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The Science of Cavemom Parenting ­— and Whether You Should Try It

sok_ribbon.png You’ve probably seen headlines like these before:

“Modern parenting may hinder brain development,” or, “Is it time to return to caveman parenting?”

Sleeping with your baby, forgoing the stroller to tote her in a sling, extended breastfeeding, bonding immediately after birth — how often have you heard that these are optimal parenting practices because they harken back to early and universal human behaviors? That these habits are superior because they bring us more in line with our biology and our evolutionary history?

The cavemom ideal is tempting. We imagine that earlier humans raised children free of modern technology, in an instinctual way that had been shaped by evolution for hundreds of thousands of years, and thus fine-tuned and perfected. The more we can emulate these ways, the better, right?

Well, not really. First, this line of thinking is based on shaky ideas about how evolution works. And second, it confuses parents when it comes to what’s important, emphasizing the wrong things and giving us a list of reasons to judge each other (that don’t actually have to do with good parenting).

As a writer on science and child development, I’ve used the evolutionary rationale for parenting topics myself. Most recently, in an essay about my daughter’s lack of crawling, I referenced anthropologists who suggested that crawling is a modern invention (and therefore not critical to development) and that Papua New Guinea babies go straight from being carried all the time to walking — perhaps because crawling in the dirt isn’t a smart evolutionary strategy.

There is no time in human history when we've been biologically ideal and perfectly adapted to our surroundings — evolution just doesn't work this way.

My father, a biologist, read the piece and pointed out an issue. Traditional cultures like the Papua New Guinea are not “stuck in the past” — they have been evolving too. (Yes, without iPhones and baby monitors, but they have been changing as long as we urban families have.) They don’t provide a perfect snapshot of our evolutionary history, and moreover, they’ve been adapting to their own environments (not ours), and have child-rearing practices that reflect their particular cultures as well. Observing that a group of children goes from riding around with mom to upright toddling doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the original behaviors of human babies.

In fact, thinking that we should model ourselves on traditional cultures or the practices of earlier humans turns out to be problematic overall. As Marlene Zuc points out in her book Paleofantasy, there is no time in human history when we’ve been biologically ideal and perfectly adapted to our surroundings — evolution just doesn’t work this way. There is no design, it’s continuous, and it always involves tradeoffs; one helpful trait here can mean a less desirable trait along with it. “Our bodies reflect a continuously jury-rigged system,” she writes. “Wanting to be more like our ancestors just means wanting more of the same set of compromises.” And which early beings are we using as a benchmark, anyway? Ones who lived a million years ago or 100,000 years ago? Behaviors and practices vary enormously depending on when and where you choose to look. As humans, Zuc says, some of our DNA is 600 million years old (far older than the caveman era), while other genes became more frequent less than 10,000 years ago. Which habits and traits (including parenting choices) are best depends on your current environment, not a mythical, perfect human past?

In other words, thinking that mommies in the Pleistocene era had it right doesn’t make sense. And in any case, you’d be hard pressed to find useable tips from cavemoms and dads: bones and stone tools leave concrete traces, but whether our ancestors co-slept or sleep trained doesn’t exactly show up in the fossil record.

This isn’t to say that I dismiss the “natural” way — far from it. Actually, I’m a mom who has opted for many of these ways myself: I adore the sling, I had a drug-free birth, and I’m breastfeeding my 18-month-old. I certainly support any choice that works for an individual family. But the idea that these practices or any other are superior because they’re how we’re “supposed” to do it is misleading. And it’s often used with backward logic to support a point of view or philosophy that people already have. As Zuc writes, “We have a regrettable tendency to see what we want to see and rationalize what we already want to do.”

It’s clear that biology shapes childrearing. For example, our brains light up at the sound of infant distress cries. And certain behaviors are echoed in human and nonhuman primates: monkeys and chimps stay close to their primary caretaker and use her as a secure base for exploration — suggesting that we share a hardwired attachment system. But when it comes to the details, it’s hard to extrapolate from nonhuman primates: there is wide variation among their parenting styles, and in any case we didn’t evolve from monkeys and chimps; we split millions of years ago from a common ancestor, and each branch has been evolving separately ever since.

We might be better off looking at current research, rather than thinking any one parenting style is better because it’s closer to our true design. In some cases, science has specific recommendations for us — for example, that breastfeeding has health benefits and that early on-demand feeding is best, or that consistent healthy sleep is important for our kids (as a note, research supports sleeping in the same room with a newborn). But thankfully, when it comes to a lot of the parenting issues we argue over, science tells us to relax; child development and the human bonding system are very flexible. We know that babies and children need responsiveness, touch, empathy, and loving caregivers for optimal health and happiness — there are plenty of studies spanning decades that support these central elements of parenting. But when you really evaluate the evidence, you won’t find much for slings versus strollers, drug-free versus anesthesia, or family beds versus solo sleeping.

That’s because good parenting is mostly about the how, not the what. You’ve got warm, emotionally connected bottle-feeding moms and distracted, detached sling-wearing ones. It’s easy to appraise ourselves as doing things the “right” way, but it’s the quality of how we interact with our kids — not whether we’re more natural, more adherent to one philosophy, or true to our cavemom roots — that really matters.

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