September 22, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

What Makes People Different?

A man learns to skate by staggering about making a fool of himself; indeed, he progresses in all things by making a fool of himself.

George Bernard Shaw

Various cultures have certain characteristics of temperament, character and attitudes in general. This is not to say that everyone in a particular culture is that way, but many, if not most, members have certain traits. Traits such as being fundamentally happy and cheerful, as opposed to being dour. Some people are basically trusting, while others are basically suspicious. Some people are basically relaxed about most things, while others are tense. Some people are very orderly while others are often disorganized. Some people plan far ahead, while others live from day to day. Some people are gregarious while others are loners. How did they get that way?

I will dismiss genetics because I believe that most character traits, while manifesting themselves early in life, are produced by how infants are treated in early life and much is directly taught. For example, from birth, babies are reared by parents who are relaxed or uptight about their parenthood. Some infants are held much of the time and nursed when hungry, while others spend much of their time alone. It would be hard to imagine that such rearing methods didn't have a profound effect on the child and the adult. Some mothers are secure and confident parents, while others are very insecure. Some children are reared in extended families, where they are constantly in close contact with a nurturant adult. How does this affect the child?

You may think that you would like your children to be happy and secure and if you knew how to do it, you would raise your kids that way. Before you go ahead and have children that you resolve to rear that way, ask yourself if you are the person you want your children to resemble. Whatever the answer, if you are not the way that you want your kids to be, the chances of your being able to accomplish what you set out to do are pretty slim. The fact is that children tend to resemble their parents. This is not an absolute rule, and some parents have managed to change things, but they do not often accomplish extreme changes. Most of us are a mixture of traits that manifest themselves differently at different times. When I look at my character, I can see that it resembles that of both my mother and my father.

I recently read an article in Science News about the Ngandu and Aka people in Central Africa. The cover photo shows a delightfully happy child and a mother who is obviously delighted by her happy infant. It described the Aka who are a hunter-gatherer people. Their babies are carried all the time and nursed whenever they are hungry by their mother, or another mother. Their child rearing practices were contrasted with the Ngandu people, in the same region, who are farmers and let their children lie alone often. The article didn't say whether one group was happier than the other. However, the cover photo of the happy mother and child were of the Ngandu. Nor did it discuss what kinds of adults are more likely to till the soil and what kind of people are likely to be hunter-gatherers. Nor did it consider its application to the industrial world and the cultures that support it.

This is a difficult thing to analyze. In our present day society, do we want our children to be laid back? Do we want them to be successful, which means not being laid back? What is the effect going to be of more mothers working? How does a laid back kid react to an uptight world?

More important, what can the effect be of giving your kids the injunction to "be happy." Will it be interpreted as their having their parent's permission to enjoy the rewards of their work, or will they interpret it as their parents approving of the taking of drugs? Might this injunction make many kids useless to society, other than as indiscriminate consumers?

Before we extrapolate from technologically primitive cultures to our modern society, consider that their method of raising children might have contributed to making them the way that they are. What percentage of "great" people would be considered happy and normal? I would guess that the percentage would be close to zero.

Which brings me back to the question in the title, which is What Makes People Different? While I know of many things that contribute to making people different and I can point to a few things that are the major determinants in forming character, I still have no real answer. It's just far too complex.

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