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Children Without Parents

Children in Collectives—Childrearing Aims and Practices in the Kibbutz

edited by Peter D. Neubauer M.D.
Charles C. Thomas, 416 pp., $11.50

What happens to the infant when he is separated from his mother a few days after birth and is raised—not at home, by his parents—but entirely by educators, and in peer groups?

This is the question at the center of the book under review, which is the report of a five-day Institute held in Israel in 1963. Unfortunately the question remains more a matter of inference than of open exploration. For Americans, however, the question is vital: Among the most pressing educational problems in the US today are those of the culturally deprived child and of juvenile delinquency. Since the Israeli Kibbutz seems to have solved these problems, there is good reason to ask if their educational methods can be applied in America. The more so because the feeling is widespread among us that if we are to help the culturally deprived child he had best be reared in an environment different from the home that often damages his ability to live in the world he must enter later on.

But can children be reared successfully away from their mothers? Opinion in the West, led by Bowlby and Spitz, seems to be that this is disastrous for the infant and creates severe pathology later in life. In the words of the Children’s Bureau: “Young children need individual attention from their parents, and do not fare well in groups.” One purpose of the Institute, therefore, was to give a select group of visitors from abroad the chance to inform themselves, and the Kibbutz a chance to allay doubts, about such a method of education.

There were more than fifty participants in the Institute, about half of whom were from the Kibbutz. With the exception of two participants from England and one from Holland, nearly all foreigners at the Institute were from the US. In addition to the editor, Peter Neubauer, they included such well known child psychoanalysts and psychiatrists as James Anthony, Viola Bernard, Leon Eisenberg, Marianne Kris, and Fritz Redl. The other Americans were psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and educators, many of them internationally known as specialists in the children’s field.

OSTENSIBLY these two groups met in order to profit from an exchange of ideas. But as one might expect, the proceedings show that each group tried not only to learn from the other but also to keep its preconceived notions from being shaken. These are opposite motives and not easily compatible, since the desire to conserve and persuade is often stronger than the impulse to learn and to change.

The meeting resulted in another of the many non-books that now flood the professional field. The conference itself may have been of great interest and value to the participants themselves, but the proceedings unfortunately do not make a very readable or informative book. In spite of skillful editing by Dr. Neubauer, a discussion in which some fifty people participate does not necessarily produce a theme, or even a description of a phenomenon: the unusual way in which children are reared in the Kibbutz.

This phenomenon, however, is of the greatest interest. And here, at the meeting, clashing head on, were two views of what is the best way to raise children. By the end of the book, however, this reader was left with the feeling that while initially the visitors from abroad wanted on the whole to prove to the Kibbutz that its method of child-rearing is harmful to the child, they were reluctantly forced to conclude that things are not quite so bad as they expected. So far so good. It would have been instructive if the visitors had then truly questioned the theories that had led them to such an erroneous, a priori conviction, and then come up either with reasons for maintaining these theories, or at least with suggestions for revising them. The latter would have led to far-reaching consequences for our views of the parent-child relation, particularly the relationship between mother and child.

Instead, such an exchange of views was blocked—and not just by basic differences. Much more often it was the inability of the participants from abroad to accept the Kibbutz as a way of life as natural as their own. Only for fleeting moments did a few participants from abroad suggest that our own ways of rearing children are just as much open to question as those of the Kibbutz.

Though I am in favor of seeing children raised by their parents, the Kibbutz example has apparently shown that our anxieties about the fate of the infant raised away from his mother are not justified. On the contrary, Kibbutz children seem to fare considerably better than do many children raised in underprivileged homes, and better than quite a few children raised at home by middle-class parents. Even more significant: The Kibbutz example has shown that it is possible in a single generation to create a healthy personality that is entirely different from that of the parents.

SO THE FIRST QUESTION IS: How do these children manage so well, though in infancy and childhood they spend most of the day and all night away from their parents? In the nursery and youth houses, the child’s own age group takes the place of what we would call his family of origin, since it along remains stable over the years. The adults who rear him—his nurses, child care workers, and teachers—are often replaced. The performance of these children in later adult life casts further doubt on our anxieties, because they are described as hard-working, responsible citizens, devoted to their communities and nation. As adolescents and adults they are free of the asocial behavior that worries us most—delinquency, criminality, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, drug addiction, etc. Furthermore, as one of the American participants observed, “During our tour we were shown the high school and the excellent facilities it possessed, and we were frequently assured that the children, although oriented toward farming, were not at all averse to studying. We were told of some exceptional children who had made some interesting field studies in the natural sciences. There was some reason for our concern, for scholastic pursuits are not usually encouraged in pioneer settlements, where the plough and the sword are more in demand than the pen.”*

The question of the price of this achievement was indeed discussed at the Institute. But since the balance of gains and shortcomings was never considered, we cannot evaluate from the evidence of the book the personality so formed; we are not told what education in the Kibbutz achieves for the individual, and what it fails to achieve.

Any educational system can be understood and evaluated only within the context of its culture. If one cannot accept the goals of that culture, at least as a premise, then one cannot free oneself of the bias of one’s own culture. Let me give an example of how this bias prevented the meeting from clarifying essential matters about the educational system of the Kibbutz. One prominent psychoanalyst from abroad suggested a study of personality development in the Kibbutz through a comparison of one set of children who were bowel-trained mainly by their parents, and another set who were trained mostly by “metapelets”—that is, by Kibbutz child-care workers. But if a Kibbutz were to relegate this very important training to parents for some of its children, and to the metapeles for others, it would cease to be a Kibbutz—that is, a well-integrated group—and become a research station in which experiments with children are carried on. This would mean that these children would not only have an experience of radically different toilet-training, but an experience that in itself contradicted all Kibbutz values in a most significant respect. The final results would then tell us little about the consequences of Kibbutz methods of teaching cleanliness, though it might enlighten us about the consequences of implanting in very small children a deep inner conflict about the values of the Kibbutz.

What is shocking about such a suggestion is that the same person would not suggest to a group of psychoanalysts that they let their children be toilet trained by professional educators, rather than their parents, since that would yield interesting results—as indeed it would. But then, one would wonder about the motives of parents who would be willing to relinquish their roles as parents for the sake of an investigation. One might even conclude that such an experiment was invalid because the parents who consent to it are so deviant that the findings no longer apply to parents and child-rearing in our culture.

For its own members, the Kibbutz is a way of life, not an interesting experiment. Their children, I am tempted to say, are their jewels, their most valued possessions. But in saying so I would only compound the errors I speak of, since jewels and private possessions are anathema to the Kibbutz.

Ridiculous as the experiment I have described may seem, this is exactly what several scientists from abroad suggested to the Kibbutz, in all seriousness; indeed they were quite critical when the Kibbutz did not jump at the chance to carry it out. Still it is relatively easy to understand why a visitor might take this attitude if he is shaken by what he sees: He wants to make very sure that the evidence really runs counter to his theories before he will change or discard them. But it is a more serious matter when the visitor goes beyond suggesting limited experiments, and requests radically changed procedures because they match his convictions more closely. This latter position was reflected in so many recommendations that it is difficult to select a typical example. However, the recommendations of a child psychiatrist I have come to respect most highly, both for his work and as a person, may serve to make the point. This child psychiatrist said:

Insufficient effort has been devoted to encouraging individualization in the children’s room and the children’s corner…every bed looked like every other bed, there were no toys, and apparently no personal possessions in the corner. It seems to me that as an early anlage of the individualization…every child should be encouraged to have some personal possession or possessions in his corner; that each child’s bed should look different from the other bed in his room just so he will know that it’s his.

IN ORDER TO FEEL the impact of this recommendation, one must bear in mind that the Kibbutz has made heroic efforts to create a society of equals, a society without private property, in which the group will in all ways take precedence over the individual. It is tantamount to telling the Kibbutz that, as of now, it should stop being a Kibbutz. (Kibbutz is the Hebrew word for group, and means nothing else.) The absence of private possessions, of any feeling that things are his, is just what teaches the child from his earliest years that he lives in a society without private property. In effect the visitor was suggesting that the Kibbutz as such should cease to exist.

  1. *

    This is a difficult problem. The Kibbutz education is superior to the education in the cities as far as a broad basis is concerned since it provides free education for all children up to the age of eighteen, while in the cities free education stops at fourteen. On the other hand, it is true that the Kibbutz does not encourage the matriculation exam nor prepare for it, which is required for entering the Universities, whereas the city high schools do so for those selected children who will attend them. The reason is that the Kibbutz wishes its youth to remain in the agricultural settlements and not to be drawn away into the intellectual professions, since an essential part of Kibbutz philosophy is to do away with the intellectual Jew and anchor him also in physical labor and on the land. While high intellectual and educational achievement is rare, on the other hand the average educational level seems higher than in the cities. Thus the educational system prepares them admirably for the life they expect to live. But we have to realize that this is a different life than we might select for our own children.

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