Parenting: Many lessons to be learned from traditional societies, author says

Nonfiction • Author of "The World Before Yesterday" zooms in on ways of raising children and caring for the elderly.
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In most traditional societies, there are no "helicopter" parents.

Aka Pygmy children in central Africa, for example, have access to the same resources as adults, unlike children in the United States, for whom many things — alcohol, weapons, breakable objects — are off limits, geographer Jared Diamond writes in "The World Before Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?"

Among the Martu people of western Australia, "the worst offense is to impose on a child's will, even if the child is only 3 years old."

Allowing children to explore and learn from potentially dangerous situations has its benefits, according to Diamond, who will be in Salt Lake City Nov. 14 to read at 7 p.m. in the Salt Lake City Main Library auditorium.

"Children grow into adults who are independent, self-confident and unneurotic," he said in a telephone interview.

Positive child-rearing techniques are among a number of things we can learn from traditional societies, according to "The World Before Yesterday," which recently was released in paperback (Penguin, $18).

Diamond, the author of five books, including "Guns, Germs and Steel," for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, in his newest book draws from five decades of experience studying the tribes of New Guinea.

He said he conceived "The World Before Yesterday" as an autobiography in which he intended to simply write how he has applied what he has learned from New Guineans to his own life. He soon realized, however, that the topic merited broader consideration, so the book also explores other researchers' observations of nearly 40 traditional societies.

Additional takeaways from the book when it comes to raising children?

"Never spank a child if you want him or her to grow up to be a self-confident individual," Diamond said.

He also advocates for practices he says are feasibly applied in modern society, such as transporting infants upright and facing forward rather than horizontally in a stroller, having far more physical contact, responding faster and more consistently to crying and encouraging parenting involvement from family members and friends.

Such practices, Diamond said, in addition to building self-worth, encourage precocious development of social skills.

"These are qualities that most of us admire and would like to see in our own children," according to his book, "but we discourage [their] development by ranking and grading our children and constantly telling them what to do."

Other things we can learn from traditional societies, according to Diamond, include:

Role of the elderly in society • How Americans treat the elderly is a "disaster area of our society," he said. Many seniors spend their final years lonely, devalued and disrespected. In contrast, many traditional societies value the elderly as storehouses of information, baby-sitters, advisers, administrators and teachers.

Health • Noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes are a scourge of modern society. If you don't want to die of one of these diseases, Diamond recommends adopting a traditional society diet free of salt and sugar. "It's very practical," he said. "Don't gorge and get fat. Eat a high-fiber diet and exercise."

What Diamond calls "constructive paranoia" • Modern society tends to exaggerate inappropriate fears, Diamond said. "We obsess about the wrong things — terrorists, genetically modified crops, plane crashes — instead of real dangers." For the elderly, for example, that can mean the real threat of slipping on stairs or in the shower. "I've learned to pay attention to real dangers and not obsess about things that are actually a very low risk."

"The World Before Yesterday" has its critics, who question whether Diamond's conclusions are too sweeping or make too little of evidence that doesn't support his premise.

Diamond said they are a small but vocal minority.

"True, there are a lot of things I don't discuss in the book," he said. "They should be grateful," otherwise the 500-page book would have been far longer.

Critics, Diamond said, can write their books about things he didn't include.

He wants readers to take "The World Before Yesterday" as he intended it. The book, he said, is an exploration of the vast number of solutions diverse cultures derive for aspects of human experience.

"My own outlook on life has been transformed and enriched by my years among one set of traditional societies," he writes in the book's conclusion. "I hope that you readers ... and our modern society... will similarly find much to enjoy and adopt from the huge range of traditional human experience."

Twitter: @lcarricaburu —

Jared Diamond to speak in Salt Lake City

Jared Diamond, author of "The World Before Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?" will read and sign copies of the book Nov. 14 in the auditorium of the Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South. The King's English Bookshop is the reading's sponsor.