Mistaken experiments in child-raising outside the family by Lars-Toralf Storstrand

This article first appeared in the Sunday Guardian on 31 March 2018 with the title ‘Utopian ideals don’t mix well with child-welfare policies‘ as part of the weekly series called ‘Global Child Rights and Wrongs’ critiquing the role of governments and NGOs in child policy published in collaboration with this website, www.saveyourchildren.in

The children were communally raised and allowed to spend only a few a day with their biological parents. Photo: ארכיון השומר הצעיר יד יערי – Hashomer Hatzair Archives Yad Yaari, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5845559

The term “Kibbutz” is forever tied to Israel. Anyone who has heard of Israel, has heard the term. Most tourists coming to Israel have visited a kibbutz. Many young people during the 60s and 70s visited these seemingly paradisiacal versions of the Soviet Sovkhos [state-owned farms], even though the Kibbutz-idea actually precedes the Sovkhos-concept by a decade.

The first Kibbutz in what is today the sovereign state of Israel was founded in 1909, almost 30 years after the first Jewish immigration or “Aliyah” in modern time. One of the special features of the Kibbutz experiment (and there are still about 250 Kibbutzim in Israel, but they are very different from the original ones) was that children were raised as though they were “owned” by the community, which is what the term “Kibbutz” means, being derived from the Hebrew word “Kvutza”, meaning “group”. ‫‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬The children were communally raised, in a special setting, and allowed to spend only two or three hours with their biological parents in the afternoon.

But could it be that simple? As an idea this was well meant, but in practice it was not a perfect method of child raising. Psychologist and author Noam Shpancer, who was raised as a Kibbutznik-child, talks about his experience in an article in the British paper, The Guardian: “A childhood memory: woken in the middle of the night with a piercing toothache, I stumble out of my room in a daze into the darkened corridor. I stand in front of the intercom that hangs on the wall above me and I call for help: ‘Night guard, night guard, please come over.’ If this sounds like the memory of a child in an institution, it is in a way. I was a kibbutz child.”

Communal childrearing is not a uniquely Jewish or Israeli idea. It has existed in some form or other different cultures around the world. But the Jewish/Israeli idea was based on the revolutionary principle of social equality and shared ownership. The idea was also to demolish the traditional Jewish-European culture that had its base in the nuclear family.

But the idea was not long-lived. By the end of the 1980s, this form of communal child rearing was abandoned in the Kibbutzim. In other words, the idea survived for merely three generations. This in itself is noteworthy; when a culture or an idea succumbs after a mere two or three generations, it indicates that it was intrinsically flawed.

So how was life for children raised at the Kibbutzim? In the same article quoted above, Noam Shpancer says “As children, we spent most of our time in the children’s house with our peers. We ate, played, studied and slept there. We would visit our parents every afternoon between 4pm and 8pm, then they would return us to the children’s house to sleep. Our Jewish mothers never cooked us a meal, never washed our clothes or sang us a lullaby. The kibbutz system sought to limit private intimacies in case they diverted members’ energy from the communal project.”

Daniel Gavron, another kibbutznik child, writes about his experiences: “Allowed to suckle every four hours, left to cry and develop our lungs, we grew up without the basic security needed for survival. Sitting on the potty at regular intervals next to other children doing the same, we were educated to be the same; but we were, for all that, different…. At night the grown-ups leave and turn off all the lights. You know you will wet the bed because it is too frightening to go to the lavatory.” (The Kibbutz: Awakening from Utopia. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.)

Shpancer isn’t wholly critical of his childhood, though, and continues: “The kibbutz was, in some ways, a wonderful place for kids. It was safe – there was no crime or street violence, no traffic. We were poor, with few material possessions, but we wore our poverty with pride, because we were taught that material possessions were evil. We looked down on city children as weak, spoiled, misguided.”

So what is the problem, if any? Several researchers have pointed out, independently, that children growing up under these circumstances experienced problems making strong emotional commitments later in life. The inability to form lasting friendships is one trait. Having problems in romantic attachments seems to be another.

It has been claimed that the Kibbutzim was “a unique social experiment that offers a laboratory for studying the effects of variations in child rearing on personality development.”

Yael Neeman, herself a Kibbutz child, and author of “We were the future”, loved her young life in the Kibbutz, and yet she writes: “People from the city often ask me, ‘Was it good? Was it bad?’ I feel very lucky I was born like that ….Most of us feel that way.” But she continues: “None of us wanted his children to be born like that — without their parents.”

Earlier I mentioned psychologist Noam Shpancer. Let us follow Shpancer further: “I have many such innocent memories. But there was another side to my kibbutz childhood. The pressure to conform was relentless. Individuality and competition were looked down upon. Children who were unusual, eccentric or sought to distinguish themselves, were shunned. We were socialized to be strong and sunny, simple and similar. Emotional expression was demeaned as weak and self-involved. We learned to numb ourselves. I haven’t cried since I was 10. I’d like to, but I can’t.”

at the same time as the experiment of the Kibbutznik children came to an end, Western countries picked up on the idea

By 1990 the Utopian dream of the Kibbutzim was a thing of the past. But at the same time as the experiment of the Kibbutznik children came to an end, Western countries picked up on the idea. The late 1980s saw UNICEF taking up the notion of children as needing the protection of the State as a sort of superparent. Hitherto, UNICEF had concerned itself with orphans who had lost their families in wars or natural disasters and homeless street urchins. But in the late 1980s, UNICEF extended its mandate to children within the family and started lobbying governments around the world to do the same. This effort culminated in the early 1990s in the adoption by the United Nations of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (“UNCRC”), which brought into international law for the first time the notion of the State intervening to remove a child from a family.

Children may, of course, be abused in the family, and there had always been national laws criminalizing such abuse. So the project of the UNCRC was not new in that it took up the issue of the abuse of children within the family. What was new was in the way it shifted the focus from removing the offending family member, to removing the child from the family. This was guided by the underlying principle of UNICEF’s modern approach to child welfare which is that the biological family and kinship are not fundamental to child welfare.

When considered in the context of children who are the victims of incest or extreme violence or those abandoned or exposed to criminal activity, or drug and alcohol use, this approach has some appeal. Indeed, these are the examples that UNICEF and child protection advocates give in arguing for the need for State intervention in the family. However, in practice, countries that have adopted child protection measures have, since the 1990s, moved further and further away from situations of extreme abuse, expanding the net of child protection laws to cover family situations and childhood experiences where the justification for State intervention is at least arguable, if not outright unjustified.

In countries like Norway and England the majority of child confiscations are not where there is any incest, violence or substance abuse, but vague and subjective negative assessments of the home life of the children and the nature of their relationship with their parents such as “attachment disorder” or the “risk of future emotional harm”.

Though child protection authorities and judges are on paper required to give due importance to biological kinship, in practice it is observed that they view the biological parents and the child’s relationship to them as on the same footing as any other care giver, at least to the extent that if the parent is seen (in their subjective and often questionable opinion) to fail as a care giver then it is seen as necessary to remove the child. In case after case in England, for instance, family court judges will declare that although the children have not been abused by the parents, and there is no doubt the parents and children love each other deeply, yet child must be removed (and given to a foster-parent or adoptive family) because the parents do not “co-operate” with social workers.

Professor Marianne Skanland of Norway has written about how in 2012 the Raundalen Committee, a committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament to examine “attachment” in children, made the recommendation that “the biological principle” should be excluded and replaced by a “development-enhancing principle” for selecting “on a scientific principle” where children should be raised. The committee was headed by psychologist Magne Raundalen who, less than a generation ago argued that it was favorable to let children use expletives and obscenities, and not to correct them.

This has created the situation in Norway today where children are considered the property of the state, on “loan”, so to speak, to parents who may keep them only as long as they do not teach the children something that is not pre-approved by the state or by a minor elite of people who consider themselves the sole authority on what is best for the children.

It would be better for the world to learn from the experience of Kibbutznik children and abandon utopian ideals for child-rearing which ultimately are too severe in their effects. Instead, child protection should adopt a balanced approach to child welfare that gives due consideration to the importance of family and love in the happiness, security, self-identity and future of a child.

Lars-Toralf Storstrand is a journalist and author who himself left Norway with his wife and children in 2017 owing to persecution by their child protection authorities.