"For most of human history caregiving went way beyond just mothers, or even fathers, to include grandparents, older brothers and sisters, aunts, cousins, friends - the community at large. In fact, contemporary middle-class American society is very unusual in that so few people are involved in raising children. (This may also explain why those who do sometimes seem to make such a fuss about it. At most times and places parenting is something everybody takes for granted, but many modern parents seem to think it's another specialized profession to study for. There's nothing like the prospect of an exam to make you anxious and miserable.)" - Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology at UC-Berkeley

You know, middle-class American parents DO seem to make a fuss about it. I think Dr. Gopnik is getting at the root of why, but we could take this a step further. Why is it that, in most cases, the mother (and perhaps father) are doing this alone, when that's not what happens (or happened) in most human societies? I think I know why, and I'll illustrate with an example.

Joe the 5-year old boy, who lives in a medieval peasant village, is running along a dirt road when he sees a rock. He stops, picks it up, and throws it at his younger sister, Jane, who is 4. He didn't really think about what would happen before throwing it, but after it hits her she starts crying, and he gets a jolt of adrenaline from excitement, fear, and regret, and starts to run away. Bob the peasant, who is a neighbor of Joe and Jane, grabs him by the ear to stop him, then fills that ear with a stern lecture on not throwing rocks at others, especially little children. Then he gives Jane a hug, and sends the two of them on their way. Joe and Jane's parents, if they noticed at all, didn't have to get involved.

Why doesn't this happen in middle-class America? Let me count the ways, starting from the end and working backwards.

1) Joe and Jane's parents don't feel like they can let another adult, except a professional such as a teacher, handle the situation, even if those others are on the spot and clearly capable of it. They feel guilty about letting another adult do "their job", and rush on over to intervene.

2) Bob can't give Jane a hug without fear, because he is an adult male not related to the child. Whatever the very real problems of adults who cultivate improper relations with children, the fact that Bob can't (or doesn't think he can) give Jane a hug when she's hurt and crying, is sad, and our children are on the whole worse off because of it.

3) Bob doesn't feel entitled to lecture other people's children, because there are almost no shared mores that he can be confident he and the parents share. This is even more of a problem if, instead of throwing a rock, Joe threw unkind words at Jane and made her cry with those (because while there may be a consensus on physical violence, there may not be on much of anything else).

4) Getting more at the core of things, Bob doesn't just think that he's not the parent of those kids; he thinks those kids are "theirs". Possessive. Those kids belong to someone else, and (outside of the more extreme kinds of abuse) Bob can't get involved (except maybe to complain to the parents). It's probably always been the case that people felt somewhat possessive of their own kids, but in most of human history there has been an entity higher than the individual, and higher than the family, but lower level than the government, that had a stake in this. It's called a "community", and it's been self-evident through most of human history that you need this level. In middle-class America at the beginning of the 21st century, the awkward reality is that neighbors don't even know each others names, much less feel themselves part of a real community. They have no agreement on what kids can and cannot do, at the community level, only at the government level. Thus, Bob may not feel he can intervene to tell a child what he should or shouldn't do, and if he does then that child's parents may respond angrily.

5) Joe and Jane can't run in the street now, because the street is for automobiles, not kids. This may seem like a less fundamental point than the ones above, but I think it may be at least as important, perhaps more so, because it determines how people relate to each other. The automobile has become, in much of America and increasingly in some other parts of the world as well, the only legitimate way to travel between a household and anywhere else. Walking, bicycling, etc. aren't forbidden (except where they are), but they're not routine ways to get someplace. Most walking and cycling is done for exercise, not as a way to get from one spot to another.

What's different about taking a car vs. walking, cycling, etc.? You see the faces of others, and interact with them via words, facial expressions, and so on. Cars seal off the person or family, and restrict interaction with your neighbors. TV provides a way of keeping people inside the house, when they are not at work or school, and again that limits the contact between people at a level above the family but below government.

When a prehistoric hunter-gatherer or a medieval peasant became a parent, it was of course extra work, but it wasn't something they had to buy a book on. They had witnessed parenting, not only by their own parents, but by all the families in their community. If there was something they didn't understand (e.g. how to tell a screaming toddler 'no'), there were plenty of experienced adults nearby ready to lend a hand. The parenting may not have been perfect, but it was learned like language, by interaction with many other members of the community, and with many small, daily lessons from the ones who were more experienced.

Last but not least, if a child like Joe was too rambunctious, after the adults let go of his ear they could tell him to go run off his energy in the field, and not worry that an automobile would knock him dead. They also didn't have TV to bring them news of any child anywhere on the planet who was eaten by the Big Bad Wolf, so that they began to imagine that abduction by strangers was a high risk to their child, even though the risk of, say, abduction by a stranger at the mall is a lot less than the risk of the drive to get to the mall in the first place.

To put it another way, you're more likely to know your neighbors, if you bump into them on the sidewalk on a daily basis. There is no society that Bob and Joe are still part of, therefore Bob has no concept of what Joe's parents think (about throwing rocks, harsh words, or anything else). Moreoever, Bob doesn't think of himself as a member of a community (e.g. a village) that Joe and Jane are also part of. He's from one household, they are from another, and there is nothing to connect them below the (formal and distant) level of government.

I think this also relates to why people don't relate much to local government, only the national level. They see reports about the national level of government on TV, and the national level politicians are (on average) much better at appearing in front of cameras. People don't relate much to their national government, because it is distant and unapproachable, but they relate even less to their local government, because they don't know others in their community, and so if you're not good on TV you're just not good. Before TV, local government was more real (in every sense) in the lives of people than the federal government. The automobile and TV have reversed this, by severing the link between neighbors and thus annihilating the community.

Is there anything to be done? Probably not, at least in the short term. The automobile and the TV not just ubiquitous, they're the two pieces of technology that middle-class America is most deeply attached to. Suggesting to people that they give up one or the other is a good way to get an angry look, at the least; our attachment to the internet and cell phones is a light and transient thing by comparison. People debate whether or not the internet and cell phones are good or bad; TV and automobiles don't even occur to people as a question. So why write an essay about it? Well, sometimes you have to get a clear view of where a problem comes from before you can even start thinking about solutions. TV and automobiles are the carcinogen, and loss of community (and anxious parenting) are the resultant tumor. A cure for this cancer is still not in sight.