Attachment Parenting

Roots of Moral Functioning Form Early, Depend on Child Rearing Practices

New research by a Notre Dame psychology professor indicates that emotional nurturing from, and attachment to, parents during a child’s early years result in higher intelligence, better mental health, and greater empathy.

“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.”

Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez led three studies which show a relationship between the child rearing practices common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies (a form in which we have spent about 99% of our history) and morality and compassion in kids.

“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.” – Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame Psychology Professor specializing in the moral and character development of children

Narvaez, who is presenting her findings at a conference at Notre Dame in October titled “Human Nature and Early Experience: Addressing the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness”, 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.
  • 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 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. 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

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

The takeaway? Kids need emotional nurturing and attachment to their parents in order to thrive. Not so much news as it is a validation of those of us who focus on that as the center of our parenting efforts.

Your thoughts?

Image: D. Sharon Pruitt at Flickr

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

7 thoughts on “Roots of Moral Functioning Form Early, Depend on Child Rearing Practices

  • Yea, not really a new concept but interesting that research is confirming this.

    Unfortunately American society is loosing all these great qualities. Are we just trying to cling to the past and saying those ways were better? Do we need to just move on with the process or “progress”?

    Humm…I guess I like the option to raise kids that have a deeper connection. It seems to make a difference.

  • Christina Havens

    Thanks for sharing! I am raising my 3 children in this way, my oldest son is 4 now and is very cooperative in play settings, very nurturing and loving. Same goes for my daughter who is 3 and my youngest who is 10 months couldn’t be any happier of a baby, he has been an easy baby since birth. A natural water birth I might add 😉 This way of mothering came naturally to me. My mother was very affectionate with me as a child, co-slept, etc. I love reading articles like these. Its a pat on the back I don’t get often enough:)

  • This is so TRUE. I can personally attest to this. My kids are 16 and 20 now and this is what I did.

    I was a stay-at-home parent, attachment parented, co-slepping, etc extended BF (both my kids nursed until they were around 4 yrs old) and a unschooler….

    I always freak out when I see kids being carried around in car seats all over the place, the parents never touch them it totally blows my mind… I did not even use a stroller, I just put the kids on my body, first on my chest then on my back.

    this just seemed like the natural progression for me… women all over the world take care of their kids this way but here in the US we have every gadget there is to carry a kid seperate from the parent’s body.

    The best thing we ever did was allow our seleves the option to have one parent at home full time. To listen to our natural parenting instincts and disregard the chatter from others around us that did not “feel right” to us.

    I would never do it any other way. I feel so blessed that I got to raise my kids like this. Now as teens they are level headed and what I would consider “low risk” behavior type of kids. They care confident, happy and independent.

    I’m so glad to hear this is being “confirmed”, but I already knew this 🙂

  • I would probably ignore a study that told me otherwise in regards to our attachment parenting ideals…But it’s nice to know our instincts are supported by studies.

    The idea of spoiling a baby is ridiculous. Who came up with this?!

    Yes, all of the “convenience” of gadgetry has become so commonplace. It is funny (read: scary) that those of us who choose baby carriers over strollers, minimal wood toys over lots of sound and light emitting plastic ones, family bed over crib-in-separate-room, etc. are the minority. This NEEDS to change. I belief Jane Leidoff was on to something in The Continuum Concept when she said that the root of a lot of our societal problems stem from the diminishing “in-arms” baby care. Very sad…
    But there is hope…

    Thanks for posting this Derek.

  • This is lovely to see and makes me reflect on my son who is 3. He is so sensitive to others feelings. Whenever we are out and hears someone upset or crying he tells us and wants to cuddle them. When I cry from getting hurt or just having a bad day he cuddles me and shows true empathy and concern.

    He has been showing this for over a year and I have never come across anyone his age like that.

    He was held all the time from o-6 months – if not by me, my husband, my dad, my sister, my MIL, my brother etc etc…

    He is still breastfeeding.
    We cosleep.
    He spends most of his time playing with older kids as to be honest playgroups for his age aren’t something I like exposing him to as the kids are mean and he will stand observing them and then start copying! I remember we went once and he was sharing toys with others and then he just stopped and watched everyone. When he saw everyone snatching he started doing the same…so now he plays with his older cousins and adults for the most part.

    I would never spank him and I never turn him away or yell at him if he is upset. I really enjoy the book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort. If my son is upset I just be present and tell him I know he is upset..once he is done he usually gives me a hug and moves on. It really amazes me how people treat children – it is devastating. They simply wouldn’t treat another adult like that.

    I also had a natural birth. my next birth won’t be in the hospital though because despite having a great midwife during my labour and who loved my birthplan..the midwife afterwards tried to make me think something was wrong with my son as I opted out of vitamin k.

    Anyway great to see things like this. I just wish people would stop feeling like they are spoiling their kids stop torturing themselves and start following their instincts and heart.

  • Very nice information. Its really very interesting article for reading a learning. I have 2 year son. I love to read some for my son.


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