Culture Circulates at the Heart of Childhood

Book reviewed: Lancy, DF 2014, The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Reviewer: Nirmala Jayaraman

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How is culture, which David F. Lancy describes in his book, The Anthropology of Childhood, as a process of rituals and behaviors taught by adults or learned by children (372 – 373), influential to the individual? Lancy’s book explores this topic and at its core offers us, both academics and general interest readers alike, a chance to learn about different perspectives within anthropology that debate whether certain cultural practices are too child-centered or not centered enough around a child’s needs.
Studying how children “acquire their culture” gives social scientists insight as to how communities form. Whether or not children have been included in their household’s economy, they have always “participated in the construction of a new culture” (13, 25). Lancy argues that over time a “child’s value” is “recalibrated” not just globally but also locally (13). He writes about how the parent-child relationship remains “central to society” in order to show that as the value of children shifts, the value placed on family life changes as well (26).
Lancy’s intended audience is largely academic and he makes a considerable attempt to communicate with general interest readers. Students taking coursework in cultural anthropology will benefit from reading the ideas debated and discussed. Lancy cross-references cultural groups from both western and eastern countries. His approach contrasts with previous ethnographers who have focused on analysing childhood within the context of one culture over one period of time, such as Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. For example, in one chapter alone, Lancy covers how children have transitioned from being used as part of the workforce in the era of industrialisation to being seen as priceless and delicate in contemporary western societies (64, 70).
However, there are a few weaknesses that surface in Lancy’s attempt to have a wide appeal; the text may seem too vague for academics and too rigid for the general public. This makes it difficult for the book to transition between ideas of the past to hypothetical reasons behind recent trends involving children today, such as lower birth rates in countries like the United States, where adults elect to delay or not have children. The leap from chapters discussing early childhood theorists to later chapters discussing global youth culture feels disjointed because it is difficult to tell whether childhood is meant to be seen as a continuum without age ranges or a part of life that should be broken up into stages. I attribute this confusion to the risk that is inherent when creating a very broad overview of history.
The section on adolescence in Chapter 8: Living in limbo, seems to over-rely on ambiguity, as the author’s personal stance on whether teenagers should be treated like adults is left unclear. For example, should teenagers who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS be assessed as the adult guardians of their younger siblings? Would the conditions of that decision depend on the geographical location of that household, be it in a rural or urban community?
However, Lancy is successful in mirroring the cultural conflict of how people quantify and qualify child development. An observation that pervades the book shows how the most vulnerable aspects of a child’s life, virtually all of it, reflect how vulnerable parents are to extremes such as violence, poverty, and malnourishment. Readers will pay close attention to these chapters because these ideas are presented with such urgency.
This book’s greatest strength emerges when Lancy sifts through the meanings of words commonly neglected in our reading of current events about children. When considering the use of ordinary words in the everyday life of childrearing, he wonders when “instruction” and “play” become more significant for a child’s development compared to “work” and “chores” (180). In the final section of Chapter 10: Too Little Childhood? Too Much?, he writes about the definition of “child labor”, saying:

Programs to promote child welfare must take the low value attached to children into account and insure that any government intervention or change in their legal status leads to increased value added to children, rather than decreasing it (394 – 395)

Examining our definition of childhood involves a more accepting look at how societies have evolved; where adults find themselves looking to the past in order to understand how their earlier years shaped their identity and then deciding whether or not to have children of their own. Even if a person does not want children to begin with, they can still find themselves rooting for a child’s resilience as they navigate a difficult environment marked by bullying at the local level and forced migration at the global level. Perhaps the key to understanding how policies concerning the family impact the lives of children in any society is to acknowledge that those policies are fragile and are subject to change when applied to protect the general population, including its newest members.

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