It baffles parents worldwide: why are our children so unhappy? The more we give them, the more miserable they are. We are faced with an epidemic of anxiety among children. 11 percents of children and young adolescents are suffering from depression. The rates of aggression among children doubled in the last 25 years. Most children do not know the meaning of empathy. Compassionate, moral behavior is considered ‘uncool.’ Scientists believe that the problems are in the strange cultural and social practices of our modern life, particularly in the way we raise our children.
During the October 2012 symposium “Human Nature and Early Experience: Addressing the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness” at the University of Notre Dame, Professor Darcia Narvaez presented her views that the problem is in ill-advised modern parenting practices. Our way of life is negatively affecting the development of a healthy brain of modern children and their emotional development.
The practices that scientists consider most ill-advised are the use of formula instead of breast-feeding, lack of free play in nature, very little direct touching and comforting, isolation of children in their own rooms and small, nuclear families with a very few care-givers.
Our ancestors did better
This Nortre Dame research shows that some nurturing parenting practices that used to be common in ancient hunter-gatherer societies were very beneficial to a healthy emotional development in adulthood. These practices, and the alarming effects our modern life has on children behavior, are forcing scientists to rethink many of the modern childrearing “norms.”
Some of the most beneficial practices have to do with direct contact and constant care of children. Breastfeeding, comforting of crying children, constant touch and direct care of more than one caregiver in extended families are just a few of ancestral parenting practices that positively affect the developing brain. In effect, brain affects the formation of personality and moral development.
While some studies show that letting babies cry is good for the development of healthy sleep patterns, others show that responding to a crying baby may influence the development of conscience. Comforting touch reduces reaction to stress, develops sense of empathy and helps impulse control. Free play outdoors helps develop social capacities and reduces aggression. A number of caregivers, besides mother, influence the development of empathy, child’s IQ and ego resilience.
We are aware that we are lacking on all these fronts and in most cases there is not much we can do about it. Small, nuclear families, two working parents, urban lifestyle and a huge influence media has on children development leaves very little that parents can do to affect their children development. Nevertheless, Professor Narvaez believes that relatives and teachers may also help children feel safe and nurtured with them around. We can also make up later for what our children lacked in early childhood. But, that means giving more time to our kids and having much more interaction with them. It is time to go back to the lullabies and bedtime stories instead of letting the TV and computers do that for us.
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