Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 23
relative infrequency of births contributes, no doubt, to the high value that the band places on each child and to the indulgent treatment.
Hunter-gatherers’ treatment of children is very much in line with their treatment of adults. They do not use power-assertive methods to control behavior; they believe that each person’s needs are equally important; and they believe that each person, regardless of age, knows best what his or her own needs are. Moreover, just as is the case with adults, children are not dependent on any specific other individuals, but upon the band as a whole, and this greatly reduces the opportunity for any specific individuals, including their parents, to dominate them. Any adult in the band, and even in neighboring bands, would provide food and other care to any child in need; and children are free to move into other huts—most commonly the huts of their grandparents or uncles and aunts—if they feel put-upon by their own parents.71 In western cultures parents often complain about grandparents and other kin who undermine parental discipline and “spoil” the child. Among hunter-gatherers, such parental discipline is apparently not possible, even if it were desired, because other adults in the band would always undermine it. The result of such practices is that hunter-gatherer children are self-assertive and self-controlled, but not “spoiled,” at least not spoiled from the perspective of hunter-gatherer values.
Given the indulgence that hunter-gatherer adults exhibit toward children, it is no surprise that the children spend most of their time playing. Play, almost by definition, is what children want to do. The adults have no qualms about this, because they believe that it is through play that children learn what they must to become effective adults; and that belief is reinforced by millenia of cultural experience.
Several years ago, to supplement the relatively sparse published literature on the lives of hunter-gatherer children, Jonathan Ogas and I contacted a number of anthropologists who had at one time or another lived among and studied hunter-gatherers, and we asked them to fill out a questionnaire concerning childhood and play in the groups they had studied. Even though most of these researchers had not specifically studied children or play, we assumed that they would have interesting things to say about these simply from having lived among them. Ten different hunter-gatherer researchers responded to our questionnaire, and among them they had lived in 7 different hunter-gatherer cultures.72
The survey responses, together with the previously published work, told a remarkably consistent story. Children in these cultures are free to play on their own, essentially all day long, every day. Adults do not provide formal instruction to children and rarely intervene in children’s activities. Adults do not expect children to do much productive work. Their assumption, validated by experience, is that young people will, of their own accord, begin contributing to the economy of the band when they are developmentally ready to do so.
Here are some typical responses to our survey question about how much time children had to play: "Both girls and boys had almost all day every day free to play" (Alan Brainard, concerning the Nharo, of southern Africa). “Children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens" (Karen Endicott, concerning the Batek). "Boys were free to play nearly all the time until age 15-17; for girls most of the day, in between a few errands and some babysitting, was spent in play" (Robert Bailey, concerning the Efé). These claims fit well with the claims that are found in published articles. For example, in a report on how Ju/’hoan children spent their time, Patricia Draper concluded: "[Ju/’hoan] children are late in being held responsible for subsistence tasks. Girls are around 14 years old before they begin regular food gathering and water- and wood-collecting. This is in spite of the fact that they may be married before this age. Boys are 16 years old or over before they begin serious hunting. … Children do amazingly little work."73