To whom does a child belong?

In a recent article in Ethnos, (volume 68), Erdmute Albert wrote that among the Baatombu in Northern Benin (which is in western Africa), child fosterage is not an exception in crisis situations, as in western cultures, but the common upbringing pattern. Until some years ago, most of the Baatombu children did not grow up with their biological parents, but were fostered by “social parents.” There is a strong attitude of shame related to biological parenthood and an attempt to deny it. The children are not told who their parents are. In public, the biological parents keep a bashful distance from their offspring, do not show emotion, and the social parents are regarded as the true parents. This arrangement of the concrete practices of fosterage is deeply imbedded in their norms and ideas about parentage.

Among anthropologists, this is a “functional” approach to the practical problems of raising children. But it does raise the question of, “To whom does a child belong?” Obviously, this practice of social parenting, common in many parts of Africa, is quite different than the Euro-American conception of children as belonging exclusively to their biological parents. Of course, many American adolescents are quick to say that they belong only to themselves. But when western children spend their childhood in foster care, multiple issues of attachment develop.

We discuss aspects of attachment and many ethical issues regarding children in our programs. Please visit our course catalog for details.