March 12, 2012

The spring issue of the Washington State Magazine features:  “Lessons From The Forest –  The anthropology of childhood”,  an article discussing anthropological research of Barry Hewlett,  professor at Washington State University – Vancouver.  The article’s focus portrays  paternal infant and child care among one of the last hunter-gatherer populations, the Aka  Pygmies of the Central African Republic and Congo. The Aka number approximately 20, 000, resist efforts at settlement,  and live in camps  of   20 to 35  individuals  that comprise a few families.   Hewlett’s  recent book,  Hunter -Gatherer Childhoods, lists the lessons that can be learned from ancestors who represent 95 percent of human history,  offering “a glimpse of the eons of human development and socialization”.

Average age of the Aka is 21 and fifty percent are under 15.  The father’s relationship with infants and children is indulgent and intimate.  “Infants are held almost constantly … skin to skin contact most of the day … infants are held 91 percent of the time, much of that time by their fathers”.  Fathers are more apt to hug and kiss their infants than the mother. They are always near and help mothers when they have a large workload. Aka fathers are “involved in all aspects of the child’s being (with) regular and sensitive caressing.”   Camps, Hewlett notes, are cramped and dense often “occupying the space of a large American dining and living room”.  As consequence you are usually “touching someone”.  When in camp children are held on the lap facing  out.   Sleeping patterns bring Aka close together. “Children and adolescents never sleep alone . . .  blithely unaware of the American Pediatric Associations’s warning against sleep with one’s infants.”  Hewlett observes sleeping with infants would not have evolved if doing so was a danger of  killing your infant.  He observes: “Aka consider our sleeping patterns as child neglect.”

Aka children until age 15-17  play and explore all day long without much adult instruction.  Autonomy, not respect and deference for elders,  is the core value “of  intergenerational  equality”.  Incorporating into their play with much to learn through observation of adults they teach themselves.  Aka  social-culture places emphasis on democratic and egalitarian value sharing.


Lesson:   Quality of time matters. Try to be around your children, even if you are not actively engaged with them.

Lesson:   Mothers are not the sole caregivers of infants and young children. Non-maternal care is part of the human pattern.

Lesson:  Indulgent care does not lead to dependent children. Indulgent care may lead to increased trust and self-esteem.

Personal asides  –  Hewlett observes that in the West fathers play a more “extrinsic role in the life of the child”  with “mothers more responsible for the emotional-social aspect”.  The Western mothers’  focused psychological-sociological role and the fathers’  more “extrinsic role . . . in  introducing the child to the outside world . . . simply does not imply to the Aka”.  What might I observe regarding my father’s paternal role in my childhood and adolescence.  My childhood home was basically the Western model.  My father was a scholar-professor-clergyman reserved and more removed from a hands on relationship with his children.  Mother was a nurturing and more personally supportive.  Father  was often in his study engaging in scholarship and teaching preparation removed from a household of six children. I cannot recall even once at play with my father except for a few fishing experiences. He never attended watching his son play basketball except my last basketball game on the varsity.  Looking back I never felt let down or having other expectations of his role in my life.  What he gave me was a respect for the life of the mind and scholarship.  Really not much interested in that life until high school that became my ultimate aim and focus. My father was my Greek teacher in prep school and years later I had a course with him at the seminary level.  He was an excellent teacher, gentle, learned, beloved by his students.  Among the many teachers over the years he ranks in my view as among the finest and most influential shaping my approach to scholarship and  the teacher’s role..

How about my own role in paternal parenting.  Somehow I feel in some respect kinship with the Aka Pygmy model. Fathers,  it is held, became more involved in all aspects of caring for children after the seventies.  I recall reacting to the praise given to ” Fathers of the Nineties”  for their more hand-on approach in the lives of their children somewhat dismissively.  How else should a father relate to his children but with a hands-on even indulgent approach!  Parent and child should be, I think, indulgent over-against one another.  Mutual love and respect and parental authority is not undermined with parent-child mutuality.  But then it is my children’s prerogative to appraise their Father’s parenting.

Addendum NEWSWEEK a lead article (12-24-2012): “Parenting the Hunter-Gatherer Way” by Jared Diamond discusses the same themes discussed above. Lead statement:  How to Raise a Child the Hunter Gatherer Way – Hold them, let them run free. Why the traditional way of raising kids is better than ours.  P. 32-38

Published by profbartling1

Retired professor Concordia University, St. Paul, Mn. Taught mainly American History. Also taught in other areas of history, philosophy, and theology,


  1. Interesting that Paternal Parenting needs balance with Maternal Parenting.
    Balance tempering the parenting approach of both parents seems to be essential. But, as you state, the ethical base shared by both as the bedrock for children’s decision making is the joint parental goal. My blog of 10-26-11 RULES FOR THE SUMMER for our daughters numbered twenty and were “designed and decreed by my wife”. Observed was: “here they are and (they) bring merriment”. My summer role as a professorial “househusband” may have been Pygmy Akaish and rather indulgent but that in no way needed to theaten the shared parental commitment to an agreed ethical base.

  2. As the father of two rock star kids I have clearly practiced and applied all the lessons offered by the sage! I take full credit. Wait! You know that credit is shared and of course my wife would claim its really about her and that my role was to provide transportation as needed.
    Talking with my son Andrew he has commented on what he values from his parents as vital lessons learned. He comments that what he feels was most valued was the ability and willingness of his parents to take antecedent views on issues and how to make life choices. I tend towards the any decision will work perspective, just keep it ethical. Sue moves more from a governance perspective and that rules and protocols are really important and must be kept in mind as decisions are made.
    In the end we gave our children intellectual choices in decision making, but we also stood toe to toe firm on one vital rule: That they had our complete trust until

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