Play Makes Us Human VI: Hunter-Gatherers' Playful Parenting
Play Makes Us Human VI: Hunter-Gatherers' Playful Parenting
By Peter Gray, Ph.D. /
Apr 27, 2016

Have you ever noticed how we, as a society, use agricultural metaphors to talk about parenting and education? We speak of raising children, just as we speak of raising tomatoes or chickens. We speak of training children, just as we speak of training horses. Our manner of talking and thinking about parenting suggests that we own our children, much as we might own domesticated plants and livestock, and that we control how they grow and behave. We train horses to do the tasks that we want them to do, and we train---or try to train---children to do the tasks that we think will be necessary for their future success. We do that whether or not the horse or child wants such training. Training requires suppression of the trainee's will, and hence of play. The agricultural approach to parenting is, therefore, not a playful one.

Our society's concepts of raising and training children assume a dominant-subordinate relationship between parent and child. The parent---or teacher or other parent substitute---is in charge and is responsible for the child's actions. The child's primary duty, at least in theory, is to obey. This aproach to parenting seems so natural to us that it may be hard to imagine an alternative. Yet, in the context of our long history as a species, it is new. It came with agriculture, which first appeared about 10,000 years ago. Before that, we were all hunter-gatherers and we had no agricultural metaphors to guide our parenting practices.

In this series of essays, on "Play Makes Us Human," I have been describing the social values and practices of band hunter-gatherer societies. My thesis has been that an expansion of the primate play drive in our species enabled our ancestors to adopt a far more social and cooperative style of life than that manifested by other primates (see June 4, 2009, post). Hunter-gatherers seemed to use play and humor more or less deliberately to suppress tendencies toward dominance and to foster the sense of personal freedom and equality that was essential to their livelihood. In past essays I have talked about hunter-gatherers' playful approaches to (a) government, (b) religion, and (c) productive work. Now, in this essay, I describe their playful approach to parenting.[1]

First, to give you a sense of hunter-gatherers' parenting philosophy, here is a sample of quotations from anthropologists and others who have lived in various hunter-gatherer societies and observed them closely:

• "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." (Yumi Gosso et al., "Play in Hunter-Gatherer Societies," in A. D. Pellegrini & P. K. Smith (Eds.), The Nature of Play: Great Apes and Humans, 2005, p 218.)

• "The idea that this is ‘my child' or ‘your child' does not exist [among the Yequana, of South America]. 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." (Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept, Revised Edition, 1977, p 90.)

• "Aborigine children 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." (Richard A. Gould, Yiwara: Foragers of the Australian Desert, 1969, p 90.)

• "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." (Lee Guemple, "Teaching Social Relations to Inuit Children," in T. Ingold, D. Riches, & J. Woodburn (Eds.), Hunters and Gatherers 2, 1988, p 137.)

• "Ju/'hoansi children [of Africa] 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." (Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Old Way, 2006, p 198.)

You might think that such indulgence would lead to spoiled, demanding children, who would grow up to be spoiled, demanding adults. But according to the anthropologists who lived among them, nothing could be further from the truth. Here is what Thomas (Old Way, p 198-199) has to say about that: "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, the children were every parent's dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likable, more confident children."

Based on my reading of anthropologists' writings about many hunter-gatherer cultures, I would characterized hunter-gatherer parenting in the following way:

1. Hunter-gatherers love their children as much as we love ours. They rejoice at births, grieve at children's deaths, and enjoy their children as do we.

2. Hunter-gatherers protect young children from serious dangers, but are not overprotective. Hunter-gatherers recognize that they must arrange their environment in certain ways to protect infants and very young children. For example, those who hunt with poisoned arrows store the arrows high up, out of young children's reach. Concerning less serious dangers, however, hunter-gatherers believe it is best to let young children explore as they wish rather than restrict their exploration. For example, it is not uncommon to see toddlers poking sticks into the campfire or playing with sharp knives. Hunter-gatherers' experience is that toddlers rarely hurt themselves in these activities and that such risk is outweighed by the advantage of learning, early on, how to handle such objects. The adults believe, further, that by the time children begin to prefer the company of other children to that of adults (at about four years old), they have enough common sense to make their own decisions about what is safe or unsafe. Children of that age and older play in age-mixed groups, often some distance from adults.

3. Hunter-gatherers trust their children. Anthropologists commonly use the term indulgence to characterize the hunter-gatherer style of parenting, but I think the more fundamental concept here is trust. Parents indulge children's desires because they trust children's instincts and judgments. 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. If an infant cries or shows even a lesser sign of distress, any adult or older child nearby responds immediately to see what is the matter and to help solve the problem. The assumption is that the infant would not communicate a need for help unless it needed help.

Hunter-gatherers believe that the instinctive drives of children to explore are balanced by instinctive fears and by knowledge of their own abilities and limitations, which lead them to temper their explorations with appropriate caution. Four-year-olds will not, on their own, wander into unfamiliar territory without the company of an older child or an adult. Children of any age will not try to leap chasms that they are physically unable to leap. Children are constantly taking risks to expand the limits of what they can do, but the risks are small. Children are designed by nature (today we would say by natural selection) to do all this, so they will learn how to cope with serious dangers when they occur.

Concerning education, hunter-gatherers trust that children and adolescents will figure out what they need to learn and will learn it through their own drives to observe, explore, and play with all relevant aspects of their environment (see my Aug. 2, 2008, post). They trust, further, that when young people are ready to start contributing in meaningful ways to the band's economy, they will do so gladly, without any need for coercion or coaxing.

Such trust, I think, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who are trusted from the very beginning usually become trustworthy. People treated in this way do not grow up to see life as a matter of trying to overpower, outsmart, or in other ways manipulate others. Rather, they grow up viewing life in terms of friendships, that is, in terms of people willingly and joyfully helping each other to satisfy their needs and desires. That is the attitude that I have been describing throughout this series as the playful approach to life--the approach that brings out the best aspects of our humanity.

Play, as I have said repeatedly in this series, requires individual freedom. Play is no longer play when one person attempts to dominate another and dictate what they do. If life is a grand game, then each player must be free to make his or her own moves, while still abiding by the general rules of the game--in this case by the larger rules of society, which apply to everyone. To interfere with the players' abilities to make choices is to destroy the game for them. Social interaction, learning, productive work, and religious practices become burdensome toil rather than joyful play when they are enforced and controlled by others. By refraining from using their greater physical strength or mental prowess to control children's (or anyone else's) behavior, hunter-gatherer adults refrain from destroying the sense of play in their children and in themselves.

Play requires a sense of equality, and hunter-gatherers are remarkably able to retain that sense even in their interactions with young children. Young children are clearly not as strong, skilled, or knowledgeable about the world as are older children or adults; but their needs and desires are equally legitimate, and nobody knows what a child needs or desires better than the child himself or herself. Hunter-gatherers seem to understand these truths better than do most people in our society today.

Why did the approach to parenting change with the advent of agriculture? It wasn't just that new metaphors became available. Rather, the goal of parenting changed--from that of fostering the child's will to that of suppressing the child's will--because the perceived needs of society changed. In next week's essay I'll say more about that, and why it happened, and then talk about ways by which we, in our culture today, might adopt a more playful style of parenting.


Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) and Psychology (Worth Publishers, a college textbook now in its 7th edition).  He has conducted and published research in comparative, evolutionary, developmental, and educational psychology. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at Rockefeller University. His current research and writing focus primarily on children's natural ways of learning and the life-long value of play. His own play includes not only his research and writing, but also long distance bicycling, kayaking, back-woods skiing, and vegetable gardening.

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Play Makes Us Human VI: Hunter-Gatherers' Playful Parenting