As parents, we all want our children to fit in; at school, in the playground, and at parties. We want them to be bright enough and prepared to tackle their academics. But we also want them to “play well with others” and regulate their behavior. According to research conducted at Notre Dame by psychology professor Darcia Narvaez, the hunter-gatherers societies have a lot to teach us when it comes to raising ethical and caring children.
When comparing child-rearing methods—from the ancient past and even 50 years ago—Narvaez observes that many children today don’t get the benefits from natural childbirth, on-demand nursing, frequent touch, unstructured play and co-sleeping. All of these practices were common in hunter-gather times, and it turns out these practices lead to self-regulation and the development of empathy and conscience.
Narvaez reports, “Breast-feeding infants, responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development.”
While there’s certainly has been a trend away from the “spare the rod, spoil the child” practices, Narvaez believes we haven’t come far enough. Her extensive research has shown responding to a babies cries instead of letting her cry it out teaches a child how to respond favorably to the needs of others and more conscious of the needs of other in her environment.
Touch is also critical. We’ve all heard of the famous studies with rhesus monkeys conducted in the 1950’s by Harry Harlow, which showed stunted growth physically, emotionally, and cognitively in baby monkeys who were deprived contact from loving caregivers. Narvaez also linked a lack of touch to the ability to self-regulate behavior and empathize with others.
Touch releases oxytocin, the bonding chemical, too, which has been shown to lower stress and anxiety. Narvaez believes this lack of touch is directly correlated to the rise in depression and anxiety in young children and teens, and may affect a mother’s willingness to care for her child.
Having time for free play, especially outdoors, influences a child’s ability to socialize and may modulate aggressive behavior. Acting violently—or even anti-socially—often lead to being cast out of the community, which meant certain death. Lack of free play has also been connected to ADHD.
I’m always been an advocate for holistic parenting, after learning about this research, I can honestly say, kudos to the experts who support, being responsive to our children, nursing free play, and surrounding children with a loving family and supportive community. We can affect our children’s moral compasses just by getting back to practices that clearly have stood the test of time. Who wouldn’t want that for their child?