Something New Under the Sun:
Adapting to Change in the 21st Century


AnthroHealth News

March-April 2008

Volume 7, Issue 2


Natural Parenting, Part 1


Let's get real about parenting. Along with so many other aspects of our lives, parenting has been adversely affected by the many changes in our society (particularly over the past 100 years) that conflict with how infants, children, and their parents are adapted to interact. To understand the parenting style for which we are adapted, we need to compare the parenting styles of two groups: our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees; and foraging populations (those who hunt and gather foods in diverse environments). Once we understand these styles, we will have the foundation for understanding the natural parenting style of the human species.


Comparison of Parenting Styles

Humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor around six million years ago. We are genetic, biological, and behavioral "cousins" sharing a many "greats" grandparent. Humans are not descended from chimpanzees any more than you are descended from one of your cousins. We just share a common ancestor. However, we also share about 99% of our DNA; and anyone who has watched chimpanzees at a zoo knows we share much of our behavior. We both love to be tickled and to laugh. We both feel shame, empathy, and fear. Some of us are outgoing, some are shy; some are adventurous, some prefer more placid activities. And when we watch mothers interact with their infants and children, the similarities are striking.

Experienced chimpanzee mothers are extremely nurturing towards their infants. They carry the infant everywhere, they hold them while the infant nurses, they play gently with the infant, even doing stretching exercises and making play faces as human mothers do. If the infant should die from disease or accident, the mother experiences deep loss and sorrow.

Human mothers in foraging populations are in many ways more similar to chimpanzee mothers in their behavior towards their infants than they are to mothers in Western, industrialized nations. Infants in foraging populations are carried 100% of the time, primarily by their mothers, but also by other adults and older children. This is possible because infants are carried in a sling across the mother's chest or back. Infants nurse frequently, whenever they wish, because the breast is always available. As with chimpanzees, human infants in foraging populations sleep with their mothers so that they can easily nurse at night without waking mother.

The first item of "clothing" invented by our ancient ancestors was probably a baby sling made from the skin of an antelope, minimally modified. Unlike chimp babies who can cling to the fur of their mothers, human infants have no fur to cling to and must be carried. Since each adult and older child in foraging populations is expected to provide most of her own food each day, mothers need to have their arms free for gathering and carrying food items. Thus, a baby sling was a necessity. In addition, it was imperative that the infant be able to nurse whenever it wished because a crying infant acts like a beacon to a predator. Our ancestral mother and infant would be a poor match for a hungry leopard, so a quiet, well-fed, happy infant was one who had a good probability of surviving infancy. Chimpanzee mothers are several times stronger than human mothers, but they still attempt to avoid attracting the attention of leopards and other predators.

Mother and infant co-sleeping is beneficial in many ways. As mentioned before, an infant sleeping with her mother can easily nurse as needed throughout the night without disturbing her mother. Sleeping with mother also provides protection from night predators who are unlikely to attack a full-grown, healthy adult. Furthermore, there is evidence that co-sleeping aids in synchronizing the infant's breathing to that of the mother, thereby preventing the sleep apnea associated with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is extremely rare in cultures where mothers and infants sleep together. The highest rates occur in western cultures where infants sleep alone. While placing the infant to sleep on the back has reduced the SIDS rate, it has also led to an increase in permanently flattened skulls and delayed motor abilities. This is an unnecessary cost that co-sleeping mothers and infants do not pay since the infant sleeps more on the side than on the back. Infants who are carried in slings throughout the day and then sleep with their mothers at night have accelerated motor development compared to other infants, are alert and interested in their surroundings, cry very little, and are generally happy and placid. This is also true of chimpanzee infants.

Based on this comparison we can conclude that human infants are adapted to a parenting style in which they are carried 100% of the time, generally upright in a sling. While any human can carry an infant, infants are adapted to nursing when and as frequently as they wish, so mothers are the primary carriers of their infants. This also means that infants are adapted to sleep with their mothers so that they can easily nurse. Co-sleeping has the further benefit of essentially preventing SIDS.

Let's get real. Infants are adapted to a parenting style where they are never put down, never left alone, and never allowed to cry for more than a few seconds. Any other parenting style conflicts with the infant's adaptations and, depending on how much the parenting style diverges from the natural parenting style, can lead to an infant who is unhappy, withdrawn, whiny, fearful, aggressive, antisocial, clingy, or demonstrating one of many other maladaptive traits. Infants cannot be spoiled by natural parenting, but they can be "spoiled" and psychologically harmed by parenting styles that conflict with their adapted needs.


Nuclear Family?

One father, one mother, and a few children seems so right, so normal, so natural to those of us living in Western industrialized nations, that it is difficult to conceive that such an arrangement was not always common; that our most ancient ancestors did not also live in nuclear families. In fact, it is so difficult for some to conceive that they have even proposed the creation of the nuclear family as the reason for the development of bipedal locomotion. Given what we know of our cousins, the chimpanzees, and what we know of foraging populations, the nuclear family as the natural family is unrealistic and improbable.

In the essay, Walk, Don't Run, a probable scenario for the development of bipedality was presented. In this scenario, our ancient ancestors became bipedal gradually, over a long period of time, as a result of gathering foodstuffs from the watery margins of lakes, streams, rivers, and seas. Both males and females would have been affected by this behavior; and the selection pressure for this behavior would have been strong since those eating these food sources would have been smarter, and therefore, more attractive to the opposite sex. See that essay [Volume 6, Issue 5] for more details.

On the other hand, the nuclear family, or more accurately, the pair bonding scenario, has numerous problems associated with it, only a few of which will be discussed here. The major problem relates to the concept of pair bonding. In pair bonding, a male and female mate for life. As modified in the pair bonding scenario, among a group of pre-hominids (that is, they still walked quadrupedally, on four legs, as chimps do), a male would be attracted to a particular female and would essentially choose her as his mate. In order to make sure the bond held, he would bring special foods, especially meat, to share with her and their offspring. Since it is easier to carry stuff if one walks on two legs instead of four, the gift-bringer would gradually adopt an upright posture and bipedal locomotion. This behavior would be selected for because the female would be better fed and able to have more and healthier offspring with that male's genes than females who did not have a male providing for them. So far, this may sound like a plausible scenario, but we need to examine it more closely.

Behaviorally, pre-hominids were probably extremely similar to chimpanzees. Chimpanzees have shown no signs of developing pair bonding. For a few days a month, a male and female may go off together to mate while the female is in her fertile period, but then they will go their separate ways. The most frequent behavior during a female's fertile period is for her to mate with any male that shows interest. These matings are quite brief and generally do not involve the male giving the female food items. On occasion, a female will offer sex for food a male has, but the male does not deliberately gather food for the purpose of enticing a female to have sex with him and only him.

Another problem with the pair bonding scenario is that it implies that the "couple" has a home base and that the female and offspring stay there while the male goes off to gather the food. While foraging populations may have a temporary home base, it is the responsibility of the women to provide for most of their own food needs, along with that of their children. In some cases, women provide 70% of the food eaten by everyone, male and female, in the group. If we now move six million years into the past, we can see that it is improbable that males among pre-hominids would be the primary food providers when this is not even the case among most modern foraging populations. And it is certainly not the case among chimpanzees who share more in common with pre-hominids than does any other group.

The home base presents a further difficulty. A male who claims sole rights to a female needs some way to ensure that only he mates with her so that he knows that her offspring are also his. Otherwise, there is no way to ensure that his genetic material is passed to future generations. If genes are not passed on, then the basis for selection of the pair bonding scenario is destroyed. Among modern foraging populations, there is no way to ensure this. It is difficult to ensure it in modern industrialized populations. The method used to attempt to ensure it among chimpanzees is for males to have sex as frequently as possible with all fertile females in the hope that their sperm will win the competition with other sperm. While the pair bonded male is off hunting meat for his female, another male could visit her. If she is firmly attached to her male (and this is a big if), she may resist the intrusive male's efforts, but as males are larger than females, she would probably lose. The fully quadrupedal male would be passing on his genes while the male who was spending more time in bipedal locomotion would not pass on his genes. Pair bonding is neither a necessary nor sufficient behavior to lead to bipedality. And the fact is that modern humans are not pair bonded, nor even particularly monogamous. The most important bond is that between a mother and her offspring. Any other bond is secondary to that.


Sisterhood is Powerful

The change from quadrupedal locomotion to bipedal locomotion caused changes in the pelvis, in addition to changes in the angle of the femur as discussed in Walk, Don't Run. So long as our hominid ancestors remained relatively small-bodied and small-brained, the pelvic changes were not much of a problem while giving birth. However, by about two million years ago our ancestors had reached our modern body size and about two-thirds of our brain size. This meant that women were giving birth to heavy, large-brained infants. As most women who have given birth will tell you, birthing such a large infant is not easy and is, in fact, quite painful. Most women do not wish to undergo labor alone, and this was probably the case two million years.

Chimpanzee females have a roomy pelvis and give birth to relatively small-brained infants. In addition, the infant is born face up which means it is easy for the mother to reach down and pull the infant to her breast. Chimpanzee females give birth alone. Human females, on the other hand, have a relatively compact pelvis with barely enough room for a full-term infant to squeeze through the birth canal. In addition, the infant must twist and turn its way through the canal, ending up being born face down. If the mother reaches down to pull the infant to her, she could easily break its back or otherwise injure it. While human females can give birth alone, they are more successful, especially as first time mothers, if there is someone there to aid them in the process.

Women who have previously given birth know what the woman in labor is enduring and can offer appropriate comfort and advice. Women who have aided at a number of births are especially valuable since they have not only their own experience to guide them, but that of several other women. Until the 18th century, when men began to professionalize the field of medicine and to medicalize birth, women always aided women during the birth process. Mothers, older sisters, and midwives were the desired birth attendants. Based on what we know of birthing among forager populations, we can surmise that this was also the case with our ancient ancestors.

Among our ancestors, the mother/infant dyad was the primary relationship. The birthing process would have formed strong bonds with the women who aided the birth process, and with other women who were mothers. Each woman was the primary source of food for herself and her young offspring. Since toddlers and young children enjoy playing together, but must still be monitored by someone older, it is probable that women and their offspring would forage in pairs or small groups, both for companionship and safety. Over the course of an average day, a woman and her offspring would probably have little, if any, contact with any man, but would have been in close contact with other women. The bonds among women were probably quite strong, even if the women were unrelated.

Among bonobos, a subgroup of chimpanzees living in the Congo, females in a particular group are unrelated, but strongly bonded; so much so that there is relative equality between the sexes since the females will work together to control an overly-assertive male. In fact, on occasion, the group will be led by a female. Bonobos tend to be much more peaceful than other chimpanzees, in part because they use sex to heal tensions. In addition to sex between adult males and females, sex occurs between males, between females, and between individuals of differing ages. Given the critical need of female support during childbirth, it is possible that the bonds formed among women led our ancestors to engage in a behavioral pattern similar to that of bonobos.

The roles of men among our ancestors would have been limited, but important. The primary role of men would have been as an intermittent sex partner. While a particular man might prefer to mate with a particular woman, it is more probable that each man and woman had multiple partners over the course of a year. Since no man could be assured of which children were his, he probably treated all children much the same, although he might be more favorably disposed towards those of his current special woman, if he had one.

Probably the next most important role for a man would have been as defender of the group against predators. Since men are much stronger than women and are not necessary for infant care, unlike women who must breastfeed their infants, men are more suited to the role of group defender than are women. These same attributes are also why men primarily take on the role of hunter. Among modern foraging populations, the meat provided from hunts is generally only a small portion of the daily food and calories consumed, but is, nevertheless, an important part of the diet.

These three roles (sex partner, protector, hunter), while important, do not require or even support the concept of the nuclear family. It is more probable that the natural parenting family consisted of a woman, her children, and her extended family of women friends or kin, particularly older, experienced women, and their children. This group of women worked together to raise their children with little if any input from the men. This does not mean that men cannot be actively involved in childcare and childrearing, but it does mean that there is not an adaptive history of men taking on this role.

Let's get real. A woman and man are not adapted to parent alone. If they do not live near either set of their own parents, then they need to create a network of relationships with older, experienced individuals to provide them with the guidance they need when confronted with various parenting issues.


Next issue: Natural Parenting: Part 2


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Copyright 2001-2009 Kathleen E. Fuller, PhD. All rights reserved.