When I was asked to comment on the results of Dr. Darcia Narvaez’s new studies, I was intrigued. Her findings from three studies reveal a link between child rearing prevalent in foraging hunter-gatherer societies and a child’s better mental health, empathy, conscience development, and intelligence. Narvaez, a University of Notre Dame psychology professor, told The Daily Beast that “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,” If only modern parents could follow our ancestors’ lead.
Here are the characteristics of child rearing identified by Darcia Narvaez that were common to our distant ancestors. I have added some of my thoughts in italics. Can today’s parents follow our ancestors’ parenting practices?
- Lots of positive touch — as in no spanking– but nearly constant carrying, cuddling and holding.
No spanking-well, that’s a given today or should be. “Nearly constant carrying, cuddling and holding” seems to make the case for having only one child or spacing children at least three years apart to insure infants and toddlers get the closeness that makes them feel secure.
American parents can do better by reducing the amount of time their young offspring spend in strollers and other contraptions instead of in a parent’s arms.
- Prompt response to baby’s fusses and cries. You can’t “spoil” a baby. This means meeting a child’s needs before they get upset and the brain is flooded with toxic chemicals. “Warm, responsive care giving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” Narvaez says.
Quick response time is difficult when you have other very young children who also need your attention. On the other hand, don’t worry about spoiling when your infant needs you. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to do that later in your child’s life.
- Breastfeeding, ideally 2 to 5 years. A child’s immune system isn’t fully formed until age 6 and breast milk provides its building blocks. [Only 15 percent of mothers are still breastfeeding by the time children are 12-months-old.]
I don’t see American mothers breastfeeding their four- and five-year-olds. And, probably not a three-year-old. Do you? Clearly the longer you can, the better.
In defense of shortened breastfeeding periods, formula, and mothers who are unable to breastfeed, we have generations of well-adjusted, empathetic, and highly intelligent individuals who were not breastfed.
- Multiple adult caregivers — people beyond mom and dad who also love the child.
Families are scattered and most parents with young children have little or no family support system. Without grandparents and siblings close by, parents have to rely on others to care for their young offspring while they work. More than 50 percent of the workforce is female; many mothers are working because they have to. Finding caregivers beyond family members who love your child is one of parents’ greatest challenges. But, many parents have been successful.
- Free play with multi-age playmates. Studies show that kids who don’t play enough are more likely to have ADHD and other mental health issues.
Cheers for this, and it is doable. Cut back on the scheduled lessons and events designed to be learning experiences. Forget about giving children a competitive edge so early in life. Let them just play with friends’ children, cousins and whatever children you can round up.
- Natural childbirth, which provides mothers with the hormone boosts that give the energy to care for a newborn.
Because women are having their babies at older ages, natural childbirth is not always an option.
Narvaez rightly points out that in the United States, parents are on a “downward trajectory” in all these areas. The nurturing practices of hunter-gatherers are a wakeup call for parents-to hold their babies more, to spend as much time as possible with them, to reserve time for free play, and to rethink how long your child is breastfed. In short, put down your Blackberry and do the best you can in what has become a changed, hectic world of child rearing. I think we can all do better.