What if the answer to the woes of present parenting can be answered by looking towards the wisdom of the less civilized?
What if the way towards a more peaceful and prosperous society is not found in a new school program but in returning to more intimate family and community bonds?
Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez has revealed three new studies that show how hunter-gatherer families raised children with six distinct characteristics which fostered better mental health, higher intelligence, morality and compassion than present-day American children.
Children are taught how to interact with others and how to regulate their emotions and reactions towards others, so the treatment that they receive and what it modeled to them matters:
“Our research shows that the roots of moral functioning form early in life, in infancy, and depend on the affective quality of family and community support,” says Narvaez, who specializes in the character and moral development of children.
Dr. Narvaez is warning that the way children are being raised in the United States is creating a high prevalence of children with mental and physical health disorders. She states “Ill advised practices and beliefs have become commonplace, such as the use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms, or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will ‘spoil’ it.”
Mothers practicing attachment parenting can testify that if they do not follow such advice, society is quick to express opposition to their straying from the norm.
“Kids who don’t get the emotional nurturing they need in early life tend to be more self-centered. They don’t have available the compassion-related emotions to the same degree as kids who were raised by warm, responsive families.
The way we raise our children today in this country is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well being and a moral sense,” Narvaez says. Her words align with a recent study stating that college students are less empathetic than they were in past generations.
Narvaez identifies six characteristics commonly used by to our hunter-gatherer ancestors to raise compassionate, moral children.
1 – Constant positive touch and no spanking of children.
Baby wearers and co-sleepers can testify to the security that baby feels when they are constantly carrying, cuddling and holding their little one. Lots of positive touch allows the baby to feel secure and loved as their brain continues to develop. On the contrary, spanking can hurt a child’s brain development and psychological well-being. Children should never be hit.
2 – Prompt response when baby’s fuses or cry
Narvaez states that when you meet a child’s needs before their brain is flooded with stress chemicals, you can keep the infant’s brain calm while it is forming its personality and response to the world. Your choice to react to your baby in either a warm, responsive manner, or not influences the child’s perception of their world around and alters their brain chemistry and development. Narvaez agrees with the sentiment that “You can’t “spoil” a baby.”
3 – Breastfeeding
Narvaez recommends breastfeeding 2 to 5 years as breast milk helps develop a child’s immune system which isn’t fully formed until age 6. Primal civilizations breast-feed their babies until late in the toddler years while many western women wean before their baby is 12 months old.
Breastfeeding correlates with increased IQ, lower rates of asthma, stronger bones, and lower risks of cancer for both the child and the mother.
4 – Multiple adult caregivers
This is not to be confused with having baby away from mom and dad for a prolonged period of time. When additional adults interact with the child in a loving manner, the child feels more loved.
Take the child along with you when you run errands, visit friends and family, and let them see positive adult interactions. If a child is loved, and a caregiver is on the same page as mom and dad, the child can be exposed to different ways of handling situations, different methods of play, and different personalities, all while learning that they are loved by many people and life is good.
5 – Free play with multi-age playmates
While big brother or sister might seem tired of constantly playing with their younger sibling, you might be surprised how much children of different ages enjoy playing together. It is very common for older children to completely adore babies and toddlers and to want to interact with them in loving, gentle ways.
This interaction is great for all of the age groups as the older children learn care and compassion and the younger children learn how to be a big kid and gain confidence. Narvaez warns that ADHD and other mental health issues are more common in children who do not play enough.
6 – Natural childbirth
Breastfeed 2-5 years AND have a natural childbirth?! Having a baby requires a lot of sacrifice from women, but these practices are what our bodies have evolved to do in order to make and care for babies.
Narvaez’s research shows that natural childbirth provides hormone boosts that help give mothers additional energy and motivation to care for their newborn. Hormone levels also help ease the pain of childbirth, help a mother to heal after birth, and allow a mom to fall in a deep-instinctual love and protective state for her baby.
Now-a-days many hospitals are starting to allow women to do things like move, eat, make noise, and whatever other means may help her though the trial of natural birth. Studies have shown that medicated births come with risks to both the health of the mother and baby and inhibit production of beneficial hormones. Furthermore, hormone suppression due to a medicated birth can even be passed down to our offspring’s bodies making natural childbirth more complicated for women in the future.
Narvaez is concerned with continual lose of nurturing care-giving practices for the luxury of time-saving practices. Though quick-fix and socially isolated non-communal care-giving has become the social norm, there are long-term consequences to status quo parenting. According to Narvaez, instead of being held, infants spend much more time in carriers, car seats and strollers than they did in the past.
The United States has a long way to go when it comes to accepting things like breastfeeding, natural childbirth, peaceful non-coercive parenting and rejecting the “cry-it-out” mentality. If we’re hoping for a more peaceful future, integrating past wisdom while discarding old dogma can help parents in the present raise happier and healthier children.
Dr. Darcia Narvaez is the director of the Moral Psychology Lab at Notre Dame. She studies how early life experience influences moral and character development over the lifespan of individuals. Her studies integrate neurobiological, clinical, developmental and education sciences.