I don’t want to trivialize the roles of adults in children’s lives, but, truth be told, we adults greatly exaggerate our roles in our theories and beliefs about how children develop. We have this adult-centric view that we raise, socialize, and educate children.
Certainly we are important in children’s lives. Children need us. We feed, clothe, shelter, and comfort them. We provide examples (not always so good) of what it’s like to be an adult. But we don’t raise, socialize, or educate them. They do all that for themselves, and in that process they are far more likely to look to other children than to us adults as models. If child psychologists were actually CHILD psychologists (children), theories of child development would be much less about parents and much more about peers.
Children are biologically designed to grow up in a culture of childhood.
Have you ever noticed how your child’s tastes in clothes, music, manner of speech, hobbies, and almost everything else have much more to do with what other children she or he knows are doing or like than what you are doing or like? Of course you have. Children are biologically designed to pay attention to the other children in their lives, to try to fit in with them, to be able to do what they do, to know what they know. Through most of human history, that’s how children became educated, and that’s still largely how children become educated today, despite our misguided attempts to stop it and turn the educating job over to adults.
Wherever anthropologists have observed traditional cultures and paid attention to children as well as adults, they’ve observed two cultures, the adults’ culture and the children’s culture. The two cultures, of course, are not completely independent of one another. They interact and influence one another; and children, as they grow up, gradually leave the culture of childhood and enter into the culture of adulthood. Children’s cultures can be understood, at least to some degree, as practice cultures, where children try out various ways of being and practice, modify, and build upon the skills and values of the adult culture.
I first began to think seriously about cultures of childhood when I began looking into band hunter-gatherer societies. In my reading, and in my survey of anthropologists who had lived in such societies, I learned that the children in those societies—from roughly the age of four on through their mid teen years—spent most of their waking time playing and exploring with groups of other children, away from adults (Gray, 2012, also here). They played in age-mixed groups, in which younger children emulated and learned from older ones. I found that anthropologists who had studied children in other types of traditional cultures also wrote about children’s involvement in peer groups as the primary means of their socialization and education (e.g. Lancy et al, 2010; Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989). Judith Harris (1998), in a discussion of such research, noted that the popular phrase It takes a village to raise a child is true if interpreted differently from the usual Western interpretation. In her words (p 161): “The reason it takes a village is not because it requires a quorum of adults to nudge erring youngsters back onto the paths of righteousness. It takes a village because in a village there are always enough kids to form a play group.”
I also realized, as I thought about all this, that my own childhood, in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the 1950s, was in many ways like that of children in traditional societies. We had school (which was not the big deal it is today) and chores, and some of us had part time jobs, but, still, most of our time was spent with other children away from adults. My family moved frequently, and in each village or city neighborhood to which we moved I found a somewhat different childhood culture, with different games, different traditions, somewhat different values, different ways of making friends. Whenever we moved, my first big task was to figure out the culture of my new set of peers, so I could become part of it. I was by nature shy, which I think was an advantage because I didn’t just blunder in and make a fool of myself. I observed, studied, practiced the skills that I saw to be important to my new peers, and then began cautiously to enter in and make friends. In the mid 20th century, a number of researchers described and documented many of the childhood cultures that could be found in neighborhoods throughout Europe and the United States (e.g. Opie & Opie, 1969).
Children learn the most important lessons in life from other children, not from adults.
Why, in the course of natural selection, did human children evolve such a strong inclination to spend as much time as possible with other children and avoid adults? With a little reflection, it’s not hard to see the reasons. There are many valuable lessons that children can learn in interactions with other children, away from adults, that they cannot learn, or are much less likely to learn, in interactions with adults. Here are some of them.
I don’t know if this is or isn’t true in traditional cultures, but in modern Western cultures adults are terribly condescending toward children. Their communications with children, especially the well-intended ones, are frequently dishonest. Consider for example, the adult who asks a four-year old, “What color is that?” while pointing to a red toy fire engine. This is not an honest question. Unless the adult is blind, or color blind, the adult knows perfectly well what color it is. A child would never ask such a stupid question. Almost all the questions that teachers ask, through all the grades of school, are dishonest; the teacher knows the answer (or thinks she does because she read it in the teacher’s edition of the textbook), so her question is not really a question; it’s a test.
Or consider the adult who says, “Oh, that’s beautiful, what a wonderful artist you are,” while looking at the child’s latest scribbling. Children never give such false praise to one another. Even as children grow older, adults tend to engage them in ways that suggest that either the adults or the children are idiots, and often their comments have more to do with trying to teach the children something, or control them in some way, than with genuine attempts to share ideas or really understand the child’s ideas.
Little children communicate with one another largely in the context of play, and the communications have real meaning. They negotiate about what and how to play. They discuss the rules. They negotiate in ways very similar to the ways adults negotiate with one another. This is far better practice for future adult-adult communication than the kinds of “conversations” that children typically have with adults.
As children get older, and especially once they are in their teen years, their communications with one another have ever more to do with the emotions and struggles they experience. They can be honest with their friends, because their friends are not going to overreact and try to assume control, the way that their parents or other adults might. They want to talk about the issues important in their life, but they don’t want someone to use those issues as another excuse to subordinate them. They can, with good reason, trust their friends in ways that they cannot trust their parents or teachers.
Independence and courage.
The ultimate goal of childhood is to move away from dependence on parents and establish oneself as one’s own person. Already by the age of two—the “terrible twos,” when children’s favorite word is “no”—children are clearly on this path. Typically by the age of four or a little later, children want to get away from parents and other adults and spend time with children, where they can try out ways of being that they couldn’t try in the presence of adults.
Children’s cultures often set themselves up as if in opposition to adult culture, often quite deliberately and adaptively. Even young children begin to use scatological, “naughty” words, deliberately flouting adults’ dictates. They delight in mocking adults and in finding ways to violate rules. For example, when schools make rules about carrying even toy weapons into school, children bring tiny toy guns and plastic knives to school in their pockets and surreptitiously exhibit them to one another, proudly showing how they violated a senseless adult-imposed rule (Corsaso & Eder, 1990).
The anthropologist Collin Turbull (1982) noted that children in the hunter-gatherer group he studied would build their own play huts, well away from the main encampment, and would spend some of their time there mocking the adults by exaggerating their blunders and poorly constructed arguments. To learn adaptively from adults, children must not just absorb the good that they see but must also judge and digest the bad, and they can’t freely do that when adults are present.
Part of gaining independence is gaining courage—courage to face the challenges and deal with the emergencies that are part of every life. In their play groups, away from adults, children everywhere play in ways that adults might see as dangerous and might prevent. They play with sharp knives and fire, climb trees and dare one another to go higher. Little children, in fantasy play, imagine themselves dealing with trolls, witches, dragons, wolves, and other kinds of predators and murderers. In all such play, children are learning how to manage fear, a crucial skill for anyone who intends to stay alive and well in the face of the real life dangers that confront everyone at some points in their lives (more on this, here).
In play amongst themselves, children create their own activities and solve their own problems rather than rely on a powerful authority figure to do these for them. This is one of the great values of playing away from adults. In such play they have to, as it were, be the adults, precisely because there are no adults present. Play is the practice space for adulthood. Adults spoil this large purpose of play when they intervene and try to be helpful.