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.
Image: D. Sharon Pruitt at Flickr