The Natural History of
MEREDITH F. SMALL
Humans belong to the taxonomic order of primates. This order is distinguished by many characteristics, one of which is giving birth to dependent young. Humans are extremists in this particular characteristic—we give birth to the most dependent infants and care for them for more years than does any other animal on earth.1 As such, infancy and childhood are major life cycle stages for humans, stages that deeply influence the development of the individual as well as the formation of family and community.2 Yet, we still have much to learn about the physical, emotional, psychological, and social development of infants and children.
In this chapter, I present an anthropological view of infancy and childhood. Although there has been some ethnographic work on children, few anthropologists have studied infants, and even fewer have been interested in explaining how biological development and cultural experience shape parenting practices, or how childhood experience forms adults.3
The anthropological perspective is both deep in time (evolutionary) and broad in scope (cross-cultural). This is of critical importance because it helps us to evaluate which features of the parent-child relationship amid the rich cultural mosaic of parenting styles are essential for healthy child development. This perspective is particularly relevant at this juncture because western culture seems to have lost its ability to understand children. The West now