Mom vs. Village

“It takes a village” may no longer apply to raising a child, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. In two different studies published by anthropologist Beverly Strassmann, children from the villages of Mali in West Africa who were raised by their mothers had higher survival rates than those co-raised by an extended family.

Over the course of 25 years, Strassmann studied the Dogon people of Mali, following 1,700 Dogon children. She found that children were four times more likely to die by age 5 if their mothers were dead. Strassmann noted that the presence of an “extra” adult in the family did not improve the child’s chances of survival.

In addition, Dogon children whose grandparents had died were 52 percent less likely to die themselves. The reason, Strassmann said, is that grandparents who live in the same household as the child are competing for scarce resources. In other words, rather than contributing toward the family’s welfare, grandparents are consuming food, using shelter and drinking water, in effect making them compete with the children in the family for survival.

Competing with relatives is an important aspect of the human family system, according to Strassmann’s research. She notes that genetic competition begins before birth and extends into childhood with sibling rivalry.

But it’s not all about beating the big sister to the fruit plate. Strassmann’s research is supported by 1960s evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton, who put forth a theory that the closer related people are, the more willing they are to invest their resources in each other. In American society, grandparents and relatives still play a vital role in a child’s early life, providing care, affection and an opportunity for children to engage socially, not to mention a welcome break for busy parents.

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