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Were Our Ancestors Better Parents Than We Are Today?

According to research conducted by psychologist Darcia Narvaez, hunter-gatherers were more responsive and nurturing than modern parents. They didn’t engage in practices such as “controlled crying” (the English version of crying-it-out or sleep training), and time-outs. Children enjoyed much more time playing and running around.

“Our research shows that the roots of moral functioning form early in life, in infancy. But child-rearing nowadays is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well-being and a moral sense, “said Professor Narvaez.

She led three studies of American families and found that today’s parents are less likely to respond to a baby’s crying and fussing and less likely to rely on “people beyond mom and dad who also love the child,” than our ancestors. Older children spend more time inside and less with free, exploratory play.

“There’s an epidemic of anxiety among the young,” she said. “Kids who don’t get the emotional nurturing they need in early life tend to be more self-centred. They don’t have the same compassion- related emotions as kids who were raised by warm, responsive families.”

This argument is often cited in literature promoting what are sometimes called “attachment parenting” practices such as co-sleeping and baby-wearing. I love the idea of the romantic scene where mothers are nurtured postpartum for 30 days by the women in the village so that she can be primed and ready to get back to work– then her work includes the other mothers and children all around them. Talk about work/life balance. But without getting into a full compare and contrast (“cavemen” had some problems, too), I’d like to think more about how these messages play out for the new mothers.

In the best case scenario, they reassure you that yes, all that new parents stuff–staring at your baby,  making little sounds and big expressions, responding to the nighttime cries even when you’re fried tired– is perfectly normal and natural. You don’t have to race to set your infant onto the adult, 21st century corporate clock at four weeks. Whew. You’re not screwing up, you’re being loving and kind and, according to this expert and other research, preparing your child to grow up as a secure and well-adjusted person. New parenthood can be so draining and so hard that some reassurance that babies are meant to be babies and meant to be responded to, can be really valuable. You cannot spoil a baby. Yay.

But then it’s hard sometimes– depending on the kid and the family and the work arrangements– to be as responsive as you’d like to be. Stories about being responsive can scare the life out of new parents. The clock is ticking before maternity leave is over! How responsive do I have to be?! My mother says, just leave the baby, I’m hovering too much! What about all that stuff people say about modern parents OVER parenting??? I’m so confuuuuuuuuused!!!!!

A couple things:

We can certainly take a page from our forebearers’ book and realize that women working is not antithetical to child-rearing. It takes some thought and time but you can try to assemble your own village when you have a baby. Also, nighttime is as good a time as any to be responsive to a child. I know lots of working mothers who co-sleep or otherwise spend lots of affectionate time with their babies after work, at bedtime, during the night and in the morning. This doesn’t necessarily mean being up all night; it just means thinking about this time as one of close contact, not separation and independence.

The other thing is that babies are not babies forever.  I’m not saying this so that you “treasure” this time. You will treasure it. And you will curse it, too. I’m saying it because the “over parenting” warnings tend to be directed at parents of older children. If you’re pregnant and reading this, you’ve got a very long time before you need to worry about over-parenting. Babies need lots and lots of care, it’s appropriate to give it and find others to give it. Once a kid gets older, the model Professor Narvaez points to includes more free play, not hovering.

I always try to take these stories about loving cave parents for the positive message they can deliver rather than pressure to graft one culture’s expectations onto another culture’s reality.

For more about the anthropology of attachment parenting check this out.

And this terrific piece by Babble co-founder Rufus Griscom.

photo: Shomrei Hagan

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