A couple of weeks ago I returned to my academic roots, visiting my supervisor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California in Santa Barbara. In between wine tasting, excellent seafood and running along palm-fringed beaches I did manage to fit in some work, part of which was attending the department’s journal club. This term they’re reading classic ethnographies, and the week I was there we were discussing Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, an ethnography which I have read extracts from but never properly discussed. However, she is one of the few anthropologists to have focused specifically on children and young adults, and Coming of Age in Samoa raised some interesting questions for me.
Mead was 23 when she went to Samoa to investigate adolescence in a society very different to that of America. She wanted to establish whether some of the features associated with being an American teenager – emotional turmoil, mood swings, general angst and anxiety – are a product of biology or of culture. We have a tendency to view life stages as universal and underpinned by biological processes, from cutting our first teeth, to the physical changes of puberty such as menstruation, to male pattern baldness and the hot flushes of menopause. We may try to fight the inexorable process of ageing but there is no doubt that these changes are inevitable. Or are they? Anthropologist Margaret Lock’s work on menopause in Japan and North America showed that the notion of a ‘universal menopause’ is false, with Japanese women not experiencing hot flushes and other symptoms experienced by American women. Local cultural perceptions of life stages can shape people’s experience, even of supposedly biological phenomena.
Mead’s study provides another example of these ‘local biologies’, portraying Samoan adolescence as a carefree time, free from the hormonal angst and emotional trauma often associated with being a teenager in Western societies; “…adolescence represented no period of crisis or stress… The girls’ minds were perplexed by no conflicts, troubled by no philosophical queries, beset by no remote ambitions.” Mead attributes this to “the general casualness of the whole society” at that time, which supported a carefree outlook on life and general emotional stability. Part of this was the relative lack of choice available to Samoan teenagers compared to American teens, both in terms of self-expression, and more generally in occupations and beliefs. In Western societies the emphasis on individuality forces us to make choices continually about our own identity and how to communicate it to others. While in many ways this ability to choose how we live our lives is a positive thing, the fear of making the wrong choice can lead to ‘choice paralysis’, and the feeling of being judged by the choices you make may foster the feeling of not quite ‘fitting in’ – a common experience for many Western adolescents and one which can lead to negative mental health outcomes. And choice itself can be limiting, as people are forced to choose between discrete categories which may not reflect their own preferences. For example, people in Western societies are still categorised as homosexual or heterosexual, and while the moral connotations of these categories are thankfully waning, being forced to ‘fit into’ one of these boxes can be confusing. Mead observes that Samoans neither celebrated nor condemned difference. A wide range of behaviour was accepted as normal, with most adolescents having at least some homosexual experiences.
For Samoan children, as in most traditional societies, a childhood spent in large family groups with little privacy meant they were exposed from a young age to birth, illness, death, and sex, as a normal and natural part of life. Mead contrasts this with Western children who are shielded from the negative or challenging aspects of adult life. While it is undoubtedly good that we experience fewer deaths of loved ones, and less illness, the extension of this protection into other areas of life, such as sex and relationships, means that children are not equipped to navigate these areas when they encounter them. For example, sex education at young ages is often deemed ‘unnatural’ or ‘harmful‘ despite the evidence that it is beneficial in helping children develop healthy relationships later in life.
This dichotomy between adults and children extends into work and play. Mead describes the various tasks which Samoan children carried out from a young age, all very obviously useful and related to adult activities. By contrast, children in Western societies are not involved in the world of adult work at all. School is a contradiction in that it is deemed to be the most important aspect of children’s lives, yet what it teaches has little functional relevance to adult work. Even at home children generally have few responsibilities and spend little time in the same activities as their parents. In Samoa however, “the distinctions between work as something one has to do but dislikes, and play as something one wants to do; of work as the main business of adults, play as the main concern of children, are conspicuously absent”. Mead draws the conclusion that this helps children’s self-esteem, because their activities are not seen as inherently less valuable than adults’, while for adults, there is no assumption that leisure time must be earned, and so no guilt associated with time spent not working.
In the UK we are facing a crisis of childhood and adolescent mental illness. Can we therefore learn something from Mead’s writings on Samoa about how to make this period of life easier and more emotionally stable? Mead herself comments that taking lessons from Samoan society is difficult because “the conditions which vex our adolescents are the flesh and bone of our society”. Many of the differences are those that have arisen in the transition from small-scale village-based societies to large-scale industrial ones. Economic development has brought many benefits in terms of healthier, longer lives, better infrastructure and more material wealth. The majority of people would be reluctant to return to more traditional ways of life. However, the comparison is useful in highlighting some of the areas in which economic development has not necessarily been all forward progress. The experience of children in Samoa and other small-scale societies demonstrates that showing children the realities of adult life, both positive and negative, prepares them for the challenges they might later encounter. Fostering a strong sense of community and acceptance could be key to building an identity that can guide children through the turbulence of adolescence. Finally, having meaningful tasks and responsibilities outside of formal education may be an important way of bolstering children’s self-esteem and forging emotional security.