polynesia
Leave Those Kids Alone

Why Polynesians Let Other Kids Raise Their Own Children

If the thought of leaving your precious 2-year-old with a bunch hyperactive 5-year-olds sounds like a worse idea than leaving them in a room full of mouse traps, you are probably many things — sane, cautious, and responsible among them. One thing you most definitely aren’t, though, is Polynesian; if you were, you’d be totally down with letting the other kids in your community raise your own.

That was the finding researcher Mary Martini back in 1976, when she hung out with a group of 2-to-5-year-olds on the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. Martini noticed that, once the kids could walk and talk, parents turned them over to a group of other little kids for the majority of their childhoods. That probably sounds like some serious Lord Of The Flies-type stuff, and it’s no picnic for the little ones. Martini describes lots of standard kid stuff, like playing house, fishing, and hunting goats (sorry, that was standard Polynesian kid stuff); but she also describes wicked hazing and downright dangerous stuff like stonings.

Flickr / Loïc Lagarde

In one instance, a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl falls from a high wall because she’s laughing too hard and instead of sympathy gets a slap from her older sister, threats from her older brother, and merciless taunts from the rest of the kids. Meanwhile, you’re getting called into preschool when your kid won’t share their organic cheddar bunnies.

“The everyday social hazing that Marquesan 4-year olds learn to handle with poise and humor would devastate most American preschoolers.”

In their book Growing Up In Polynesia, anthropologists Jane and James Ritchie point out some of the upside to these chaos: strong social skills and cohesive peer groups. Martini described toddlers who knew how to calm crying babies and had more self reliance than you might find in an entire suburban American kindergarten. “The everyday social hazing that Marquesan 4-year olds learn to handle with poise and humor would devastate most American preschoolers…” she writes. “The Marquesan children learn not to take these events personally.”

Flickr / George Goodman

Basically, all that stuff you read about in those parenting books? These kids are teaching it to each other more effectively than all your kid’s teachers, tutors, and coaches, combined. Then again, the Marquesas Islands schools probably have terrible test scores, so your kid can rub their faces in that — just make sure they’re ready to have rocks thrown at them.

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