He is a small brown dot against the beige sweep of the Kalahari – a boy of three, bare-skinned save for a small strip of leather around his waist. He carries the small bow and arrow traditional to the !Kung San and maybe even a machete that he swings lazily at the tall grass tufts. He’s not hunting. He’s too young for that. But he’s not lost either. He’s walking confidently to the next encampment. He knows there are lions around, sure, but he also knows that he’s not truly alone. Someone is always looking out, ready to protect him, hold him, offer him a breast to suckle, or help him practice using his bow. Sometimes its his parents. More often, it isn’t. He’s careful about thorn trees, but not about people. He’s never been scolded or punished.
The lives of children hunter-gatherers are both enviable and easily romanticized. Despite the hardscrabble nature of what is, by definition, a hand-to-mouth existence, children growing up in communities of !Kung bushmen in southern Africa seem to be subjected to considerably less social stress than their peers in the developed world. They are given freedoms that would make western parents blanche, yet research shows not only that they thrive, but also that they are not uniquely discipline averse. Small band hunter-gatherers and nomadic foragers across the globe, including the Aka of the Republic of Congo, the Trumaí of Central Brazil, the Yaghan of Tierra del Fuego, and the Semai of the Malay peninsula, the idea of discipline remains foreign. That remains true at a time when pretty much every other society on Earth accepts disciplinary measures as a given.
Discipline, it turns out, is an idea that most of the world’s parents have subscribed to en masse without clearly understanding that it has not always been part of the human experience or how it became so prevalent. Considering the proliferation of punitive measures historically turns out to be instructive precisely because discipline was not popularized as a means of raising happier, well-adjusted children. The child wander the Kalahari with a machete is just fine. The origins are fundamentally economic. In a sense, parents who think of discipline as a means of preparing their children to engage with society are correct, but in a larger sense they may actually be preparing their children to engage with — or even eagerly immersing their children in — an economic system.
“!Kung people don’t coerce their children unless they’re falling in the fire. They avoid telling kids what to do,” Notre Dame University psychology professor Dr. Darcia Narvaez, author of Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom. she explains. “They honor the autonomy of the child while they’re growing up. Coercion is avoided at all ages.”
That’s not to say that the children of hunter-gatherer societies have no boundaries. “It’s the natural world that tells the child what can be done and can’t be done,” Narvaez says. “You find out that if you jump from that tree, it hurts a little bit, so you better not jump so far. It’s not the parents telling them to be careful.” Essentially, the !Kung don’t set boundaries because their children discover natural boundaries experientially. Kids discover their own limitations and the collectivist nature of the band ensures that the child is exposed to the ways of the community as they grow up among them.
“That’s something that Westerners just don’t get,” explains Cornell anthropologist Dr. Meredith Small, author of Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children. She notes it’s particularly baffling for private, solo Americans who raise their children in separate, little, constructed boxes.
“We have this idea in the West that kids need to be socialized,” Small explains. “And we don’t have so much of an idea that they will learn that by watching others because they are often not around others.” In contrast, hunter-gatherers raise children collectively. Everyone is responsible for everyone else’s child and that how the !Kung belief system is transferred from one generation to the next.
If responsibility is collective there’s minimal fear of faux pas or social transgression. And if a community is truly egalitarian, as the !Kung are, there is little need for ego or a necessity to show power, whether it be over a child or anyone else. Much of the developed world’s notion of discipline is about managing how kids behave in public and doing so through coercive power. When private and public boundaries dissolve, and everyone is truly equal, there’s no longer much cause for that sort of rulemaking. Social pressure gets the job done.
This may sound ideal to modern American parents tired of all the scolding and policing. And it is idyllic in a way — !Kung families are very stable — but also largely impractical in a capitalist or just post-agrarian society. Though some parents do actively avoid disciplining their children, this is a cultural anomaly and will likely continue to be a cultural anomaly for the simple reason that this strategy does not scale. And, as any modern venture capitalist might explain (apropos of nothing), capitalism is all about scale.
Anthropologists believe discipline was invented as a form of cultural technology at roughly the same time humans began to settle, grow crops, and raise livestock. The reason this settling occurred is much debated (climate change, conflict, happy accident), but don’t debate that farming introduced humans to a new kind of work and the concept ownership, which is still a foreign concept to many hunter-gatherer bands.
“This changed the common practices of small band hunter-gatherers,” says Narvaez. Everything from birth experiences, to social play, to the length of breastfeeding and community care for the mother and child (what Narvaez calls the “evolved nest”) began to break down as people hoarded resources. “You start shifting brain development. You get more self-centered.”
“That has implications for kids,” explains developmental psychologist and author of Child Development: Understanding A Cultural Perspective Dr. Martin J. Packer. “Agricultural societies have larger families and more kids, because while they do generate a surplus of food, you need more people working to sustain an agricultural life.”
In farming societies — and this is just as true in parts of rural America today as it was in ancient Mesopotamia — children are integral to the economic outlook of families. They tend crops and care for animals. Once a child becomes important for a family’s outcome, it’s critical that they behave responsibly. And the line between “responsibly” and “professionally” is blurry.
Dr. Small places a finer point on it: “When kids are more economically involved in a social system or family system, their behavior becomes more critical,” Dr. Smallshe explains. “So I would expect there would, therefore, be critical moments of discipline to make sure they do things right. If your kid loses all the sheep, you’ve got a problem.”
“It seems that more obedience is needed in the sense that there are just things you have to do when raising crops or animals,” Packer adds.
In the 1960s, Dr. Diana Baumrind of Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley classified several distinct parenting styles largely by looking at approaches to discipline. “Permissive Parents” are very responsive to children and have few rules. “Authoritative Parents” have clear rules and high expectations of their child, but are also responsive and loving. “Authoritarian Parents” expect blind obedience and offers little warmth. According to Baumrind, children of authoritarian and permissive parents saw poor outcomes in capitalist societies. This indicates not only that the !Kung school of parenting was abandoned for practical reasons, but also that the emphasis placed on discipline by some modern parents crosses over into overkill.
Despite the poor outcomes of many children raised in permissive households, Narvaez advocates for a form of primal parenting. “We’ve set the environments up to be contrary to human needs and human well being. We try to set human nature into the machine-like world we built,” she says. “We need to build environments for your children where you don’t have to say no.”
Her argument is that in a post-agrarian world, we actually have the technology to facilitate pre-agrarian parenting. Other contend that the push to do this is based on a romantic notion of hunter-gatherer society.
“There’s a tendency to assume that hunter-gatherers to the extent that they do exist are primitive peoples,” explains developmental psychologist and author of Child Development: Understanding A Cultural Perspective Dr. Martin J. Packer. That view, he suggests, is particularly common from the perspective of modern people who see themselves as civilized, and therefore assume things must have progressed. That’s a modern fallacy. “It would be valuable for parents to understand how parenting is done in other cultures.”
Back in the Kalahari, the !Kung San child, it should be noted, is not concerning himself with how parents behave in other cultures. His own culture is doing it just fine. And as the night comes on the community will gather around a fire and share food. His sisters and cousins will play freely or be passed from tribe member to tribe member for comfort. It is unlikely that this child will get to go to college or fight his way up through middle management, but he will be fine. He doesn’t need to be prepared to live in a world he’ll likely only visit.