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What Would the Kung Do? An Anthropological Perspective on Intensive Parenting

Baby Meets World- finalI recently had the pleasure of reading Baby Meets World, a new book by Nicholas Day. (Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.) Baby Meets World is a mix of history of parenting advice and modern, fascinating science about some of the most fundamental truths of infancy (as the subtitle states: “suck, smile, touch, toddle”). You may have seen the author’s recent blog on Slate, called How Babies Work. I liked the blog, but I like the book more. In a world of conflicting parenting advice, Day’s many examples of how wrong or just plain weird the expert advice has been through the ages is refreshing perspective. And even as this book describes the modern science of infancy – highlighting just how amazing babies are – it cautions us that we can’t understand babies, even in the most empirical way, without putting them in the context of the culture into which they are born.

Reading Baby Meets World led me to an email conversation with the author, which I’ll post on the blog tomorrow. He also offered to share an excerpt from the book with you. I chose an excerpt from the “Touch” section of the book – my favorite of the four sections. Since it comes near the end of this section, it requires a bit of an introduction to put it in context.

We know touch is important to babies, but Western parenting culture has had a complicated relationship with touch. Just a century ago, parents were barely allowed to visit their children in newborn nurseries or pediatric hospital wards. That history is now, thankfully, behind us, and skin-to-skin contact and baby wearing have become mainstream practices.

Part of the renewed interest in touch over the last fifty years has come from anthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer societies. We figure that maybe we have lost touch with our roots, that maybe we could re-learn the right way to parent from modern hunter-gatherer societies, who presumably parent the way we were meant to.

Day describes some of these modern hunter-gatherers, including the Kung of the Kalahari Desert. Kung infants are carried and held almost constantly. They are breastfed frequently, as often as every fifteen minutes. If they’re not being held by their mothers, they’re being passed around between community members, showered with kisses and constantly entertained. They’re hardly ever set down on the ground to move of their own accord; the Kung believe this impairs motor development.

I’ve read about the Kung before. They’re sometimes held up as an ideal for modern parents in the same conversation that chastises us for relying too much on gadgets like strollers and baby swings. But in this chapter, Day tells us how the culture of the Kung supports this kind of intensive parenting:

“The entire structure of a Kung community supports the (many) demands of Kung parenting. A Kung mother is virtually always around other adults, who take turns holding the child. The situation is the polar opposite of that of many American mothers, who can feel marooned on an island with no one but this ferret-like creature around.”

And this:

“Almost half the time a Kung infant cries out, he is comforted by someone who isn’t his mother or by his mother plus someone else. When the mother responds alone, other people offer to take the child later on. The Kung mother isn’t abandoned with a wailing infant. But despite this shared caretaking, the Kung, as Konner notes, “have often been misrepresented as having almost exclusive maternal care.”

In other words, the Kung practice what we might call intensive parenting, but the mother does not do this alone. She has lots of help. And this is where our excerpt picks up…

Excerpt from Chapter 13: “In Which Touch Gets Perhaps a Little Too Much Power” (from Baby Meets World by Nicholas Day)

It’s worth dwelling on the distinction between exclusive maternal care and alloparenting— the term for when someone who isn’t a parent acts as a parent, as the Kung do when they respond to any crying baby. If the most important messages to get across to a baby— love, security, commitment— are communicated through touch, then the obvious follow- up question is: does it matter who’s doing the touching? The parent or the alloparent?

From the perspective of attachment theory, all child rearing is aimed at the same end: the tight bond between mother and child. There aren’t multiple different strategies toward a successful outcome— there’s only that one. (Bowlby waffled on this a little bit but not much: his hypothetical caregiver was clearly a mother.) The mother is supposed to be doing the touching. This argument wades into the evolutionary past for evidence— the low fat content of human milk, for example, which required infants to nurse frequently, for which they needed a mother right there, all the time. In devising his theory, Bowlby cited the behavior of primates like gorillas and chimpanzees, for whom child care is exclusively maternal— no one else need apply.

But studies of hunter-gatherers like the Kung, the very people you’d expect to be closest to our deep past, have shown that caregiving by someone in addition to the mother is common, even if other people rarely supplant the mother as the primary attachment figure. The amount of alloparenting varies widely, but the existence of it is the rule, not the exception. And as scientists learned more about primates, Bowlby’s conclusions were undermined: fully half of all living primates do not provide exclusive maternal care.

As more research of hunter-gatherer cultures was published, a pattern emerged. For the Efe, who live in the northern Congolese rain forest, alloparenting is completely ordinary. Up until toddlerhood, an Efe infant rotates among multiple caregivers several times during a single hour; she nurses from multiple women.

Even when the mother is present, she isn’t necessarily the primary caregiver. Alloparenting is a cushion against the excruciatingly high mortality rates of the Efe: the more alloparents an infant has at a year old, the more likely she is to still be alive at age three.

Among traditional societies that are not hunter-gatherers, alloparenting is no less unusual. In West Africa, Beng mothers return to physical labor in the fields when their infant is only a couple of months old. How do they manage this? They hire someone in the village, often a young girl, to carry the child for part of each day. But because such a girl is usually only available part time, any Beng mother has a long list of sitters who can fill in. “Given frequent changes of caretaker,” writes the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, who lived with the Beng, “it was not rare for a mother to be unaware of where her baby was, and in whose care, at some points in a typical day.” According to Gottlieb:

“A mother may hand her baby to her first- morning baby holder knowing that the latter is likely to pass the baby to another person if she herself becomes tired or if the baby fusses or if another person requests the child. By the time the infant is brought back to the mother to breast- feed—depending on the child’s age, this might be up to a few hours later— the little one may have been passed around to several people as caretakers. The mother may not even hear the full list of who was taking care of her child during this period.”

What do we make of all this extra-maternal care? The psychologist Edward Tronick, who has studied the Efe, argues that the whole idea of a “living” evolutionary past is a fiction. There isn’t a more “natural” way of life, Tronick says. “Biology is no more the destiny of the Efe than it is for us.” Instead, he says, the Efe philosophy of child care is just an adaptation for their environment: “These adaptations are neither more nor less biologically based than those of other cultures. That is, the Efe lifestyle is no more or less genetically based than the lifestyles of other peoples.”

For Tronick, there isn’t an answer to the question, How are we meant to take care of our children? There are many answers.

“Our decisions about child care practices are really decisions about cultural values: about what we want our children to become.”

The Kung aren’t a time capsule of Homo sapiens parenting. They’re a time capsule of parenting in the Kalahari Desert. If you are in search of parental wisdom, this is bound to be disappointing. It is extremely unlikely, after all, that you too live in the Kalahari Desert. A few academics have written that the longing for the “original” mode of parenting is a parochial, patronizing idea— it insults the complexity of the age- old cultures that it claims to venerate.

That’s true, of course. But there’s a less academic, more boring objection, too: we don’t live in the Kalahari Desert. Or the Amazon. Or the Congolese rain forest.

Margaret Mead’s hope— that the many cultural variations in child rearing would be a tool kit for Western parents to use— suffers what might be called the Kalahari Desert problem: the fact that all those variations evolved in their own cultural context.

Outside of that context, they’re meaningless or dysfunctional or worse; at a minimum, they’re frustrating. It’s puzzling that Mead of all people convinced herself otherwise: when it came to child rearing, she was a cultural anthropologist who somehow forgot about culture.

In this omission, she was way ahead of her time: many decades later, culture is what always gets erased from the practicalities of parenting. No parent tries to emulate hunter-gatherer societies in any other sphere of life: for sustenance, we do not go foraging instead of grocery shopping. But with our children, we start from the premise that all things are possible and that parenthood is the only relevant fact in the world, the shared experience that overrides all differences. Our child allows us access to the Amazonian within. But the choose-your-own-culture version of parenting has a stubborn problem: no parent is a culture.

DSC_9800-tweakedCopyright © 2013 by Nicholas Day.

Nicholas Day’s book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

Do these examples of shared caregiving in modern hunter-gatherer societies surprise you? What can we learn from them? Do your children have “alloparents” – other adults that contribute to their care?

  1. Back in my native country, Indonesia, most of families share house together especially in coutryside area. Under one roof there’ll be grandparent lives with their children and theiir family. Infants in such family would definitely have alloparents; be it their older cousins, aunty and uncle, and even the grandparents. The infant will constantly have carer other than his mother and constantly being entertained, while the mother gets on with houseworks. The mother only steps in when it’s feeding time. Infants in such family are mostly breastfed (formulas are far too costly for them; breastfeeding is more convenient anyway), and parents co-sleep with children. Bear in mind they sleep on a hard mattress on the floor with bed sheets are tightly fiitted and hardly no pillows.

    It is hard for someone like myself who grew up in such culture to adapt with western culture which seems to me is completely the opposite. But I appreciate the difference and have no objection whatsoever. I just do what I think is right for my family.


    May 21, 2013
  2. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, this is all very interesting stuff. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as I am reading “Our babies, Ourselves” by Meredith F. Small.
    I like the way the idea of taking parenting from one culture and idealising it in contexts outside of that culture is discussed in this excerpt. I shall have to put it on my reading list!


    May 21, 2013
  3. Great discussion! I think there’s a trend right now across numerous disciplines that the hunter/gatherer tribes instinctively knew what was best for the human race. And certainly, whatever it was they did got us to where we are now but who is to say their methods weren’t just the best for them in their environment at that given time? I’m sure In another century all these ideas will be mocked as entirely too regressive and there will be a new theory about how we should do things.


    May 21, 2013
  4. b #

    The lack of cultural context is actually a big problem for me with the way many parents I know implement attachment parenting and alternative discipline practices. I just don’t see how they think that their choices are going to work in the larger cultural context, such as public school.


    May 22, 2013
  5. Marie #

    I’ve been thinking about this very thing so much lately as my husband and I make decisions (and run into criticisms) about our son’s care. It has occurred to me, and I’m glad to be affirmed by Day, that when we point to other cultures and historical societies as evidence of how and why to employ certain parenting practices, we fail to consider the whole picture. Do we try to emulate everything about those cultures? Aren’t we just being patronizing and reductive? This is not to say that we shouldn’t consider those practices, but that we should consider the broader context of them as well as our own context. Ultimately, our goal is to raise a person who will function happily and well in the world in which he lives, and, hopefully, make that world a happier place, too.


    May 23, 2013

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