"The World Until Yesterday"

Would we all be better off if we let our children play with fire? Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to discuss lessons we can learn from traditional societies. Read an excerpt from Diamond's book, The World Until Yesterday.

What are traditional societies?

Traditional societies are every human society for the last 6,000 years, before centralized governments with writings. Small scale societies with hunter gatherers, bands, tribes, and at most chiefs. A few hundred or thousand people at most. They contrast with what we’re all used to—societies where one routinely encounters strangers. The book is about the differences between traditional and modern societies—how they raise children, why they don’t die from heart disease ever, what we can learn from them and what horrifies us about them.

You write a lot about child care in traditional societies, including that parents pick up their babies within seconds. Why is that beneficial?

There is evidence that it’s a good thing to pick up a child immediately. If a child is spending lots of time crying, you’d better be concerned. If you don’t respond and let the child cry, he will cry for 10-30 minutes. In a traditional society, you pick it up in less than 10 seconds. Some say it rewards children for crying. But the test is the outcome. We don’t have numbers, but we observe they grow up to self-confident, mature adults and they’re socially skilled at precocious ages. Have conversations with adults at age 5.

Your book was excerpted in Newsweek with the subtitle: “Why the traditional way of raising kids is better than ours.” Do you agree with that?

I don’t agree with that subtitle. There are some things like infanticide that are dreadful. If twins are born, both are killed routinely. As a father of twins, I don’t like that. I emphasize that some things in traditional societies—thank god they’re past. We have a life span over 40 years, we don’t encourage our elderly to kill themselves, and we’re not locked into constant warfare.

How have your observations affected your own child care?

My children were born in 1987. I’d observed what goes on in New Guinea, and the self-confident, independent-minded kids there. I never slapped or spanked my kids. Never once. I was born in 1937, and spanking was routine. My parents, I’m embarrassed to say, did some spanking. It was common even among liberal, educated adults.

We allowed our kids as much freedom we thought safe. They decided what they wanted to do. There were some surprising results. At 3, my son Max decided he loved snakes. My wife and I have no love of snakes. He couldn’t have any poisonous snakes, but he grew up to 140 snakes and frogs by the age of 7. When my wife and I were overseas, Max reached us by telephone at age 22, and told us he was going to culinary school. That was his decision.

You recommend adopting some pieces of traditional child-rearing and ignoring others--still keeping them away from knives, for example. Are the methods effective if not packaged together?

If we could do controlled experiments, we would know the answer to your question. In Massachusetts, we would hold them horizontally but not spank them. And in Pennsylvania, we would hold them vertically and spank them. But we don’t have that. We have these packages of modern practices and traditional societies. But we can say, in modern American society, it’s not feasible for professional women to breastfeed for five years. We can only adopt the practices we think may improve out children, and are practicable.

Interview has been condensed and edited.