Sunday, November 8, 2020

48. The Post-Nuclear Family: Education and Family Culture (Demographic Doom Podcast)

This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#48) recorded on 8 November 2020 (released on 9 November 2020). It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major podcast platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for extensive annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is

I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations. I'm trying to view humanity from a distance, as aliens would see us from space.

In this episode, I am continuing my discussion of the post-nuclear family, my proposed redesign of the current nuclear family, which among other things isn't producing enough babies to sustain our civilization. I have been talking about this structure for about a year, but I reintroduced it a month ago under the new name, "post-nuclear family" in Podcast #46. The basic idea is that I'm trying to reduce the cost of parenting while improving the quality and consistency of parenting by raising a large number of children in one household. I'm thinking of between 9 and 18 kids, evenly spaced in age, cared for in various capacities by a dozen or more adults, who don't actually live in the household. Instead the adults serve in scheduled shifts, so you might be on duty one day a week instead of 24/7 like today's parents.

As I explained in my last episode, #47, this is not some kind of commune where adults are sharing everything they own. It's more like a church that a number of adults commit themselves to, but they spend only part of their time on it. 

The first advantage of this system is economy of scale. Instead of 1 or 2 adults caring for one or two kids, as in our current families, up to 18 kids can live in one household where only one adult needs to be on duty at any one time. In other words, instead of parenting being a full-time job, it can be a part-time job. The rest of your time is yours to do as you wish. The idea is to distribute the huge costs and risks of parenting so more people can afford to do it, thereby assuring the survival of their communities.

The second advantage of this system is that with a lot of kids and a wide range of ages, older kids can help care for younger kids. There has to be adult supervision and adult financial support, but wherever possible, children should look after each other. This is not only a labor-saving device for the adults; it is also an important part of the socialization process. Childhood shouldn't just be you pursuing your dreams; you have to also participate in your community by caring for others.

In this episode I want to talk about the most important function of a family, which is programming. You can think of babies as little computers. They come out of the womb with some amazing hardware capabilities, but they need 18 years or more of training to fill them with your community's software. Those are skills, habits, attitudes and information that allow them to contribute to society. I call this process "formation" and it's the main reason families exist: to form the child into a model citizen.

Humans are unique in the animal world in their very long childhood. Think of a hooved animal like a horse or sheep. They are walking from the day they are born, and they may achieve full adult size in only two years. Human babies, in contrast, are utterly helpless when they are born and don't reach full physical maturity until their teens. Evidently, this remarkably long childhood is designed by evolution to allow a long period of cultural programming before the child is required to assume full adult responsibilities, and most of this programming takes place inside the family.

The simplest example is language training. Kids come out of the womb with some very sophisticated language abilities—their hardware, as it were—but they have to be introduced to a real language and trained in its nuances. Listening and speaking come naturally to young children, as long as they are surrounded by a rich social environment, but they have to be taught to read and write, which don't come so naturally. Writing, for example, can take decades of practice, since it involves so many complex cognitive skills.

If a child is going to speak a language without an accent and truly know it as a native, they have to be exposed to it early. This analogy applies to a lot of other emotional and cognitive skills. Good habits start in the cradle. For example, emotional security starts in infancy. Do you feel good about yourself? Do you feel safe. Do you trust others? These basic emotional attitudes toward the world may start even before the child can speak.

The emotional skill of social cooperation probably starts in toddlerhood, when the child can start moving around and defying authority. Do you throw a tantrum to get what you want, or do you learn to play by the rules? The first few years of formation don't involve any book learning, and it can't be done online. The first few years form the emotional habits that will be built upon in later stages. A child gets their basic understanding of the world in these first few years, or likewise, this is when emotional dysfunctions begin to develop. A toddler who successfully gets what they want through tantrums might end up using this technique all their life, because it's hard to break those early habits.

So how does this integrate with my post-nuclear system? First of all, when a child is born—or we'll say, delivered to the family by the stork—they are the center of the universe, as things should be. Their next oldest sibling is 1-2 years older than them. When a new baby comes into the household, it's like getting a new puppy, and everyone is excited. Babies do that to people. They are designed to be irresistible to older humans, and older humans are designed to respond to their ploys for attention. It's part of the whole cuteness thing that babies use to seduce us into caring for them. The Japanese call it "Kawaii" or cuteness. Since they can't care for themselves, infants need to draw people in with their adorableness.

So when I say I want to put children to work caring for other children, that's not necessarily an imposition. It's not child abuse for the older children, as long as they get good adult support. Older kids are going to want to play with the new baby, and since it is part of the package, they are going to be okay with feeding it and changing its diapers. If you want a puppy, you have to learn to care for it.

In the first few months of life, the baby forms secure emotional bonds with its caregivers. I don't want to say in advance who it will form those bonds with. The test of a child's bonds is clearly shown in toddlerhood. When the child falls down, who do they run to for comfort? Maybe it's always a single person, or maybe it could be one of several people who are equally seen as comforting. If the child feels secure in their bond, they are sufficiently comforted that they can turn around and continue exploring the world. 

Since I see this household as genetically diverse—children from a lot of different biological parents—they are each going to have their own personalities. Some kids are going to be really good at caring for others. Other children may not get it at all. Maybe they'd rather play with trucks or work on technical problems. That's why I don't want to declare in advance who bonds with whom or who becomes a child's primary caregiver. Although there is usually an adult on duty in the household, I think they should resist taking on this role. They can have warm relations with all the kids, but since they are there only one day a week, I think they should be more like aunts and uncles rather than primary caregivers. An aunt or uncle can give children special attention, but they're not the run-to source for comfort. That has to be one of the resident kids who are more often available.

So when it comes to the basic foundations of education—things like language learning and the following of rules—it's mainly kids teaching other kids. Kids do most of the baby-talk—you know, when you spend hours talking to a baby to encourage and correct their language skills. This is a very labor-intensive task, and kids do it just fine. Older kids can also teach younger kids to play by the rules. If you take a toy out of the toy box, you have to put it back. Kids have a well-developed sense of justice, and making them lawgivers, not just law-receivers, is a good socialization exercise for them. If there is a conflict between kids, older kids should resolve it whenever possible.

There could be an adult watching all of this, taking notes and making sure all the important stuff gets done, but they shouldn't be intervening unless it is necessary. In my system, adults don't change diapers, run baths, clean house or prepare meals. They instruct children to do those things, and ideally the older children are well enough trained that they rarely need specific instructions. Adults are, however, deeply involved in the design of the family. They way not clean house, but they carefully set up the house so it is easily cleaned—say with no wall-to-wall carpets and furniture that holds up under heavy use. Adults are responsible for systems, but kids make the systems work.

Adults don't read books to toddlers or teach them the alphabet, but they are monitoring progress and making sure key milestones are being achieved. The adult on duty might say, "Josie, maybe you could read Danny a book," and if the kids are already well-socialized, there is a good chance both will comply. Josie gets to practice her reading skills, and Danny gets the benefit of the language interaction. This is a heck of a lot easier than an adult reading a book to Danny, which is one of the insanities of our current nuclear families. You have adults with PhD's reading children's books to children, which is a horrible misuse of their valuable time. Let's have a child read a children's book to another child. That way, you're doubling the benefit—since both kids gain something from it—while eliminating an insane adult expense.

The main purpose of the family is education—or software programming—and this can happen in a lot of different ways. Some of it just happens on its own, without much of a plan. That's how children learn spoken language. You just put them in a rich linguistic environment with lots of direct feedback, and their hardware proclivities automatically kick in. Big families are ideal for language learning, because kids are surrounded by lots of stimulation and examples. There are other forms of education that need to be more planned and structured, like the traditional subjects of math, science, grammar, history, etc. There has to be a plan here, and some adult has to enforce it, and that's where you need a teacher.

Now there is the option of the family sending its children to public schools. You know, a yellow school bus picks them up, and they spend 6 hours every weekday in a classroom run by the local government. That's how I was educated, and my own memories of it are quite dreadful. While public schools remain an option, I don't think most post-nuclear families would go for that. It's too primitive. If you go to all the trouble of setting up this complex family system, you're not going to turn over its most important function to some government entity. Public education is a factory system, and the family can probably do better.

If you have a dozen or more parents contributing part of their income to the household, they can probably afford to hire a full-time teacher, working five days a week. Only I don't use the word "teacher". Instead I would call them an "Educational Resource Manager". Their main job isn't teaching. Instead, they marshal educational resources and apply them as needed to achieve the family's educational plan. They directly teach children only in special circumstances where other resources don't work. I'll call this person a "teacher" for now, and I think that's what the kids should call them, but for the most part they don't teach; they "manage education".

What are the educational resources at their disposal? There are are variety of them. There's book learning and online learning and tutoring and mentoring by adults. The most important resource, as I said, is older children teaching younger children. This works best for basic skills, like learning to walk and talk and obey family rules. As soon as a child learns a new skill, they teach it to someone else. Josie teaches the alphabet to Danny, then Danny teaches it to Tracy. Periodically, they report to the teacher for informal testing. Can Tracy accurately say her alphabet? If she can, the teacher checks off that milestone in the list of expected achievements for a child that age.

So there's a curriculum, which is basically a set of milestones established by the parents. At such-and-such an age, a child should have learned this-or-that skill or knowledge set. Deciding what every child should learn is a political process hashed out among the parents. The teacher is the implementer of the plan, and their job is to hand out individual plans to the kids, but the design of the system is a community project. Because education is so important, it's something that is always being refined and renegotiated among the parents.

The teacher is the conductor, orchestrating the education plan of 9-to-18 students, each of whom is working at their own pace. Although there are fixed milestones that need to be met, all learning is individualized. No one is left behind or held back. If a student is struggling, more resources are devoted to them. If a student is zooming ahead, far beyond the milestones for their age, they are encouraged to do so. There are no barriers, and if the system works as I hope, most students will be moving much more quickly than in a standard bureaucratic school system. 

In the schools I went to, all the students of the same age must advance at the same pace, which leaves some students behind and bores the heck out of others. In this new system, every child works at their own pace, but measured against a set of benchmarks. If a benchmark isn't achieved, like reading by a certain age, then more resources need to be devoted to them. On the other hand, if a student is zooming ahead on the standard curriculum, that just gives them more time to pursue the subjects that interest them. It is up to the teacher to keep track of, first of all, whether the standard milestones are being met. Secondly, they are noticing what the child likes to do and what they are good at, so those special skills can be nurtured.

I think there's a limit, however, to the nurturing. A child's desires and proclivities aren't the only determinant of how educational resources are spend. The teacher is also looking at community priorities. For example, let's say a student really loves the theatre, loves acting, and there's really no resources within the family to develop those skills. This doesn't mean the family has to pull out all the stops to get the kid acting lessons. Every family has limited resources, and parents have to decide how those resources should be spent. If the kid wants to a be an actor, that's great. He or she is free to pursue that muse. But it comes to what the family is prepared to invest real money in, it might be more inclined to support, say, a kid who wants to be a doctor. The family has to have priorities. It's not going to forbid a student from exploring a drama career, but it doesn't need to contribute real resources.

Schooling probably still fits within a schedule. For example, five days a week between certain hours, deliberate education is supposed to take place, just like the schools we know today. Maybe those are the hours when the teacher is on duty. But in a broader sense, the education never ends. Everything the family does is part of the formation plan—the preparing of meals, the maintaining of the house, outings, entertainment activities. All of this is an opportunity to instill the family's culture into the children. You don't just take the kids to Disneyland. Every activity has to achieve some kind of goal, especially when it requires expensive family resources.

So what we are trying to preserve and perpetuate here is a culture, a body of knowledge and attitudes that are handed from one generation to the next. The founding parents would be entering into this complex childrearing arrangement because they fear that their culture will vanish if they don't.

A simple analogy is a dying language. Let's say you have a unique regional language that is only spoken by 1000 people. If you want to preserve this language as a living entity, you need to produce some children who you will teach the language to. So language education is going to be a central part of your plan, and you have to start it early if the children are to speak your language in its purest native form. In many other ways, that's what every post-nuclear family is trying to do. They are trying to preserve some aspect of their culture that they fear will be lost if they don't take action, and to preserve this culture completely, you need to start early.

This raises ethical issues. Is it right to bring a new child into the world—to create a new life fraught with danger—to preserve something that you think is important? Isn't it selfish to expect a child to preserve your language or way of life? I'll probably tackle that in a future episode. For now, we'll assume that the decision has already been made. A group of adults get together and decide, "We're going to create and raise some children to preserve our way of life." Obviously, you're going to be very concerned about the curriculum and habits you are teaching, and you're going to have a lot of private debate with other parents, outside the hearing of the children, about what should be taught and how. For example, what books are going to be "required reading" of all children in the household?

Some of it will go to plan, and some of it won't. One key thing here is that you're not just preserving a culture; you're creating a new culture, and it could go in a direction that the founding parents didn't expect.

Let me explain this. The founding parents are going to come up with a curriculum, or milestones about what should be learned and when, and they'll hand it to the teacher, who will try to implement the plan. But the kids themselves will have their own ideas. Maybe your curriculum requires that the kids learn some dead language like Latin, and they're just not into it. If they don't feel strongly about Latin when they grow up, they are not going to perpetuate it when they control the curriculum.

As I see it, there are three ways that a family's culture is passed between the generations: There's a formal education process. There's the example that the parents themselves provide in their behavior. Finally, there's the culture that passes between children. Call it "kid culture". It's like the stupid jokes told between kids with no adult involvement. If we are going to have kids raising other kids, they are going to develop their own ways of communicating and doing things, and parents have to lay off and let it happen. They can try to intervene if things go bad, but as long as the most important tasks get done, parents have to leave the kid culture alone and let it develop in its own way. Ultimately, kid culture will prevail, because in the end these kids are going to grow up and control the educational curriculum.

So you start out trying to preserve your own culture, but in the process the culture is going to turn into something new. There's nothing wrong with this. I think culture is deeper than its expression. It's a set of habits. The main thing is that basic morality is preserved. Everything else is decided by each generation. Each generation has to ask: "What do we want to preserve, and what can we leave behind?"


Subscribe to this podcast for more discussions of this theoretical family structure. I encourage your input. If you have anything to say, you can email me or post a comment to the YouTube version of this episode. My contact information is found in the YouTube description.


Written, recorded and edited by Glenn Campbell. For annotations, links and corrections, see the description on the video version of this podcast. You can also leave comments there. See here for all my podcast scripts on this blog.