Years ago, in the near infancy of this blog, when I was still hosting an “AP” board on a mainstream site, the topic of CIO (Cry-it-out, the sleep training method) came up on a regular basis and at one of those moments, I wrote a post here recording my response on a thread and further comments on the subject.

My post led to somewhat a debate in the comments and in that debate this was said…

“10 years from now I challenge you to go down to the local playground. You will not be able to tell whether or not ANY of those kids were CIO babies, BF/FF, if they were pushed in a stroller or worn in a sling, or if their moms had epidurals! Differences in parents styles (whether AP or “mainstream”) are just that – DIFFERENCES. Neither one is right or wrong. It is simply a choice”

I responded that I would take her up on that challenge… and that debate, that comment, has been something that I have never forgotten over the years.

That challenge became part of my determination to continue and grow in the parenting style that I believe in. I truly believe that children are moulded from their experiences and that being born gently, being breastfed and nursed until they self wean, co-sleeping, being held close often, not being punished physically (spanking) or psychologically (time-outs) all become part of who they are and who they will be.

Not only do I merely believe it, but I am certain of it…

Child Rearing Practices of Distant Ancestors Foster Morality, Compassion in Kids

“Ever meet a kindergartener who seemed naturally compassionate and cared about others’ feelings? Who was cooperative and didn’t demand his own way? Chances are, his parents held, carried and cuddled him a lot; he most likely was breastfed; he probably routinely slept with his parents; and he likely was encouraged to play outdoors with other children, according to new research findings from the University of Notre Dame.

Three new studies led by Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez show a relationship between child rearing practices common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies (how we humans have spent about 99 percent of our history) and better mental health, greater empathy and conscience development, and higher intelligence in children.

“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 moral and character development of children.

The three studies include an observational study of the practices of parents of three-year-olds, a longitudinal study of how certain child rearing practices relate to child outcomes in a national child abuse prevention project, and a comparison study of parenting practices between mothers in the U.S. and China. The longitudinal study examined data from the research of another Notre Dame psychologist, John Borkowski, who specializes in the impact of child abuse and neglect on development.

The results of Narvaez’ three studies as well as those from researchers around the world will be presented at a conference at Notre Dame in October titled “Human Nature and Early Experience: Addressing the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness.”

“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,” she says.

Narvaez identifies six characteristics of child rearing that were common to our distant ancestors:

  • Lots of positive touch — as in no spanking — but nearly constant carrying, cuddling and holding;
  • 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 caregiving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” Narvaez says.
  • 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.
  • Multiple adult caregivers — people beyond mom and dad who also love the child.
  • 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.
  • Natural childbirth, which provides mothers with the hormone boosts that give the energy to care for a newborn.

The U.S. has been on a downward trajectory on all of these care characteristics, according to Narvaez. Instead of being held, infants spend much more time in carriers, car seats and strollers than they did in the past. Only about 15 percent of mothers are breastfeeding at all by 12 months, extended families are broken up, and free play allowed by parents has decreased dramatically since 1970.

“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,” Narvaez says.

Whether the corollary to these modern practices or the result of other forces, research shows the health and well being of American children is worse than it was 50 years ago: there’s an epidemic of anxiety and depression among the young; aggressive behavior and delinquency rates in young children are rising; and empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, has been shown to be decreasing among college students.

“All of these issues are of concern to me as a researcher of moral development,” Narvaez says. “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.””

University of Notre Dame (2010, September 22). Child rearing practices of distant ancestors foster morality, compassion in kids.ScienceDaily.

The most important thing about parenting in a traditional (traditional as our ancestors would have parented) way is that not only does it shape children into positive ways but it also feels right. When you take away all outside expectations of babies “needing” to do things that are not natural to them and therefore needing to “train” them, parent will naturally do what feels good to both of them.

Breastfeeding, holding, wearing, co-sleeping, responding to a childs needs etc… It just feels good, it makes a parent feel good and it makes a child happy. It is so easy to understand why parents that parent in such a way are so proud and love to share what they are experiencing.

I have never heard someone say that it feels good to make their child cry themselves to sleep, that it feels good to deprive a child of something they need, that it feels good to hit or punish a child. I have only heard that it “needs” to be done. There is no lack of support for the parents that do such things, there are thousands of books, millions of personal stories but for the children, they are left without support. I understand that many parents believe that it needs to be done, because that is what they have experienced and what they have been taught, but the damage that it is doing is frightening. It is hard to break the cycle, it is very hard at times, but it is very possible. We need to bring back compassion, we all need to go back to the basics and build our children up in a positive way from infancy.

I think that studies like these are bring the challenge to light, what we do to children does have an effect on who they are and the differences will show.