Child Raising In Non-violent Cultures

Creating a culture that chooses non-violence with intention

One of the articles in The Foundations Of Peace (IC#4)
Originally published in Autumn 1983 on page 37
Copyright (c)1983, 1997 by Context Institute

SOME CULTURES on our planet are, or have been, basically non-aggressive, non-violent. That is, adult behavior includes few, if any, examples of war, homicide or intentional injury – physically or psychically – to other human beings. Cooperation, rather than competition, is the modus operandi, in contrast to our mainstream Western cultures. Why are there these differences? Is there anything useful we in the modern world can learn from these non-violent cultures?

There are perhaps many reasons for the varying expressions of violence in different cultures, from historic patterns to genetic propensities to economic influences. But whatever the predisposing factors are, there seem to also be some characteristic child rearing practices common to most of the known non-violent cultures. To illustrate this, I will draw on my own two years’ experience in East African villages and on the work of a number of other anthropologists contained in Ashley Montagu’s anthology, Learning Non-Aggression: The Experience of Non- Literate Societies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

Montagu credits Margaret Mead with pioneering work in the examination of aggressiveness in non-literate societies:

Years ago…in her book, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, she pointed to the existence of a strong association between childrearing practices and later personality development. The child who received a great deal of attention, whose every need was promptly met, as among the New Guinea Mountain Arapesh, became a gentle, cooperative, unaggressive adult. On the other hand, the child who received perfunctory, intermittent attention, as among the New Guinea Mundugomor, became a selfish, uncooperative, aggressive adult.

Later research among non-literate civilized peoples has substantially confirmed this relationship. . .

How were these needs "promptly met"? What did these children experience that turned them into gentle, cooperative, unaggressive adults?

Infants up through their second year are in close bodily contact with, primarily, their mothers, but also with others, usually women or older children. The Mbuti child, on about his third day of life is passed among close friends and family members, "not just for them to look at him, but for them to hold him close to their bodies. Another educational event has taken place in that young life: at the age of three days the infant boy is learning that there is a plurality of warm bodies, similar in warmth (which is comforting) but dissimilar in smells and rhythmic movements, which he may find disconcerting enough to make him cry, in protest. If that happens his mother immediately takes him back and puts him to her breast." The infant, in all these cultures, is carried and held almost constantly, less frequently being placed near the mother where she is working. Infant presence is not an intrusion into adult life, but rather an expected and welcome part of all adult activity.

Infant needs, as communicated for example by crying, are met immediately; a fearful stimulus is removed, the breast offered, or a discomfort alleviated. Older children automatically defer to the younger ones out of pleasure and confidence in their own nurturing abilities. I remember six- year-old Tabu hurrying with pride and excitement to share with me the news that Wabi could now walk, as she released her little sister from her place on her hip, set her on the dirt at the side of my house, and beckoned, "Njoo, njoo" ("Come, come") to the baby girl, squatting and slowly edging back and away, her hands and bare feet just inches from those of the wobbly infant.

Another aspect of permissiveness towards infants is expressed in the adult response to their exploratory tendencies. E. Richard Sorenson describes his experience with the Fore of New Guinea:

Initially astonished by the ability of young children to manage so independently without being hurt, I eventually began to see how this capability also emerged from the infants’ milieu of close human physical proximity and tactile interaction. Touch and bodily contact lent themselves naturally to satisfying the basic needs of the babies and provided the basis for an early kind of communicative experience based on touch. In continual physical touch with people engaged in daily pursuits, infants and toddlers began to learn the forms of behavior and response characteristic of Fore life. Muscle tone, movement, and mood were components of this learning process; formal instruction was not. Surrounded by continuous and extensive opportunities for spontaneous, unforced kinesthetic experience, infants and toddlers began to inquire and explore outward, following their own initiative and inclination, to objects and activities nearby which attracted their attention. Competence with the tools of life developed quickly, and by the time they were able to walk, Fore youngsters could safely handle axes, knives, fire and so on.

In many cultures, the father plays a minimal role in the life of the infant. But at the transition from infancy to childhood, the father often assumes more responsibility in the child’s life. Colin Turnbull describes an example of this among the Mbuti of Zaire:

…at some time in his second year, probably near the end, the person who has been sharing that familiar leaf bed with his mother, and whose body smell and sound and taste and appearance and rhythm he knows almost as well, and whom he has found to be every bit as safe and secure, begins to fondle him as his mother does. At the age of two, if not before, a child is taken to the breast of his father and held there, even encouraged to try and suckle. The child finds everything else familiar so the fondling, just like that he knows from his mother, leads him to explore for milk. Instead of milk however, he receives his first solid food. Here is another kind of mother indeed, one that offers everything the mother has always given, the warmth and shelter and affection, and who offers food also, but instead of from the breast it is from his own mouth or from his fingers.

For most of these non-violent cultures, adult behavior with children from ages two or three is usually not quite so permissive as for infants, but child aggressive behavior is still met with generally non-aggressive adult controls such as interruption rather than physical punishment. Among the !Kung Bushmen of southwest Africa, Patricia Draper describes three general adult responses: when the child’s aggression is toward a younger child, the aggressor is scolded harshly; if toward a peer, the children are distracted or separated if necessary; if toward an adult, the behavior is usually ignored.

I have seen a seven-year-old crying and furious, hurling sticks, nut shells, and eventually burning embers at her mother. The mother sat at her fire talking with the child’s grandmother and her own sister-in-law. Bau (the mother) put up her arm occasionally to ward off the thrown objects but carried on her conversation nonchalantly. The other women remained unperturbed despite the hail of missiles. The daughter raged ten feet away, but Bau did not turn a hair. When the rocks and nut shells came close Bau remarked, "That child has no brains. "

This example is not an isolated case but a common practice. Adults consistently ignore a child’s angry outburst when it does not inflict harm. A child’s frustration at such times is acute, but he learns that anger does not cause an adult to change his treatment of the child, and the display of anger does not get the adult’s attention or sympathy. In these situations the reward to the child for hostile acts must be minimal. The child can rage until he is tired, but, in my observation, the tirade had little effect.

The children from these cultures are cooperative rather than competitive, and nurturant rather than domineering in their relationships with one another. One feature probably contributing to these attributes is the mix of ages in child groupings. In her account of the !Kung, Patricia Draper offers this explanation:

The usual situation is one in which the children of a camp have only a few children available for play and these are normally not the same age or necessarily close in age. The lack of peers probably discourages not only physical assault but competitiveness generally. The older child learns that he must be subtle in his domination of younger children, and the younger child may appreciate that the difference in size and competence between himself and the older child is so great that most challenges are not worthwhile.

I would add that in other cultures where there were more children of the same age together, competition was still at a minimum. The Mbuti children revelled in creating coordinated activities using their climbing and swinging skills. Satisfaction was in the joint accomplishment of the cooperative task; if one child fell, or missed a cue, all bemoaned the fact that the performance was spoiled.

There are other traits that seem to be important in the development of non-violence in these cultures:

Adults other than the biological parents are constantly available for both the child and the parents. The child needs the refuge of other loving adults when s/he is at odds with those at the home hearth. This implies that all family squabbles need not be resolved immediately by the primary contenders – that often it is better if time and distance are invoked. At times, a parent needs the support of another adult lest tempers fly and equanimity is lost. Patricia Draper cites an example:

I have seen several occasions when a child showed every sign of wishing to do real bodily damage to the mother. In such cases the mother remonstrates, ridicules, scolds, wards off the blows, and soon calls out to another woman or man sitting near her, "Hey! Come take this child away from me!" Someone responds by calmly and bodily carting the child away to another part of the camp, the mother now able to resume whatever activity the child had interrupted.

The ready accessibility of other people in the camp means that the mother is protected from being badgered by her child until she loses control of her own temper. This circumstance is unfortunately very common in our own society, with its nuclear family households and residence arrangements which confer what is probably an unhealthy degree of privacy on parents and children. In the !Kung case, parents are not likely to reach the point of abusing their children, but in the unlikely event that someone did abuse a child, other people would immediately step in.

Another relevant aspect of most of these cultures is that there are very few models of adult aggression, including the physical punishment of children. There is virtually no hitting, fighting, killing, warring or verbal "put downs." Even psychotic behavior is virtually nonexistent. Cooperation is rewarded; aggressive conduct is discouraged.

Thirdly, at least in some of these cultures, young people (teenagers) have significant responsibilities within the life of the group.

An additional perspective on the relationship between child rearing and adult violence is provided by James Prescott, a neuropsychologist with the National Institute of Health. Based on evidence from laboratory experiments, psychological studies, and anthropology, he claims that violence is closely associated with deprivation of close human physical contact either in infancy or adolescence. Out of a sample of 49 cultures, the 27 cultures that had low levels of adult violence all displayed either high levels of infant physical affection or permissive premarital sexual behavior (or both). Of the 6 cultures that showed both high infant affection and high violence, 5 were characterized by premarital sexual repression. Thus out of the whole group of 49, only 1 culture combined violence with high physical affection for both infant and adolescents.

These child rearing practices and related cultural traits raise many questions for us as we try to build a peaceful culture here in North America.

Is it possible to find or create a community where several adults other than the parents are always available for every child? What are some options for extended family? Can people who have not grown up together create or grow into the intimate non-verbal communication, the anticipation of one another’s needs, the psychic closeness of groups such as the Fore of New Guinea and the Mbuti of Zaire? Can biologically related adults be persuaded to limit their mobility and join together as an extended family? Is it possible to provide all infants with nearly constant bodily contact with responsible, caring persons? Do North American parents want their infants to sleep with them?

Can more adult activities be open to the presence of children? Can the primary caretaker be assured of immediate relief if s/he is approaching the threshold of patience in dealing with a child? Can economic and cultural patterns shift to permit fathers to assume more of the nurturing tasks needed in a child’s early years?

Can we encourage more nurturing and noncompetitive behavior among our children by designing communities and schools to encourage mixed age groupings? (Many Montessori programs and one-room school houses do this successfully.)

Can adults do more interrupting of unacceptable behavior so that children do not intimidate one another or experience satisfaction from aggressive behaviors? Should adults learn to ignore hostile outbursts of young children that are not harmful?

Do we wish to and can we limit the models of violence that pervade our milieu? Television? Radio? Films? Adult conversations describing violent acts? Psychic injury through deceit, derision or "put downs"? Should we eliminate physical punishment of our children? Do adults need to entrust youth with areas of responsibility affecting their total community?

Can our young people respond to physical pleasure with the wholeness of, for example, the Mbuti youth who hug one another and sleep with same-sex friends with no known homosexual activity? Should we be more tolerant of and even encourage premarital sex in our youth, perhaps providing space in their homes for such activity?

How deeply are we willing to examine and change our cultural patterns to achieve a non-violent society?

One final comment on the non-violent societies considered in this article. Virtually all these cultures represent what I call a "non-violence of expediency." The people avoid aggression because it made more sense to do so for their survival in their current milieu. Robert Dentan cites the Semai justification for non-violence: "…the traditional reluctance to hit people, for example, may be expressed in a commonsensical way: ‘Suppose he hits you back?’ On this level, nonviolence is just being reasonable." Dentan also notes that the Semai are nonviolent only in their normal cultural setting:

Indeed, in a differentiated, hierarchical, impersonal, and violent setting, even adult Semai may act very differently from the way they act in their own settlements. For example, Semai say that when they were recruited into the Malaysian government’s counterinsurgency forces during the Communist uprising of the 1950s, they were fiercer than people from other ethnic groups, partly in reprisal for terrorist acts committed against Semai.

Sorenson also notes an increase in aggressive behavior among the Fore as population pressures generated competition for land.

Though I expect most of us are not seeking a nonviolence of expedience or a nonviolence that is effective in only a limited number of contexts, I trust that the child rearing practices and cultural traits described here can contribute to our search for and creation of a culture that chooses nonviolence with intention, and that develops tools – mental, emotional and material – to deal with inter- as well as intra-group conflicts in a redemptive, loving and effective manner.

Another good resource on this topic is The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff (New York: Warner Books, 1977). Sarah McElroy lives in Clinton, Washington.