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Knowing children (part 1)

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

by Lye Tuck-Po / 18 September 2023

Excerpts:

Neither the Batek’s way of life nor their children’s behaviour has changed radically. Indeed, there is a close fit between my present (2023) and past (1995–1996) observations, and with the Endicotts’ from the 1970s and ‘80s (Endicott and Endicott 2008). Children were never the main focus of my study but neither did I neglect them.

I observed what they did over the course of my fieldwork and recorded some of their more memorable conversations with me. Because I lodged in the lean-tos and houses of various host families, I was, so to speak, “there” with the children. My insights on care-giving were obtained as both observer and participant.

Posing with children and the late yaʔKaw at the end of my 1996 fieldwork. @ Lye Tuck-Po
Posing with children and the late yaʔKaw at the end of my 1996 fieldwork


As participant, I walked, talked, bathed, ate, played, joked, sang, and told stories with the children; I also babysat, carried and washed children, comforted tears, bandaged wounds, put children to bed, and was called on to approve a childish game or put a stop to mischief (this last not successfully). Whenever I slept in my own lean-to, children would drop by to see what I was doing, chat, or pore over my photo albums and books—pictures of plants and animals being of abiding interest to them.
As observer, I photographed them, wrote down whatever I had heard and noticed about them, and asked them questions as though they were adults. I was also aware that they observed me closely and were quick to issue oral reports on my behaviour to peers or the group at large.
Though it’s good fun for ethnography and photography to obey a child’s marching orders, I realised that it isn’t really a good idea to follow in their footsteps. You find yourself creeping and crawling through minute tunnels of thorny vines and twiggy sticks and your knees feel every second of their age. The little girl I followed was Pãt as she walked effortlessly between the trees and shrubs. Following her path, I found myself crouching and crawling, and got my backpack and hair entangled in thorns while on all fours. (Fieldnotes, 8 February 2010)
They are familiar with the ways of anthropologists and don’t seem to change their play when I hang around watching (but I never get to watch for long before some pint-sized person grabs me around the waist so I either flee in fear or threaten to sell them to the townspeople), but they do tend to freeze when they see equipment. (Fieldnotes, October 1995)
Much of what I observed would have been incomprehensible without the adults, who frequently talked about their children or reported their antics to me.
Mother and two children, the elder one encouraging the baby to emit a sound, 2010
Mother and two children, the elder one encouraging the baby to emit a sound, 2010

Batek adults would call what children do pǝŋuh, meaning “play.” But adults can also play, when they are fooling around, having fun, or not working seriously. Batek certainly do not describe themselves as “children of the forest” (contra Bird-David 1990). On the other hand, distinctions between adult and child activities can be very thin. Many games that children play are imitative: play-housing, play-hunting, play-digging, play-climbing, and the like. ...
Three children at play: the boy on the right is using a mini-machete.  Yong, 2010
Three children at play: the boy on the right is using a mini-machete. Yong, 2010
Another example is learning to use sharp implements. Babies are given blunt knives to chop with—in the hands of Batek babies these knives are no more dangerous than the plastic versions sold to urban children. Children grew very fond of these knives; sometimes an entire forest expedition was delayed while all hands on deck were enjoined to search for a child’s mislaid knife. As they get older they’re gradually allowed to use larger adult knives. Parents are always vigilant and quick to intervene if a child is on the brink of doing something dangerous. Batek responses to video playbacks of their children’s knife-play antics suggest anxiety, which is normally suppressed.
In general (there are always exceptions), children are cherished and well-loved and childhoods idyllic. They are much indulged as infants, and have the freedom to roam and play with peer groups. From birth, bodily, skin-to-skin contact between children and their caregivers is unremitting. Parents also have fun with their children. For example, there are bedtime stories and songs (Lye 1997; Rudge 2017).
As soon as they are able, they are allowed to walk at will. From a young age, children are encouraged to handle obstacles and challenges on their own.
Crossing a stream: the little girl is bawling her eyes out, having been subjected to a lot of biting insects (probably termites), 2010. However, she must learn to walk on her own and deal with it. Walking behind her is her grandmother (and uncle)
Crossing a stream: the little girl is bawling her eyes out, having been subjected to a lot of biting insects (probably termites), 2010. However, she must learn to walk on her own and deal with it. Walking behind her is her grandmother (and uncle)

Parents might have favorite children but they don’t prefer sons over daughters, or vice versa. Mothers and fathers eagerly observe children’s personality development and appreciate that all babies are different. In turn, babies know from early on that they can shape the world to their liking. They can force a busy father to miss work; a common scene is a father creeping around camp evading children.
Overall, children have a great sense of personal autonomy and confidence. Though the Batek do take some deliberate measures to ensure that children are safe, healthy, and able to pick up necessary skills, their parenting style is mainly to let the children seek knowledge at will. But there are many different contexts for directing children’s attention towards specific aspects of their social and biophysical environments. As children grow, their parents don’t just hope that they will grow into their skills.
There’s a lot of subtle teaching going on, which anthropologists dub “natural pedagogy” (Terashima and Hewlett 2016). Through personal experience, one learns to monitor, train, and enskill oneself. And the physical context—whether one is in the forest or out of it, is critical. But co-presence or face-to-face contact also enables more intimate sharing and passing on of knowledge. This is the environment that modern schooling cannot replace.
 

1. Endicott, Kirk, and Karen L. Endicott. 2008. The headman was a woman: the gender egalitarian Batek of Malaysia. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press. The only exception, which I cannot comment on here, is schooling. Most Batek children now go to school.
2. Bird-David, Nurit. 1990. The giving environment: another perspective on the economic system of gatherer-hunters. Current Anthropology 31:183–196.
3. Lye Tuck-Po. 1997. Knowledge, forest, and hunter-gatherer movement: the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai`i at Manoa, Honolulu.
4. Rudge, Alice. 2017. Sound and socio-aesthetics among the Batek hunter-gatherers of Pahang state, Malaysia. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University College London, London.
5. Terashima, Hideaki, and Barry S. Hewlett, eds. 2016. Social learning and innovation in contemporary hunter-gatherers: evolutionary and ethnographic perspectives, Replacement of Neanderthals by Modern Humans. Tokyo: Springer Japan.

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