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Samoan Baby and Baby-Tender [Anthropology Text]


In 1928, Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, an anthropological work based on fieldwork she had conducted on female adolescents in Samoa. In 1925, Mead observed, interviewed, and interacted with 68 girls between the ages of 9 and 20 living in three villages on the island of Ta‘ū in American Samoa. After 9 months of study, Mead concluded that unlike stressed American girls, the well-balanced and carefree nature of sexually active Samoan girls was due to the cultural stability of their society free of conflicting values, expectations, and shameful taboos.

According to Margaret Mead, Samoan girls' healthy adolescence was shaped by their upbringing. In this excerpt from her study, Mead describes Samoan birth rituals, infancy, childhood as well as such child-rearing issues as nourishment and punishment.

The focus of the final excerpt is the role of baby-tender thrust on the 6-or 7-year-old girl. This tyranny of toddlers represents "the worst period" in the life-cyle of Samoan females. How do Samoan girls' work responsibilities compare with the komori in Japan and "little mothers" in the U.S.?


Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation (New York: Morrow Quill, 1961), 20–24. Annotated by Miriam Forman-Brunell.

Primary Source Text

Birthdays are of little account in Samoa. But for the birth itself of the baby of high rank, a great feast will be held, and much property given away. The first baby must always be born in the mother's village and if she has gone to live in the village of her husband, she must go home for the occasion. For several months before the birth of the child the father's relatives have brought gifts of food to the prospective mother, while the mother's female relatives have been busy making pure white bark cloth for baby clothes and weaving dozens of tiny pandanus mats which form the layette. The expectant mother goes home laden with food gifts and when she returns to her husband's family, her family provides her with the exact equivalent in mats and bark cloth as a gift to them. At the birth itself the father's mother or sister must be present to care for the new-born baby while the midwife and the relatives of the mother care for her. There is no privacy about a birth. Convention dictates that the mother should neither writhe, nor cry out, nor inveigh against the presence of twenty or thirty people in the house who sit up all night if need be, laughing, joking, and playing games. The midwife cuts the cord with a fresh bamboo knife and then all wait eagerly for the cord to fall off, the signal for a feast. It the baby is a girl, the cord is buried under a paper mulberry tree (the tree from which bark cloth is made) to ensure her growing up to be industrious at household tasks; for a boy it is thrown into the sea that he may be a skilled fisherman, or planted under a taro plant to give him industry in farming. Then the visitors go home, the mother rises and goes about her daily tasks, and the new baby ceases to be of much interest to any one. The day, the month in which it was born, is forgotten. Its first steps or first words are remarked without exuberant comment, without ceremony. . .

Babies are always nursed, and in the few cases where the mother's milk fails her, a wet nurse is sought among the kinsfolk. From the first week they are also given other food, papaya, cocoanut milk, sugar-cane juice; the food is either masticated by the mother and then put into the baby's mouth on her finger, or if it is liquid, a piece of bark cloth is dipped into it and the child allowed to suck it, as shepherds feed orphaned lambs. The babies are nursed whenever they cry and there is no attempt at regularity. Unless a woman expects another child, she will nurse a baby until it is two or three years old, as the simplest device for pacifying its crying. Babies sleep with their mothers as long as they are at the breast; after weaning they are usually handed over to the care of some younger girl in the household. They are bathed frequently with the juice of a wild orange and rubbed with cocoanut oil until their skins glisten.

The chief nurse-maid is usually a child of six or seven who is not strong enough to lift a baby over six month sold, but who can carry the child straddling the left hip, or on the small of the back. A child of six or seven months of age will assume this straddling position naturally when it is picked up. Their diminutive nurses do not encourage children to walk, as babies who can walk about are more complicated charges. They walk before they talk, but it is impossible to give the age of walking with any exactness, though I saw two babies walk whom I knew to be only nine months old, and my impression is that the average age is about a year. The life on the floor, for all activities within a Samoan house are conducted on the floor, encourages crawling, and children under three or four years of age optionally crawl or walk. . .

The weight of the punishment usually falls upon the next oldest child, who learns to shout, “Come out of the sun,” before she has fully appreciated the necessity of doing so herself. By the time Samoan girls and boys have reached sixteen or seventeen years of age these perpetual admonitions to the younger ones have become an inseparable part of their conversation, a monotonous, irritated undercurrent to all their comments. I have known them to intersperse their remarks every two or three minutes with, “Keep still,” “Sit still,” “Keep your mouth shut,” “Stop that noise,” uttered quite mechanically although all of the little ones present may have been behaving as quietly as a row of intimidated mice. On the whole, this last requirement of silence is continually mentioned and never enforced. The little nurses are more interested in peace than in forming the characters of their small charges and when a child begins to howl, it is simply dragged out of earshot of its elders. No mother will ever exert herself to discipline a younger child if an older one can be made responsible. . . .

This fear of the disagreeable consequences resulting from a child's crying, is so firmly fixed in the minds of the older children that long after there is any need for it, they succumb to some little tyrant's threat of making a scene, and five-year-olds bully their way into expeditions on which they will have to be carried, into weaving parties where they will tangle the strands, and cook houses where they will tear up the cooking leaves or get thoroughly smudged with the soot and have to be washed—all because an older boy or girl has become so accustomed to yielding any point to stop an outcry.

How to Cite This Source

"Samoan Baby and Baby-Tender [Anthropology Text]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #366, (accessed December 3, 2021).