"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, December 31, 2012

Child-Rearing In New Guinea–Lessons For Us? Romantic Idealism At Best

The developing world continues to suffer problems of health and nutrition.  While mortality and morbidity rates are falling in many countries, in still others disease and early infant and child death are at unacceptably high levels.  Many women give up breastfeeding very soon after birth, thus depriving their infants of  valuable nutritional and immunological protection.  Perhaps most importantly, exclusive breastfeeding keeps the child from becoming exposed to the virulent pathogens found in most developing country environments – bad water and unhygienic bottles and vessels.  Child nutrition is often poor, resulting in wasting and stunting. 

Vaccinations are still requested indifferently.  Mothers first seek the treatment of traditional healers and/or witch doctors, and subscribe to traditional theories of hot and cold foods, drafts, ill winds, spells and possessions, evil eyes, and the dangerous influence of dwarves. Families continue to have more children than they can afford to raise properly, thus contributing to infant and child mortality.

Traditional practices have a basis in economics.  African or Asian women, no different from their European counterparts, are happy to have fewer children if survival rates are high and land productivity is less dependent on labor.  Infant formula represents both economic and social freedom; and in the poorest countries, bottle feeding is the first small step in liberating women from their restrictive duties as village wives and mothers.

Vaccinations, especially the second and third in a series, are not carried out because of the distance and expense of travelling to a health clinic; a lack of education, and in certain countries intimidation by radical Islamists who see them as Western intrusions and attempts to erode traditional Muslim society.

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Jared Diamond in his book The World Until Yesterday – What We Can Learn From Traditional Societies - disagrees and sees some higher, more intrinsic value in the practices of traditional societies. As Noah Berlatsky notes in his review (Atlantic, 12.28.12):
Among the !Kung of Southern Africa and other hunter-gatherer groups,  nursing typically continues for three years or longer. Part of what makes this type of nursing possible is almost constant contact between mother and child, or at least between some adult and the child.
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Yet Diamond ignores economics - breastfeeding is done exclusively in the poorest communities by those women who had no access to formula.  Women tightly strap their infants to their backs so that they can work in the fields, not because they valued mother-child bonding. 

Mothers pick up their children when they start crying because it is easier to give them the breast (or, common in India not many years ago, to give a goli, a little ball of opium) to put them to sleep so that they could go on with their productive work.

Treatments by herbalists, homeopaths, and quacks are sought out because neither the causative links to disease nor the effectiveness of modern medicine can easily be seen.  It takes years and a large population pool, for example, for uneducated villagers to visibly see the benefits of vaccinations.

Large families in economically marginal societies made economic sense because there were more arms and hands to do field work and collect fuel and water.  The benefits of a small family, like those of vaccinations, could not easily been seen.  In a poor village, those families with one or two children were worse off than those with more.

Therefore, the lionizing of traditional practices by Berlatsky is as out of touch as are the observations of Diamond:
My nine-year-old has been begging me for a while to let him walk alone to his friend's house, half a block and two not-very-busy-street-crossings away. I finally let him do it, inspired in part by an anecdote from Jared Diamond's book:
The anecdote told by Diamond was this:
When I arrived at one particular village [says Diamond], most of the porters from the previous village who had brought me there left, and I sought help from people of any age capable of carrying a pack and wanting to earn money. The youngest person who volunteered was a boy about 10 years old, named Yuro. He joined me expecting to be away from his village for a couple of days. But...Yuro remained with me for a month...It was evidently considered normal that a 10-year-old boy would decide by himself to go away for an indeterminate length of time.
Berlatsky’s conclusion that he should not worry so much about his young son’s independence when traditional New Guinean families let their young children go off for months at a time is disingenuous. Berlatsky should worry if he lives in Baltimore, Detroit, or Chicago.
“If a New Guinean kid could go wandering away from home for weeks at a time”, says Berlatsky, “ I figured my son could probably go up the block.”
Berlatsky goes on to praise families who let their infants and young children sleep with them. Over 90 percent of traditional families respect this practice, he says.  Yet the do because most live in one-room huts with adults, infants, and children sharing beds let alone rooms.  Most of these traditional families would happily opt for some more space.  Lebensraum is not just a Western idea.

Americans believe that separating infants from their parents at an early age is a good thing, for it teaches emotional independence and self-reliance - ‘traditional’ aspects of our culture just as sleeping in crowded but intimate rooms is for Third World villagers.

Sharing is another idea that Berlatsky and Diamond long for in American society and see so lacking here. 
Diamond expresses admiration for the way in which New Guinea children from some traditional cultures are encouraged to share. He describes one game in which children are each given a banana, which they cut in half; they eat one half and then pass the other on. This happens numerous times, so that each child is dependent on the fairness of the others. Such activities contrast strongly with American games, which emphasize winning and individual victory.
 Image result for images people papua new guinea

Advanced Western societies, however, share a legacy of not sharing.  Localized fiefdoms became kingdoms and empires because of geopolitical and personal ambition, territorialism, and an insatiable desire for wealth and influence.  

Of course parents try to get children to share; but we know they do it reluctantly, and will quickly learn that cooperation is necessary only under circumstances which promote personal gain.  It is individualism and individual enterprise that pays dividends in America.

Marx was right.  Man is an economic animal, and human societies develop in function of their economic conditions and opportunities. Traditional societies are poor societies, and most people living in them would do anything to escape poverty, disease, and misfortune. Emigration - as we are seeing now - is a strong, militant expression of individual vitality, purpose, and ambition. 

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Traditional societies are prisons, not idylls.  They have outlived their usefulness.  Social conservatism was logical when life was lived on the margins.  Social strictures, unbending social laws, strict social rankings and organizations were all necessary to preserve life which was at best precarious.

No longer.  Waves of poor immigrants whose precarious lives have been made intolerable by corrupt governments, civil wars, concentration of wealth, territorial disputes, and increasingly infertile land are to be expected; and while they are causing serious disruptions in recipient countries, their flight should have been seen coming.

There is no romance in traditional societies, and no need to preserve them let alone to lionize or idolize them.  They are quickly disappearing as their marginal utility declines and opportunities for their residents increase elsewhere.

Societies change, evolve, mature, grow, and disappear; and the demise of traditional societies should not be lamented but cheered.


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