the most part they are older and closer to some definition of legal responsibility – but also, because we have been trying to get the kids to stop hitting each other for years already and that just isn’t working out! I think we should try stopping the adults, see if that works better.
That was a bit of me, but really, that is the implication of the children’s peer group, has to be, right? That the social pressure during our formative years, that the society this testing shows we conform to is the society of pre-pubescents. There’s a nibble for the biologists in it, too. Part of the theory is that your parents aren’t so likely to beat you to death as the peer group is, because the gene relation is closer, so that we conform to the bigger threat, the more realistic threat. The Nurture Assumption spelled it out graphically in terms of hunter-gatherer warrior societies, where if a boy won’t fight, he is tormented until he either fights back or is killed. One presumes there are very few adult pacifists.
Perhaps it’s not so sad that we are living a life designed and enforced by children because of their inexperience, but rather that the structure of our society is formed from experience that includes a lot of boyish competition and violence. I’m not sure about that, and this is absolutely a thought in progress . . . I’m postulating this, the eternal children’s group and the associated adult “children’s culture” – and a different, first generation adult culture in every generation? Again, we can learn, it’s only that adults can’t teach kids, at least not social things. But the eternal, timeless children’s culture of might is right (and sex doesn’t matter?), the unconscious side of our culture, and the adult side where things change and evolve . . . ?
I think I’ve taken this as far as I can . . .
April 28th., 2017
An interesting perspective, to the extent I get what you are getting at. I’ll have to let that digest a bit.
Here is my opinion on Harris. I never thought she was against ‘nurture’ in the broad sense. Rather, I saw her arguing against a limited conception. Peers, not just parents, are part of a child’s social world. It’s not enough for parents to be nurturing, if the rest of a child’s social world is not nurturing.
In a society like ours, it’s simply a fact that parents form only a small part of a child’s experience and relationships. Most children spend most of their time away from their parents in childcare, school, sports, programs, etc. Most children even sleep alone in their own separate bedrooms, something that was an uncommon practice until recent history.
It’s a child’s world because that is what our society has created. In the US, this child-centric social order was initially developed by the early Quakers. They were the first helicopter parents, at least here in American society. This is discussed by Barry Levy in “Quakers and the American Family” (another book on the topic is J. William Frost’s “The Quaker Family in Colonial America”).
Quaker’s were the origin of the modern American nuclear family. The home was considered separate from the larger world. And each family member’s bedroom was considered a refuge. Everyone was an individual before God.
This is far opposite extreme of tribal society. This creation of divisions in social life ended up separating parental influences from peer influences, two separate worlds. Tribal societies did allow for peer influence as well, but there was less clear demarcation between childhood and adulthood or between different age groups. Many tribal societies have a much more fluid organization.
The immense peer influence, to the detriment of parental influence, in our society is an artifact of the social order. We live highly divided lines, but it isn’t divided in equal ways. Parents are forced to spend more time with their peers, just as children are, because of our economy requires and incentivizes so many parents to work long hours (often both parents).
So, it’s not just that children are less influenced by parents. One might argue that parents are less influenced by children. Also, because multi-generational households and kinfolk communities are rare these days, family members in general have little influence over one another in any kind of way.
More than a child’s world, it’s a world of peers. Children kept with other children at daycare and school. Parents with other adults at work. And the elderly with other elderly in retirement communities and homes. Every stage of life sectioned off from all others.
yeah, I need to develop this idea. It’s been sitting there for me to get around to for years now, but this was my first stab at it on paper, and I know I’m nowhere near it yet. The idea isn’t an adult culture built around children or child-rearing, but an adult culture that is formed and propagated by humans who have not yet gone through puberty. If this is when we are socialized – and Rich Harris makes a good case that it is – if our society is formed in childhood, then we have an immature society, one that doesn’t ever grow up. Like, how often in a day do you get the sense that it’s all still schoolyard bullshit going on and our leaders aren’t behaving like adults? Well, that really is the case. I’ll keep at this. I think there will be some fun theorizing to try to work through my last paragraph, the basic children’s culture underlying everything, and the dynamics of the actual adult culture that I suspect is largely one culture per generation (in a given environment I guess) in one sense, and the whole history of the ‘progress’ of mankind in another . . . has someone gone there yet, that you know?
Damn, I want to get onto sorting out this social VS rational thing that bugs me so bad right now, but I guess that needs to simmer in the ol’ unconscious for a few years. It seems this children’s culture idea may have been simmering long enough, it’s a lot closer to ready. Time to re-label this “Part #1.”
I think it’s going to be a thing that our basic culture, if it really is the child’s culture, is pre-sexual. Jesus, what might this mean to Freud, to bloody Darwin, if our culture is counter in that way to all of our ideas about sex and reproduction as the drivers for everything? That is surely going too far. But I never would have imagined any way to get anywhere near that thought before!
Did I lose you? Am I nuts?
Jesus – tears? I only read the Nurture Assumption a year and a half ago. Wow. This has been a very long year.
“years,” not “tears”
This is an interesting idea:
“The idea isn’t an adult culture built around children or child-rearing, but an adult culture that is formed and propagated by humans who have not yet gone through puberty. If this is when we are socialized – and Rich Harris makes a good case that it is – if our society is formed in childhood, then we have an immature society, one that doesn’t ever grow up.”
It might be more true for some societies than others. Many people have noted that the US is an immature society. But maybe it’s true to varying degrees in all or most of modern civilization.
“the basic children’s culture underlying everything, and the dynamics of the actual adult culture that I suspect is largely one culture per generation (in a given environment I guess) in one sense, and the whole history of the ‘progress’ of mankind in another . . . has someone gone there yet, that you know?”
I’m not sure. It’s not clear to me what the details and implications of this line of thought. But maybe I see some of what it could mean. I might note partial resonance with Strauss and Howe’s generations theory, at least in terms of adults, although that theory connects adult culture to each generation’s childhood experience. A relevant point might be how the cycle that Strauss and Howe describe could only develop in a child-centric society.
“I think it’s going to be a thing that our basic culture, if it really is the child’s culture, is pre-sexual.”
That loses me a bit. I haven’t a clue where that would go. Our society does have a weird mindset about children and sexuality. In many tribal societies, it’s considered normal for children to be sexually play with each other. But we modern people demand that children be sexless creatures and yet this sexual repression just leads to sexuality coming out in weird ways. Consider child beauty pageants.
““I think it’s going to be a thing that our basic culture, if it really is the child’s culture, is pre-sexual.”
That loses me a bit. I haven’t a clue where that would go. Our society does have a weird mindset about children and sexuality. In many tribal societies, it’s considered normal for children to be sexually play with each other. But we modern people demand that children be sexless creatures and yet this sexual repression just leads to sexuality coming out in weird ways. Consider child beauty pageants.”
– hey, that is interesting – the aboriginal, timeless “child’s” adult culture maybe isn’t pre-sexual, just pre-reproductive. (Definitively, I guess. When a girl is old enough and a life of sex play gets her pregnant, she’s out of the child’s group and married or in some other situation . . . ?) That may be a meaningful modern difference – or it may just be the reproductivity that’s the meaningful thing about sex, especially if we’re having a biology talk rather than a psychology one.
It’s a highly experimental idea to wonder whether something non-reproductive can be what drives culture, but at a sherpa-high level of hippy-dippy kumbayaness, one might conjecture that when the architects of your culture are children and childless, perhaps that is a culture with a dangerous tendency to discount the future, and to eat everything in sight. Poetry, not science, I know. Worth pursuing for the literary novelty alone maybe, though.
In early America, most people married young and most women were already pregnant before marriage. It took a long time for protected childhood to fully develop across American society.
But the US remained majority rural until a little over a century ago. It might have been different in other countries that urbanized sooner.
It wasn’t until urbanization was well under way in the 20th century that most American kids attended schools. Prior to that, a peer culture would have been much more limited.
In earlier mostly rural America, there was little in the way of a childhood. Like tribal people, American kids would have worked with adults from a young age. And then they would have started their own families when still young.
I’d assume that this would have been more or less the same in other Western countries.