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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 1 - page 22 / 33





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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate.  P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers   p 22

the kit, not the parents, who determines when and how it will take the milk, meat, comfort, and examples. The parents to the kit, like the soil to the seedling, provide part of the substrate that the youngster uses in its own way for its own purposes. And that is the general approach that hunter-gatherers take toward childcare and education. One of the built-in means by which children use the cultural substrate to promote their own development is play.

Indulgence of Children’s Wishes

The word most commonly used by anthropologists to describe hunter-gathers’ style of childcare is “indulgence.” The adults trust and therefore indulge children’s instincts, including their instincts to play. They believe that children know best what they need and when they need it, so there are no or few battles of will between adults and children.63 The best way for me to present you with the flavor of hunter-gatherer childcare is with a sample of quotations from researchers who have lived in various hunter-gatherer cultures.

• “Aborigine children [of Australia] are indulged to an extreme degree, and sometimes continue to suckle until they are four or five years old. Physical punishment for a child is almost unheard of.”64

• “Hunter-gatherers do not give orders to their children; for example, no adult announces bedtime. At night, children remain around adults until they feel tired and fall asleep. … Parakana adults do not interfere with their children’s lives. They never beat, scold, or behave aggressively with them, physically or verbally, nor do they offer praise or keep track of their development.”65

• “The idea that this is ‘my child’ or ‘your child’ does not exist [among the Yequana]. Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence—let alone coerce—anyone. The child’s will is his motive force.”66

• “Infants and young children [among Inuit hunter-gatherers of the Hudson Bay area] are allowed to explore their environments to the limits of their physical capabilities and with minimal interference from adults. Thus if a child picks up a hazardous object, parents generally leave it to explore the dangers on its own. The child is presumed to know what it is doing.”67

• “Ju/’hoansi children very rarely cried, probably because they had little to cry about. No child was ever yelled at or slapped or physically punished, and few were even scolded. Most never heard a discouraging word until they were approaching adolescence, and even then the reprimand, if it really was a reprimand, was delivered in a soft voice.”68

In our culture many people would consider such indulgence to be a recipe for disaster, a recipe for producing spoiled, demanding children who would grow up to be spoiled, demanding adults. But, according to the researchers who have lived among hunter gatherers, nothing could be further from the truth. Here, for example, is what Thomas has to say about that issue as it applies to the Ju/’hoansi: “We are sometimes told that children who are treated so kindly become spoiled, but this is because those who hold that opinion have no idea how successful such measures can be. Free from frustration or anxiety, sunny and cooperative, and usually without close siblings as competitors, the Ju/’hoan children were every parent’s dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likable, more confident children.”69

To clarify Thomas’s statement about the lack of close siblings as competitors, I should note that births, for any given hunter-gatherer woman, are usually spaced at least 4 years apart. The continuous, on-demand nursing of children until they are 3 or 4 years old, which occurs in most hunter-gatherer cultures, apparently produces a hormonal effect that delays ovulation in women who are lean, as hunter-gatherer women are, and serves as a natural means of birth control.70 The

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