In recent decades, mothering or nurturing children has become a greater challenge, particularly in the USA, as both parents work outside the home, extended families are scattered, neighborhoods are less stable, single-parent households grow more widespread, and parents lack the experience and education on how to raise children for long-term health and well-being.
With decreased cultural support for family caregiving, children may be at risk for not experiencing the individualized nurturing that fosters thriving (Narvaez, Panksepp et al., 2013a, 2013b; Shonkoff & Garner, 2012; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).
In order to understand how the nurturing environment has shifted to the relatively minimalistic form predominant in the U.S. today, we must look at the history and prehistory of human societies.
In humanity’s prehistory (99 percent of the human genus’s existence), matrilineal societies were predominant (Giambutas, 1991), with a focus on earth-centric lifestyles. Among small-band hunter-gatherers (nomadic foragers) studied in modern times who represent that lifestyle, bilateral systems of descent (matrilineal and patrilineal) are typical (Fry & Souillac, 2017). Matrilineal societies are egalitarian and peaceful, lacking the pressures against nurturing children and avoiding the use of force to maintain hierarchies that are characteristic of patriarchal societies (Eisler, 1988). Patriarchal societies became dominant in humanity’s historical period, reflecting the move to hierarchical, usually settled, societies. The Neolithic shift to settled, mono-agricultural societies was accompanied by decreased health (e.g., height decreased significantly; infectious disease became common; Cohen & Armelagos, 1984) due to more limited diets and close quarters with one another and domesticated animals. More recently, in the Middle Ages and during the Industrial Revolution, aristocrats claimed the common lands, criminalizing access to food hunting, forcing the non-wealthy to work for them (Bollier, 2014; Federici, 2018). What also shifted was the nature of childhood.
Humans, like other animals, evolved a nest for offspring to optimize development (Gottlieb, 1997). Most nest characteristics are over 30 million years old, indicating how important they are for proper development (Konner, 2005). Recurring characteristics have been documented by anthropologists studying extant small-band hunter-gatherer bands (aka, hunter-gatherer childhood model, Konner, 2005; or, basal human childrearing pattern, Endicott & Endicott, 2014).
What does the evolved human nest look like? Here is the common set of characteristics identified by anthropological studies among small-band hunter-gatherers around the world (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Konner, 2005):
- Affection and constant touch or physical presence (according to a child’s needs)
- Responsiveness to needs to keep baby from becoming distressed
- Breastfeeding on request for 2-5 years (average age of weaning is four years)
- Multiple adult, responsive caregivers
- Positive social support for mother and baby
- Self-directed play throughout childhood in nature with multi-age playmates
- An additional component could be added: soothing perinatal experiences (no separation of newborn from mother, no painful procedures, etc.
Initial research into these components suggests that they influence health, well-being, and sociality on the neurobiological as well as psychosocial level (for a brief review, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013b; and see here).
Critically, the evolved nest is provisioned by a community, not just the mother. Fathers are intimate caregivers in many nomadic communities (e.g., Hewlett, 1991), and grandmothers or other postmenopausal women are also key providers (Hrdy, 2009). In prehistory and in societies that remained nomadic foragers in the historical period, childhood is one of companionship with the community, where social play and banter are common, with options to assist in the gathering activities. The majority of work (gathering, hunting) is performed by those 20-40 years old (Sahlins, 1968). Nevertheless, all ages of the band (25-50 members on average) spend a great deal of time in leisure—in storytelling, play, or music making.
Mothering is built into traditional cultures as the center of society. Mothering is communal (cooperative breeding; Hrdy, 2009). Although children are a communal affair, raised by the village of support, the mother is the initial conveyor of attention and support from the community (Hrdy, 2009). A supported mother (from her own childhood and after) will convey love, kindness, and compassion, giving these unilaterally to the child until the child is able to reciprocate (Vaughan, 2015). In some groups, after the first 18 months or so, young children spend as much time with other responsive caregivers as with mothers (e.g., Endicott & Endicott, 2014). In fact, researchers in recent years have started to focus on the importance of fathers for a child’s well-being (e.g., Hewlett, 1992). For example, children who develop a secure attachment with both mothers and fathers are rated higher in social competence and exhibit fewer behavior problems in kindergarten than children who have a secure attachment with only one or neither parent (Verschueren & Marcoen, 1999).
Mothers have the power to foster life in their wombs and to nurture the child they bring to light. No one has as much power over a person than does one’s mother. In this way, mothers create the future—of an individual, but also of societies of individuals. Mothering as nurturing is central to the long-term well-being of society. But community support is critical to mothers’ mothering, or they burn out. In modern nations, support includes paid parental leave (present in all but three nations, including the USA). One of the largest supports would be universal child benefits (aka paying families to have children), which is common in Europe (more here). This allows mothers and fathers to afford the attention needed to provide the nurturing nest that all children need to reach their unique potential.
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