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Children & Change

During the last hundred years a great deal of research has been done to demonstrate how children’s characters are formed by the way their parents rear them – being lenient of strict; using rewards and punishments or vague threats; feeding them generously or grudgingly; curbing, encouraging or ignoring their early expressions of initiative and aggression.

So precise and systematic were the ‘fits’ between child-rearing practices and adult behaviours, that up to the 1940s there was an assumption that, once children were shaped, they would maintain their characters virtually unchanged throughout life; and so the only way to alter a society was to alter the character structure of the next generation.

Much of the educational philosophy of the first half of the century was based on this idea and directed toward giving children an environment different from that of their parents so that, when they were grown up, they would behave differently. Famous examples of such educational departures are the Progressive Education Movement in the United States, Dartington Hall and Summerhill in England, and the educational schemes in the USSR designed to raise children who were freed from the constricting ideas of the pre-revolutionary regime.

As these efforts failed, various kinds of disillusionment set in, some of which shifted the emphasis from the school to the much earlier experience of infants and small children within family settings. Others emphasized that revolutionary changes were made by adults and not by children, and that adult society needed to be altered first if the education given the children was to have any real effect. The interaction between the social structure and the education of children seemed to be more important than the attempts to alter children who would have to enter a society in which their newly found freedom, initiative or spontaneity could find no place.


Changing adults

After World War Two, however, a new understanding developed of the relationship between child rearing and adult behaviour. The newly found science of cybernetics opened the way to our understanding that the rearing of children could not be regarded as a linear process in which adults did things to children, but were themselves uninfluenced by the child’s responses to their educational efforts. We came to see that as the child responded to the adult’s customary or innovative behaviour, the adult’s behaviour was in turn shaped, so that in fact grandmothers, behaving like grandmothers, learned from their grandchildren the next step in new or old grandmotherly behaviour. It therefore became clear that what happened in each society was a transactional system between adults and children, so that each was continually responding to the other.

When changes in child-rearing practices are introduced into a society, they have to be carried out by adults, themselves differently shaped by their own childhood experience. The altered behaviour of the adults is responded to and then shapes the behaviour of the modernizing adults and so becomes part of the modernizing process. So parents who seek to give their children more freedom become themselves the advocates of more freedom. Parents, who may be illiterate themselves, co-operate in seeing that their children do their lessons and in doing so they also become advocates of new forms of education. This means, in practice, that one of the best ways to introduce change into a society is to engage the adults in programmes of change for the care and education of children. The history of societies with large numbers of adult immigrants is replete with accounts of the way the behaviour of the parents alters in response to the demands that their children, schooled in the new country, make upon them.


Resistance to change

These studies also highlighted the fact that adults could be changed not only as immigrants, or as the forcibly re-educated citizens of a country that had undergone revolutionary change of regime, but also in response to new situations and in the course of implementing new values. We had had very complete documentation of the way the children of immigrants became full – if somewhat attenuated and shallower – representatives of the culture of their new country, in a way that their parents very seldom did. But the tremendous changes of the post-World War Two world, in which some of the new nations skipped thousands of years from the Stone Age to the Electronic Age, also provided illustrations of how much adults could change within one generation, and how every change in educational practice or child-rearing behaviour also reverberated through the system.

So, in the 1940s, tremendous changes were pioneered among certain of the peoples of Papua New Guinea, but 30 years later the kinds of ambition that had been stimulated in the children of the pioneers were appearing in the children of more isolated and less traditionally receptive and innovative peoples.

These findings have emphasized the great significance of worldwide and regional changes, as a setting within which the more intimate person-to-person experiences of adults and children have to be placed.

However, the history of change in the 20th century has also provided examples of the stubborn persistence of character traits that have been so deeply embedded in the total cultural behaviour that they have successfully resisted attempts to change them: the refusal of Russian women to abandon swaddling or the reappearance of swaddling in other forms; the recurring resistance of village people of Turkey to the dramatic reforms of Ataturk; the renascence in many new nations of old forms of tribal allegiance or traditional relationships between parents and children.


Culture and personality

While the importance of early childhood experience in shaping character has not been challenged by any of the new findings, we must add to our knowledge of this importance the extent to which diffuse influences may be reflected and the rapidity with which change can be introduced in the behaviour of adults, either by involving them in new ways of educating children, or by new situations which make other new demands upon them.

In a recent study Richard Sorenson (1976) has followed the behaviour of an agricultural people, with much free land, through the two decades it took them to adopt a cash crop – a sedentary existence with sharp delimitations of land ownership and changed forms of child rearing. Among the Manus people of the Admiralty Islands of Papua New Guinea, whom I have followed for almost 50 years,  radical transformation of the entire culture has been followed by the reinstatement, in new forms, of the traditional economic demands made by elders on their children. In the United States, the generation gap which separated all young people reared since World War Two from all their elders is being blurred as those young people enter the professions and themselves become parents of young children. We are just beginning to be able to take into account, but not necessarily predict, what kind of changes will follow an initial change in child-rearing practices like the decline of breastfeeding, absentee fathers, earlier preschool training, the introduction of universal military service, or styles of town planning which isolate two-generation families. The study of such relationships, usually called the study of Culture and Personality, is now developing as the formerly isolated societies of the planet themselves change in response to their new interconnectedness under a shared, endangered and endangering atmosphere.


Margaret Mead, Curator of the American Museum of Natural History, is known throughout the world as an anthropologist, psychologist and teacher. Author of 24 books and holder of 20 doctorates from universities all over the world, she has spent 50 years studying the peoples of the South Pacific, speaks seven languages of the area, and has created the Hall of the Peoples of the Pacific in the American Museum of Natural History. In recent years, Margaret Mead has brought her wide experience to the study of contemporary Western culture and now lectures widely on such subjects as the environment, food, population, education, culture, change and the relationship between culture and personality.

New Internationalist issue 58 magazine cover This article is from the November 1977 issue of New Internationalist.
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