Landing the Helicopter

Raising Children: Surprising Insights From Other Cultures, David F. Lancy, Cambridge University Press,, 209 pp,, June 2017

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For those parents who worry that their young child is not getting enough intellectual stimulation, who are bored playing Candyland, who are too harried to hunt down organic foods and grind them up, and who are concerned thattheir infant does not yet know how to swim—this book is for them.

This is not a parenting how-to; rather it is a book by an eminent anthropologist who has studied child-rearing customs in villages, towns, and cities around the world and offers insights challenging some of our most sacred beliefs about best practices. On the assumption that most children in most places turn out “just fine,” he asserts that our Western middle-class child-rearing methods are actually outliers and are rooted in American culture, not nature.

In a readable and engaging style, Dr. Lancy takes the reader on an around-the-world trip from hunter-gatherer groups to modern-day Europe and the United States. On the journey he compares and contrasts children’s lives along such parameters as safety, nonmaternal caregivers, swaddling, feeding, attachment/detachment, mortality, learning, congenital defects, delayed personhood, playing and learning, toys/tools, involvement of fathers, freedom, and happiness. He discusses the fine line between protecting and smothering children that is endemic in first world-countries today.

Dr. Lancy points out that babies and children are viewed differently in different cultures. For example, children can be treated as chattel, cherubs, or changelings. Chattel are children who are anticipated to be of economic assistance to the family, and treating children as helpers is characteristic of agrarian or herding societies. Cherubs are valued for their own sake, as among hunter-gatherers and our own affluent society. Babies considered changelings are not particularly valued and may be subject to neglect or infanticide. Indeed, in many societies newborns are not considered persons and may not even be named until a specified period of time has passed (up to four years).  

Toward the end of the volume, Dr. Lancy addresses child rearing in contemporary Western cultures. He states that in these cultures the goal of parenting is to raise children who are “highly unique individual(s) who (are) not obligated to conform to cultural patterns of long standing” (p. 116). In family life, sit-down dinners with all members present are rare; instead, driving to and from after-school activities and sports, homework, and social media take up much of the afternoon and evening hours.

In the United States emphasis is now placed on finding the child’s “passion.” Lancy laments the disappearance of chores in the lives of Western children, in contrast to those of Third World children, who are often key contributors to the functioning of the family, whether it be taking care of younger siblings, carrying wood or water, working in the garden, or helping in the kitchen. He regrets that parents in First World countries have the opportunity to enlist their eager children’s help but typically fail to take advantage of it. After a certain point, the children lose interest in pitching in and become reluctant participants in family life.

And the helicopter referenced in the title of this review? Dr. Lancy makes the connection between prolonged adolescence and young people’s increasing distance from society and “failure to launch.” He cites cases where helicopter parents, unable to separate from their college-aged children, prevent them from experiencing the consequences of their choices. Parents call college deans requesting that someone wake their children to make sure they get to class on time. In short, Dr. Lancy believes that “young people are not developing the skills they need to be fully functioning adults” (p. 141).

For parents and anyone interested in cross-cultural aspects of childhood, this book is a gem. It is readable, entertaining, and down to earth.

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