The kibbutz: It takes a village to raise a child, but kids should sleep at home

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. When you have a baby in the house, sleep becomes a thing of the past, a distant memory, a nostalgia. New parents, especially mothers, can attest to this. When your baby wakes up every hour or two, you begin to fantasize about sleeping. Aside from your brain turning into mush, you become preoccupied with all things slumber. And now with all the new-ish research, advocating that we should be getting seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep every night which can prevent cancer and heart disease, I’m starting to worry a little bit. I have an 11-month-old baby and she’s not so keen on sleeping through the night. So I have become fixated on sleep. That is, because I’m not getting any. I began to wonder: why is she such a bad sleeper? Was I a bad sleeper too?

But then I remembered. Oh yeah…I was born on a kibbutz. A rare social system in which the element of sleep was the most distinctive characteristic. A structure that remarkably no other country in the world has. Communal sleeping. It was where babies and children slept amongst each other, away from their parents, in a separate house, with one caregiver. That’s right. Many babies, one room, one woman. All night.

I was born in 1985 and spent the first year and a half of my life on the kibbutz before we moved to Canada. It was the end of an era, actually, because it was the last few years before the collective sleeping arrangement became extinct. In all fairness, the kibbutz had many benefits. It was an idealist community for the non-egocentric. A beautiful land, a sense of community, and no obsession with money. For some, it was perfect. But there are two sides to every coin. The setup of having children sleeping away from their parents was not only an unusual practice, it went against nature and eventually became a thing of the past. Not surprisingly. Maybe the kibbutz took the idea that it takes a village to raise a child a little too far.

First, a little bit of history.

For those who may be unfamiliar with what a kibbutz is, it is a collective community in Israel. The word kibbutz in Hebrew literally means a bunch or a gathering. The first kibbutz was established in 1909. They continued to be created, especially around the turn of World War II, when Easter European Jews fled Europe and the Nazi regime to a “promised land”. Today, there are roughly 270 kibbutzim in Israel. But these days, they are quite different from what they used to be.

The kibbutz was originally based on agriculture but became quite unique for its utopian-communist ideologies. It was based on a system where everyone worked for the collective and in turn everyone received housing, food, clothing, health, education, and so on. It was essentially a natural experiment that was perhaps ideal in its conception, yet not entirely successful considering that many of the kibbutz’s original features no longer exist.

The most interesting feature, in my perspective, was the communal upbringing, specifically the sleeping arrangements. Like I mentioned above, all the children slept together in a separate house, away from their parents. There was always one woman who watched the babies overnight. The children’s house wasn’t just for sleeping though. It was where the children were for most of the time. They basically lived there; ate, played, learned, bathed, and slept. Unlike many parents who go to pick up their kids from daycare and bring them home for the evening and night, the kibbutz parents would pick them up after work only to bring them right back a few hours later. Strange, huh?

You might be thinking, “But, why?”. There were a few reasons for communal sleeping. The philosophy of parenting on the kibbutz was based upon an inherent distrust of parents to raise their children alone. The idea was that a children’s house, and the collective upbringing in general, would protect these children from their parents’ shortcomings. It was also thought to provide equality to women and free them from the role of mothering at home, allowing them to go out and work and be part of the collective. I’ve even read that the communal sleeping was justified as in it prevented trauma from exposure to the “primal scene” and the Oedipal complex. For anyone who just said “What?”, you can take a quick look here for an explanation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primal_scene) … Yup. It’s a tad far-fetched, if you ask me.

Communal sleeping was in effect for about 60 to 70 years until its demise in the 1990s by kibbutz members themselves. And thus, the prevalence of the communal sleeping arrangements came to an unsurprising end. My opinion, which turns out is a common one, is that this separation of children from their parents is unnatural, to say the least, and could only be destined to fail. You might even say that it could never have prevailed because it overlooked the most essential need of both parents and children: security. It’s what every human needs. Especially babies. And especially at night. Most societies throughout history and until today use co-sleeping (where babies sleep with their mothers), which sits on the other end of the spectrum completely. But, according to my father, no one in the kibbutz dared to keep their baby in the home instead of the baby house. It was unheard of.

Mom, dad, tell me a story…

I always knew that my brother and I were from a kibbutz, that my father was born and raised there, and that my mother spent nine years there after making Aliyah. But it never really sunk in until now, with a little family of my own. The idea of a community raising my baby is at once both appealing and appalling. On the one hand, it seems like a wonderful idea to have family and community around to help in raising your kids. But on the other hand, the thought of leaving my daughter in a room overnight with a bunch of other babies and only one woman to watch them is disconcerting to say the least.

So, of course, I talked to my parents about it. I asked my mom about the baby house and how it was for her to have me and my brother sleep there. Literally, the first thing she said was, “No, you weren’t neglected, and don’t try to use it as a reason for your issues”. That’s my mom – brutally straight to the point. But she went on to say that the kibbutz was wonderful for raising kids, especially for someone like her who, as she put it, didn’t know what to do or how to raise us. I see the attractiveness of the kibbutz community from her perspective and the influence it must have had. She was young, naive, new to Israel, and became a wife and mother. The kibbutz was her saviour, a warm blanket.

My father says the kibbutz was the best thing that ever happened to him and that it’s a shame the rest of the world didn’t have them. That’s my dad – a little more idealistic than pragmatic. He loved his childhood and the collective education that he was a part of. The kids grew up together and relied on each other without the reign of their parents. Sounds perfect for the young and rebellious, no? Okay, so maybe some of the children liked it.

What about the parents? Well it looks as though they might have enjoyed it too. They had the best of both worlds; freedom to leave the house, work and socialize while also enjoying the hours they spent with their children in the late afternoons and evenings. And lest we forget the blissful sleep many of them must have gotten. How nice…

But what about the babies? The small and the innocent who are too young to make sense of the world. The ones without a voice who only want to see their mother’s faces when they cry? The women who watched the babies overnight rotated schedules; there was a different woman each night. So the babies saw different faces each time they woke up and therefore didn’t know who to expect when they cried out. There were circumstances where the mother was one member of the repertoire; those that breastfed had to come feed in the middle of the night. Also, my parents said that if we were inconsolable, the caregiver would call them and they (most likely my mother) would come to calm us down.

To be fair, my mom said she took every opportunity she had to visit us, during her work breaks and after work. And during her breastfeeding months, she knew that when her shirt would suddenly be wet, it was time to feed. Regardless of whether she was in the fields or in the kitchen, she came right away. And I have to say that I don’t blame my parents. For my father, it’s everything he knew – there was no other way to grow up. As for my mother, well, her childhood was harsh. She didn’t have role models for parents. I get it – the kibbutz served a purpose. That is, up until they decided to leave, which is another story altogether. Like all things in life, there are wins and losses.

Let’s go a little deeper, shall we?

To every cause, there is an effect. What happened to the adults who decided to discontinue this tradition? What were the repercussions? Psychologists wanted to find out.

Considering the fact that the kibbutz was the only community in the world that separated the children from their parents at night, many psychologists and researchers were intrigued…myself included. The major concern was attachments; the bonds between babies and their mothers. If the experts were naturally interested in the babies and their relationships to their parents on the kibbutz, and I was one of those babies, then call me curious. I did a bit of research.

Let me start by saying that the first two years of a child’s life are considered to be the most important period in determining his or her well-being later on. It is a critical phase in which the attachment to the mother, or main caregiver, is established. And that attachment is what dictates how healthy, or unhealthy, their future relationships will be. Attachment theory is a psychological concept that explains this concept. The main idea is that a strong or secure attachment to the mother provides a necessary sense of security and foundation. And therefore, the lack of a secure attachment would cause someone to put a lot of energy in searching for stability and security, being more fearful and anxious along the way.

An infant’s behaviour displayed when hurt or separated from the mother is what characterizes the style of attachment. There are four styles of attachment. Secure, anxious-ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized. The last three are lumped into “insecure” attachment styles. So basically, you have secure and insecure.

A simple explanation of the infant attachment styles.

Numerous studies were done on attachment in the kibbutz. One study reported that only 48% of kibbutz infants were securely attached compared to other Israeli infants who slept in their homes. Another study found that 59% of kibbutz children were securely attached compared to 65-70% of normative samples worldwide. Generally, there were more insecure than secure attachments in kibbutz infants. And more specifically, the anxious-ambivalent style was the most common. (I put an infographic of the attachment styles for a little bit on what each style means).

John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, said that attachment characterizes human behavior “from the cradle to the grave”. Namely, that infant attachment styles can linger into adulthood and display themselves in adult intimate relationships. Uh oh…

But to shed some optimism, at least for those from the kibbutz, those researchers that incorporated adult attachment into their study, showed that there was no significant relationship between communal upbringing on the kibbutz and adult attachment (keep in mind, however, that these were based on self-reports).

So, am I being over dramatic? Was communal sleeping on the kibbutz so bad? Well if it was all fine and dandy, then why doesn’t it exist anymore? The reason is mainly because those babies grew up into mothers who refused to let their history repeat itself. They were uncomfortable leaving their children in the hands of someone else at night and wanted their babies at home with them. They began to reclaim their parental rights. My assumption is that it didn’t feel right for them.

From the cradle to the grave, huh? Intrigued and curious, I had to know what my adult attachment style is. So I looked online. Buyers beware: the internet is chock loads full of “psychological” tests. It seems as though if you put the word psychological in front of a word, it somehow gives it a sense of credibility. Generally, online tests and quizzes should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, there are some worthy tests online that are conducted by psychologists and show some merit. And who are we kidding – they’re fun to do. I found one that looked credible. It’s made by a psychologist who is an attachment and trauma expert. As it turns out, I have a secure attachment (the results say so!). So, don’t worry mom and dad, I don’t blame you for my issues. At least not my relationships issues…

*If anyone’s interested and would like to know more about how infant attachment relates to adult relationships, this article lays it out quite nicely: https://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/Article?contentid=741&language=English

*And if anyone wants to take the adult attachment test: https://dianepooleheller.com/attachment-test/

About the Author
Alva Yaffe was born in Israel but raised in Canada. She now lives in Tel Aviv. She made Aliyah in 2013, when she was 27 years old. Since then, she has married an Israeli, lived in over five places across the country, worked, studied, graduated with an MA in Art Therapy, and recently became a mother.
Comments