Breastfeeding in Traditional
by Katherine A. Dettwyler, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology,
Texas A & M University
Here is my first post on the topic of research on
"traditional" child rearing practices. I will send more later. Several caveats
first: there is enormous variety in traditional cultures' child-rearing practices, as in
everything else. Also, when we use the term "traditional" we (anthropologists)
are referring to populations that have low levels of technology (no electricity, no
engines), but that does not mean that they are "stuck" at earlier stages of
human cultural evolution, or that they are either "primitive" in any sense of
the word or "noble savages." Each culture has traits to admire and traits to not
admire. In Mali, among the Bambara people I study, for example, no one ever harms children
or molests them, and rape of women is unknown. At the same time, they circumcize the
little girls (cut off their clitoris). Sooooo.....we need to try not to totally reject
other cultural beliefs NOR totally accept other cultural beliefs. Just because people do
something in a remote tribe in New Guinea (or wherever) doesn't make it either good or bad
in and of itself. End of lecture.
Now for a few references:
Probably the ideal place to start for the poster of the
initial question is the book by Jean Liedloff titled The Continuum Concept.
Jean Liedloff is not a professional scholar or anthropologist, but she lived for more than
two years with a South American Indian tribe and wrote this book about their child-rearing
practices. She talks a lot about how children were designed to be carried all the time,
nursed on demand, sleep with their parents and siblings at night, etc. The book does have
a few weird parts -- for example, she talks about how the Indian mothers in South America
didn't try to "protect" their children from dangers in the environment, yet the
children never seemed to hurt themselves. So the kids are allowed to play with knives,
crawl near the fire, near the edge of cliffs, etc. She says she never saw any of them get
hurt. In contrast, in Mali, where children are also allowed to play with knives and crawl
around everywhere (actually they don't crawl, they go from sitting to walking, but that's
another post) I did see many children with cuts from razor blades and knives, and
especially distressing to me were the many many serious burns from falling into the
cooking fire, spills of hot porridge, touching the kerosene lanterns, falling into the
drainage ditches alongside the road, etc. So, I highly recommend reading The
Continuum Concept but keeping a sceptical mind.
There is an organization dedicated to promoting the work of
Jean Liedloff. It's called the Liedloff Continuum Network, P.O. Box 1634,
Sausalito, CA 94965. From them you can request information about the membership list and a
newsletter. Just send them a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
You can request a copy of a two-page pamphlet they put out
called "Reviews and Comment" from Kathy Ireland, 845 Wynnewood Road, Camp Hill,
PA 17011, or at (717) 763-5745.
Jean Liedloff has also published two articles in Mothering
Magazine (fall 1991 and winter 1989).
The other suggestion I have from home is:
Handbook of Cross-Cultural Human Development,
edited by Ruth H. Monroe, Robert L. Monroe, and Beatrice B. Whiting. This book was
published in 1981 by Garland Press.
It is a huge book, with many contributors, and has tons
of information on child-rearing practices in many different cultures. This is the more
scientific, systematic literature, compared to Liedloffs. The Monroes and the Whiting,
along with Robert Levine, have been the main researchers in this field.
Here are two more references that are very interesting from
the perspective of how different cultures raise children. They are both collection of
stories about anthropologists who went to "the field" to do their research and
took their children along with them. There are many excellent descriptions of how child
rearing practices differed in the culture of the anthropologist vs. the culture they were
living in, and of the problems and conflicts that arose because of it. These are more
"reader-friendly" books than the more "scholarly" ones, which can be
dry. The two books are:
Cassell, Joan (editor) 1987
Children in the Field: Anthropological Experiences. Philadelphia: Temple
Butler, Barbara and Diane Turner (editors) 1987
Children and anthropological Research. New York: Plenum Press.
Prepared by Sue Ann
Kendall, August 3, 1995.
Last updated March 11, 2004, by kad. Contents copyright 1999-2004 Sue Ann Kendall and Kathy Dettwyler. Thanks to Prairienet, the Free-Net of east-central Illinois, for hosting this site from 1999 through 2004.
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