The Early Education of Manus Children

For the first few months after he has begun to accompany his mother about the village the baby rides quietly on her neck or sits in the bow of the canoe while his mother punts in the stern some ten feet away. The child sits quietly, schooled by the hazards to which he has been earlier exposed. There are no straps, no baby harness to detain him in his place. At the same time, if he should tumble overboard, there would be no tragedy. The fall into the water is painless. The mother or father is there to pick him up. Babies under two and a half or three are never trusted with older children or even with young people. The parents demand a speedy physical adjustment from the child, but they expose him to no unnecessary risks. He is never allowed to stray beyond the limits of safety and watchful adult care.

So the child confronts duckings, falls, dousings of cold water, or entanglements in slimy seaweed, but he never meets with the type of accident which will make him distrust the fundamental safety of his world. Although he himself may not yet have mastered the physical technique necessary for perfect comfort in the water his parents have. A lifetime of dwelling on the water has made them perfectly at home there. They are sure-footed, clear-eyed, quick handed. A baby is never dropped; his mother never lets him slip from her arms or carelessly bumps his head against door post or shelf. In the physical care of the child she makes no clumsy blunders. Her every move is a reassurance to the child, counteracting any doubts which he may have accumulated in the course of his own less sure-footed progress. So thoroughly do Manus children trust their parents that a child will leap from any height into an adult's outstretched arms, leap blindly and with complete confidence of being safely caught.

Side by side with the parents' watchfulness and care goes the demand that the child himself should make as much effort, acquire as much physical dexterity, as possible. Every gain a child makes is noted, and the child is inexorably held to his past record. There are no cases of children who toddle a few steps, fall, bruise their noses, and refuse to take another step for three months. The rigorous way of life demands that the children be self-sufficient as early as possible. Until a child has learned to handle his own body, he is not safe in the house, in a canoe or on the small islands. His mother or aunt is a slave, unable to leave him for a minute, never free of watching his wandering steps. So every new proficiency is encouraged and insisted upon. Whole groups of busy men and women cluster about the baby's first step, but there is no such delightful audience to bemoan his first fall. He is set upon his feet gently but firmly and told to try again. The only way in which he can keep the interest of his admiring audience is to try again. So self-pity is stifled and another step is attempted.

As soon as the baby can toddle uncertainly he is put down into the water at low tide when parts of the lagoon are high and others only a few inches under water. Here the baby sits and plays in the water or takes a few hesitating steps in the yielding spongy mud. The mother does not leave his side, nor does she leave him there long enough to weary him. As he grows older, he is allowed to wade about at low tide. His elders keep a sharp lookout that he does not stray into deep water until he is old enough to swim. But the supervision is unobtrusive. Mother is always there if the child gets into difficulties, but he is not nagged and plagued with continual 'don'ts'. His whole play-world is so arranged that he is permitted to make small mistakes from which he may learn better judgment and greater circumspection, but he is never allowed to make mistakes which are serious enough to frighten him permanently or inhibit his activity. He is a tight-rope walker, learning feats which we would count outrageously difficult for little children, but his tight-rope is stretched above a net of expert parental solicitude.... Expecting children to swim at three, to climb about like young monkeys even before that age, may look to us like forcing them; really it is simply a quiet insistence upon their exerting every particle of energy and strength which they possess. Swimming is not taught: the small waders imitate their slightly older brothers and sisters, and after floundering about in waist deep water begin to strike out for themselves. Sure-footedness on land and swimming come almost together, so that the charm which is recited over a newly delivered woman says, 'May you not have another child until this one can walk and swim.'

(From Growing up in New Guinea, by Margaret Mead.)