The Culture of Childhood

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

We adults have the adult-centric view that we raise, socialize, and educate children, Peter Gray says, when really children raise, socialize, and educate each other:

Perhaps the most important function of the culture of childhood is to teach children how to get along with peers. Children practice that constantly in social play. To play with another person, you must pay attention to the other person’s needs, not just your own, or the other person will quit. You must overcome narcissism. You must learn to share. You must learn to negotiate in ways that respect the other person’s ideas, not just yours. You must learn how to assert your needs and desires while at the same time understanding and trying to meet the needs and desires of your playmate. This may be the most important of all skills that human beings must learn for a successful life. Without this ability it is not possible to have a happy marriage, true friends, or cooperative work partners.

The need to learn how to deal with others on an equal power footing is the primary reason why children need to grow up in a culture of childhood. It underlies all of the rest of what children learn best with peers. The reason why children’s communications with other children are more authentic than those with adults, why they can practice independence and courage with other children better than with adults, why they can learn about the modifiability of rules with other children better than with adults, and why they can more freely practice adult skills with other children than they can with adults is that their relationships with other children are relationships of equality rather than relationships of dominance and subordination.

I think he misses a key point here:

Hunter-gatherer adults seemed to understand that children needed to grow up largely in a culture of childhood, with little adult interference, but that understanding seemed to decline with the rise of agriculture, land ownership, and hierarchical organizations of power among adults (Gray, 2012). Adults began to see it as their duty to suppress children’s natural willfulness, so as to promote obedience, which often involved attempts to remove them from the influences of other children and subordinate them to adult authority. The first systems of compulsory schooling, which are the forerunners of our schools today, arose quite explicitly for that purpose.

Presumably we’re well adapted to our ancestral environment and can learn hunting and gathering skills without an “unnatural” formal education, but watching Dad debug code or update spreadsheets isn’t interesting and doesn’t teach Junior those skills.


  1. Bomag says:

    Gray sees hope in the Internet as a new “playground” for kids, but I’m not sure that works, since it misses physical activity and face-to-face interaction. Maybe we are raising a generation of trolls.

    A common complaint today is that childhood has been extended indefinitely, and reading Gray’s description of childhood play reminded me of modern bureaucracies and party politics: learn to get your way by getting along, and mind the unwritten rules.

  2. Rollory says:

    “when really children raise, socialize, and educate each other”

    That’s called “Lord of the Flies”.

  3. Felix says:

    Must not forget kids learning from older kids. Unbroken chain and all that.

    That would help curb any “Lord of the Flies” effect. That, and reality.

  4. Bomag says:

    Lord of the Flies

    I like the Saileresque analysis that school teachers seized upon the Golding novel and popularized it as a cautionary tale for kids to obey the rules and not try too much on their own.

    In contrast, the Heinlien novel of the same time, Tunnel in the Sky, portrayed young people as resourceful and able to organize themselves.

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