What kind of people would say to a child who is adjusting to the birth of an infant into the family, “why don’t you kill your baby brother?” Provocative as the question may seem, the answers are neither simple nor straightforward. But in an article from 1994, just added to the Archive of this website, Jean Briggs unravels the complexities of the Inuit communities that she has studied for many decades. She explains that adults ask such provocative questions of their children in order to make certain that they learn the parameters of their social peacefulness.

Briggs covers several closely-related subjects in her essay. In her first section, she reviews the basic peacefulness and violence of the Inuit communities she has studied, and she reports that the Inuit have never been totally without violence. Murders have been known, which is perhaps why they are so paranoid about any manifestation of anger or conflict. People clearly fear violence.

As a primarily hunting culture, the Inuit are intimately aware of the consequences of violence. They associate physical violence against animals with food and life for themselves. Boys particularly enjoy killing. But they also value the autonomy of each household, so they have not developed systems whereby their society can control individual behavior.

They have, however, developed conflict management systems, which Briggs reviews carefully. She says that murders, which now occur under the influence of alcohol, are dealt with by the police. Formerly the Inuit practiced song dueling to deal with conflicts, and mouth-wrestling and boxing were also popular. While the older conflict-management techniques have mostly disappeared, the author argues that many of the same principles still apply in contemporary Inuit society.

She reviews how the Inuit prevent conflicts from developing through their practices of interpersonal caution, reticence, modesty, and avoidance of making requests from others. Requests, when they are made, are phrased very carefully. Requestors will deny that they are really serious, or the requests are expressed as jokes so that if the other individuals don’t want to give, the discussions can be passed off easily. Confrontation is avoided at all costs.

People also avoid making promises or offering invitations, since refusals or negligence might cause offense and hurt feelings. Group plans are tentative, in case one or more of the persons that might be involved doesn’t want to carry through and join. People simply engage in an activity and if others, seeing what is going on want to join in, they do so. When confrontations do arise, people will either turn the situation into a joke or deny that there is any unhappiness. Joking could be a way of avoiding conflict, a reassurance that there is no danger from violence, but it could also be a way of conveying the essence of a grievance. The ambiguity of joking allows the Inuit to confront, criticize, argue a case without threatening or creating opposing interest groups.

But why urge a child to kill baby brother? Briggs answers that the playful, indirect style of managing conflict is important to them, and playing with the emotions of young children is one of the primary ways they instruct them in their emotional values. A major goal in their culture is to raise children to fear conflict and aggression. Children must learn to fear being the center of attention, since that might arouse envy in others. They must associate conflict with danger, and indirection with safety.

The adults instruct their children in these emotional patterns with the use of games, particularly ones that tease with the children’s emotions and get them to evaluate their actions. The games that the adults play with the children constantly deal with the emotions that the children are perhaps facing: fears, envy, jealousy, doubts about being loved, the possibility of being abandoned, possessiveness. Children learn to be constantly careful of the possible reactions of others.

When the adult comments to the child, “Do you love your baby brother? Why don’t you kill him?” the question tests the child’s ability to cope with the new situation. The expected behavior is obvious, but the child must confront her existing feelings and come to terms with them. Adults also, of course, love their children intensely, holding and cuddling them a lot and frequently rewarding and approving their proper, affectionate behavior. But bringing them up to be peaceful is exceedingly important in the context of their society, and game-playing strategies are important to them. Briggs provides similar examples in her article. A child with a new article of clothing might be asked, “why don’t you die so I can have it?”

Dangerous questions such as these get children to confront their antisocial emotions and learn to cope with the difficult issues they raise. Briggs feels that the games prompt children to make connections between different contexts of social life, and to build effective psychological and social meanings from them. “The attitudes and feelings, social characters and skills, that the dramas helped to create were of lifelong duration and governed conduct in all the varied context of everyday life,” she writes (p.174).

The games are emotionally powerful, the children are active participants, and they are tailored to each child and the probable emotions or feelings that he or she may be experiencing at the moment. They are perilous, but they expect the child to respond properly. The child sees the danger, but also perceives the safety of the correct responses, particularly since the adult players are neither angry nor afraid while they are playing the games.

This article by Prof. Briggs plumbs the emotions of the Inuit to see how they instruct their own children in avoiding conflict, danger, and aggression. And perhaps best of all, by teasing her readers with her provocative title, Briggs may be emulating the Inuit by playing with our emotions and challenging us, the outsiders, to find alternative understandings for our own sometimes violent and sometimes peaceful emotions and behaviors.