Species-atypical child raising has become normal—to the detriment of the world
In a newly published book, I wrote a chapter called Evolution and the Parenting Ecology of Moral Development, I describe how evolutionary theory is often mischaracterized as only about genes, a shrinking area of importance as epigenetics becomes the bigger story—-how genes are turned up or down or off by lived experience. Though epigenetics occurs all day long from our activities, there are sensitive or critical periods for the developmental of neurobiological structures that undergird all our capacities (e.g., stress response, vagus nerve function) (Narvaez, 2014).
The most sensitive periods occur in early life, the younger the child the greater the effect. Hence, our species, like all animals, evolved a developmental system to enhance normal development, what my lab calls the evolved developmental niche, or evolved nest. Though all ages need to feel supported and attended to—to be nested—the early nest may be the most important for developing the resilience needed to face life’s challenges.
- The evolved nest includes soothing perinatal experience, multiple responsive caregivers (keeping baby optimally aroused), extensive affectionate touch and breastfeeding, positive social support and welcoming climate, self-directed social play, immersion in nature for connection.
It is obvious that many children are not being raised nested.
It is difficult to take in this fact, and sometimes people resist the information. There are several common reactions to hearing about the evolved nest and the need for it. I list some of them below and give some responses, paraphrasing from and adding to what I said in my chapter.
We modern humans have evolved; we are different from past humans. Genes have changed in the last 10,000 years (e.g., for lactose tolerance).
Humans actually have not evolved away from being social mammals, a line that emerged 20-40 million years ago (10,000 years is a drop in the bucket of time). Babies still have built in needs for our species’ nest (and they let you know). The nest components have been documented around the world in the modern era in small-band hunter-gatherers, the type of society that represents 99% of human genus history. Components of the nest are related to peaceable individual and societal outcomes (Eisler & Fry, 2019; Prescott, 1996).
Modern humans, without the evolved nest, have taken over the world—a sign of evolutionary success.
This idea of success represents a shifted baseline. Evolutionary progress is about greater diversity, not the dominance of one species. Balanced ecological communities are the norm for planetary ecological life. Contrastingly, invasive or weed species last for a short while until a more cooperative species emerges to rebalance the biocommunity (Naess & Rothenberg, 1989). Modern society is acting like an invasive species.
Children today face a harsh world so we should prepare them for it early by teaching them independence and self-reliance.
Treating babies harshly undermines their development. Period. It doesn’t make sense to stress a child when her neurobiological systems are otherwise setting themselves up for optimal health and intelligence. To say that it is good not to provide the nest components is like saying we should neglect our children to prepare them for neglect later. This is an idea from John Watson (the behaviorist) who wanted babies treated like college undergraduates so they would get used to it early. He did not understand the dynamic development of children. More here.
Human beings are naturally selfish and violent. We are much better behaved than our ancestors (Pinker, 2011).
These views are based on incorrect analyses of data and are promoted by cultural misunderstandings and incorrect baselines (see Eisler & Fry, 2019; Fry, 2006, 2013; Narvaez, 2014; Narvaez & Witherington, 2018).
It’s impossible to go back to hunting and gathering.
Sure, but that is not the point. The point of nesting children is to provide for their basic needs. Some advanced nations provide some nesting supports like midwife- and doula-guided soothing birth, paid maternal and paternal leave, breastfeeding support, controls over formula advertising, and make possible play-filled childhoods.
“I did not experience the evolved nest and I’m fine.”
It’s not apparent that anyone raised in modern societies is “fine,” especially in the USA where supports for child raising are next to none and where illbeing is rampant. For example, wellbeing in the USA is worsening in terms of health comparisons with other advanced nations—for example, everyone under age 50 (in 2012) is at a health disadvantage compared to those in 16 other advanced nations (National Research Council, 2013).
Every culture is different. Parents prepare their children for their culture. For example, some cultures raise people with insecure attachment.
From a planetary perspective, we need human persons to grow their full cooperative and intelligence capacities for living with others including other than humans. We are far from that at the moment.
I don’t want to have to deal with children. If parents are going to have them, let them raise them.
Children become the adults that fill your neighborhood, workplace and society. Dysregulated, disconnected individuals cause a lot of havoc, not participating in strengthening communities and sometimes even destroying what has taken years or decades to build.
Change basic assumptions. Humans expect the nest to grow their inbuilt seeds for cooperation. Adults need to realize that babies are highly immature and malleable and that mistreatment or undercare leads to less than optimal outcomes. Babies become what they experience.
Nest provision. Providing the nest to the young involves adults who are supported and prepared to do so. Adults who feel loved and safe are more likely to act with love and kindness toward children. So let’s support the relaxation of pregnant women, encourage medical personnel and parents to be loving and tender with babies and children. These will go a long way toward growing a cooperative child. Avoid coercion but instead honor, from the beginning, the child’s innate aim for social cooperation. Parents may need some guidance on overcoming their own stress reactivity and how to handle it when it occurs in parenting situations. Books like Brain-Based Parenting can help.
Fry, D. (Ed.) (2013). War, peace and human nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Narvaez, D. (2019). Evolution and the parenting ecology of moral development. In D. Laible, L. Padilla-Walker & G. Carlo (Eds.), Oxford handbook of parenting and moral development (pp. 91-106). New York: Oxford University Press.
Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York: Norton.
Narvaez, D., & Witherington, D. (2018). Getting to baselines for human nature, development and wellbeing.. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 6 (1), 205-213. DOI: 10.1037/arc0000053
National Research Council (2013). U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.