It Takes a Bureaucracy


It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, by Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York: Simon & Schuster, 318 pages, $20.00

Hillary Clinton has written a book about children. Her agenda will surprise no one. She wants to promote the idea that government has a legitimate, conspicuous, and indeed necessary role to play in the lives of American children and their parents. In making her case for government intervention, however, Clinton adopts a clever strategy, ostensibly grounding her policy proposals in what experts on child rearing have to tell us about children's needs. This creates the impression that the policies she supports--including medical-and family-leave mandates, licensing of home-based day care, state-sponsored pregnancy and infant care programs, and training for parents with poor literacy skills to help raise children "born to read"--are based on empirical evidence and, even better, science. In keeping with this game plan, Clinton provides a running narrative of child development. Thus, while It Takes a Village is a political book, it is also a book that claims to be about developmental psychology. I want to focus here on the developmental story that Clinton tells and ask how faithfully the premises about children's development on which the book depends reflect what developmentalists actually have to tell us.

On Clinton's reading of developmental psychology, the first three or so years of life are "not just important; they are more crucial to shaping children than any other time." Further, young children are influenced for good or bad by virtually anything that happens in their presence. "From the way that we touch them and our tone of voice when we bathe or change them," she writes, "they sense whether we enjoy their company, whether we are paying attention or just going through the motions, whether we are listening."

Stress in parents "may create feelings of helplessness that lead to later developmental problems." Children need "gentle, intimate, consistent contact" from caretakers, and structured, ritualized, but also "unhurried" time. The early years are crucial to later development in part because it is then that the brain is most receptive to input, or "food," from the environment. "Brain research teaches us that feeling safe and protected is essential to healthy neurological development," Clinton claims. After that, "brain cells and synapses begin to wither away, so that the child learns more slowly."

"Children who are subjected to constant comparisons," writes Clinton, "may lose heart in their pursuit of a developmental task or abandon it altogether." Youngsters learn what they see and hear. Children also come equipped with certain predispositions. They ask all kinds of questions about God; for instance, what does God look like, why does God let people do bad things, and does God care whether we squash a bug. From this we can conclude that "the potential for spirituality seems to be there from the beginning." A baby will cry in the presence of another crying infant. From this we can infer that newborns have "empathy" for the suffering of others from the start. Mostly, however, who a child becomes is a product of what "the village" offers. The child that emerges from Clinton's reading of the developmental literature is vulnerable, even fragile, especially sensitive to early impressions. And impressions matter because this is a child who is mainly a product of its environment.

Is this the profile of childhood that emerges from developmental experts? It Takes a Village accurately points to the kinds of child-rearing environments recommended by developmentalists as most likely to produce a thriving child and a competent, self-sufficient, confident, productive adult. It is better to have two parents, one of each sex. It is better to set limits but also high expectations, to emphasize rationality, and to take the child's opinions into account. Consistency is better than inconsistency. And so on. But although the profile of better and worse child-rearing strategies portrayed in It Takes a Village remains loyal enough to what developmentalists tell us, the profile of the child does not.

When I was in college in the 1960s, I learned the Margaret Mead version of human development. On this view, human nature is infinitely malleable, and culture determines how any child will turn out. This sounds a lot like Clinton's account of children, and so it is unsurprising that Mead and her contemporaries make scattered appearances throughout the book. By the time I began to teach developmental psychology in the 1970s, however, a new model of development was emerging, and this is the model that characterizes developmental psychology today. On this view, children are resilient, able to withstand even large variations in their treatment while still remaining on track. Developmental outcomes are understood to be significantly influenced by the inborn traits of children themselves. The idea that a person's developmental fate is sealed by three or four years of age has given way to the notion of ongoing plasticity. Brains continue to adapt to environmental input throughout life, and so, therefore, do the psychological processes that brains underwrite.

What is more, newborn human babies are not operating with a full deck of cards, neurophysiologically speaking. The cortex, which is required for anything interesting in the way of cognitive activity, does not begin to kick in until a baby is perhaps two months old, and then only bit by bit. So babies are dumber than the book implies, and also, therefore, more impervious to environmental happenstance. And without the benefit of cortical input, babies are not making cognitive evaluations of the people or world around them. The current profile from academic psychology portrays children who are dramatically less delicate and pliant, and less sensitive to the actions of others, than is claimed in It Takes a Village. We now think of children as more resilient, more adaptable, more responsible for their own developmental fates. Environments do matter, a lot, but Clinton's porcelain child is out of date.

I have focused on Hillary Clinton's interpretation of what developmentalists have to tell us about children. But It Takes a Village is really two different books about what children are like. Threaded throughout the book are personal anecdotes about the childhood and parenting experiences of Clinton, her husband, and those near and dear to them. From these vignettes, we get a version of the nature of children that is dramatically different from the official account presented in the book and essentially the same as the version that contemporary developmentalists portray. Indeed, it is from these vignettes that we learn the real lessons from children to which the subtitle refers.

In one vignette, Hillary the child has moved to a new neighborhood. Intimidated by the teasing of the neighborhood kids, she runs home every day. Finally, her mother takes her by the shoulders, tells her that no cowards live here, and sends her back outside. When the neighborhood kids, surprised at seeing her back so soon, challenge her again, Hillary "stood up for myself and finally won some friends."

In another vignette, Chelsea is not allowed to have velcro closures on her shoes until she learns to tie her laces. When Chelsea finally gets that lace tied, Hillary observes, "It may sound silly now, but I loved the look of accomplishment on her face when she showed us all what she could do for herself."

These are small stories. But they demonstrate that children do not break when faced with challenges. Indeed, they flourish. Clinton's account of her mother's early life is a far more dramatic example of the kinds of challenges that children can face and overcome. Clinton remarks, "to a great extent, my mother's character took shape in response to the hardships she experienced in her early years." These character traits included a respect for people of all sorts, a passion for learning, and a belief in social justice.

Why this disconnect between Clinton's account of the developmental literature and what her own life should be telling her about the nature of children? Clinton tells us that It Takes a Village is not a memoir. But the book is deeply revealing about what drives Hillary Clinton as policy advocate. Her official version of child development is also a description of how she views human nature. It Takes a Village opens with the claim that children are not rugged individualists. The message with which the book wishes to leave us is that parents are not rugged individualists either. In a cameo appearance, one full-time mother is quoted as follows: "This is real, America. We ask you, the government, and you the employer, to help us, the working people, to make [child rearing] work. We can't do it alone." It is in the nature of the human being that the fragile, dependent child becomes the vulnerable, dependent adult. According to Clinton, then, the experts tell us that children need the village to develop decently, and so do their parents.

Oddly, however, in the world of Hillary Clinton some parents are more susceptible to the influence of human nature than others. Thus, again through personal vignettes, we get a sense of how strong, self-sufficient, and resourceful parents can be. In one such story, Clinton's father, as a boy, badly injures his legs and feet. The doctors want to amputate, but his mother won't let them near her son. She calls her brother-in-law, a country doctor, and orders him to "save my sonny's legs." He does.

In a more mundane example, Chelsea is ill, Clinton is due in court, and no one is around to look after a sick child. Hillary the mother frantically attempts to find someone to fill in as babysitter. Finally, a friend agrees to watch Chelsea.

So some adults are capable of fending for themselves and their families, and of recruiting the help of the village when that is required. These must be parents who have escaped the inevitable developmental march from dependent child to dependent adult. But other parents, somehow, have not. These are the parents who need the help of a special kind of village--the government. It's too bad that Clinton wants to deprive these parents and their children of reaping the advantages of facing and overcoming challenges on their own that she and her family have enjoyed.

Let me say a final word about the "village." The title of this book is taken from an African proverb. The kinds of villages to which the proverb refers are small, homogeneous, and kin-based. They are little platoons. People know each other, interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, and form voluntary associations in which I watch your child and you watch mine. By contrast, although It Takes a Village does portray people helping one another without government interference or coercion, the village that Hillary Clinton has in mind is Uncle Sam. So we have another disconnect, this time between what children and parents need and what the book proposes in the way of policy initiatives. Child rearing is easier and works better when people beyond the nuclear family cooperate. But why this points to a government role is never explained.

In fact, when the government is the village, the job of the parent is made harder. Thus, for example, Clinton correctly notes that the teaching of virtues is a critical child-rearing task and laments how hard the task has become nowadays. But looking to government won't do the trick. Government schools can't teach virtues because government schools are required to play to the lowest common denominator. So we have values clarification instead of the teaching of substantive virtues. Children are encouraged to articulate what values they hold but not why they hold them or whether they are legitimate to hold.

If you want to read some good books on children, go get Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Then go read The Discovery of Freedom by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, to see what child rearing without government intervention can produce.

Gwen J. Broude (broude@vassar.edu) teaches developmental psychology and cognitive science at Vassar College.