As humans we are rationally self-interested and innately predisposed to coexist in cooperative social systems free of coercion. Our preponderant inclinations towards empathy, reciprocity, a desire to help others meet their needs and an affinity for those who do the same are the adaptations that make such a mode of existence possible. Human nature evolved to facilitate the survival of the species over several hundred thousand years while our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Our brains evolved to be capable of the complex social interactions that were necessary for this form of society. To steal a line from Martin Seligman, “Being social is the highest form of adaptation known.” The largely egalitarian hunter-gatherer way of life was sustainable in part due to group cohesion that resulted from the genetic predispositions of children in combination with non-violent, non-coercive and non-directive parenting practices. It was adaptive to treat your kids with kindness and teach them empathy when you would eventually depend on them for your very sustenance. If we have a clear understanding of human nature and the parenting practices that help support those inclinations we can nurture children who do not require the threat of violence from the state to coexist in society. Children, if allowed, will follow their natural predispositions and become cooperative and empathetic adults who pave the way towards a voluntary society.
How were kids treated?
Darcia Narvaez, a psychology professor from the University of Notre Dame, has highlighted six key practices that our ancestors employed with their children. These practices have been witnessed in small band hunter-gatherer societies that exist today. They are natural birth, breastfeeding up to six years of age, positive touch (including co-sleeping and no spanking), responsiveness to needs, multiple adult caregivers and free play with kids of varying ages. These are covered in more detail in an excellent article by Danielle Friedman from the Daily Beast. Please read that article for more details on the topics I don’t cover here. In the interest of brevity I want to highlight the three that I believe need further explanation.
Children need positive touch in the form of holding, cuddling and co-sleeping. It develops strong parent/ child bonds and helps children feel secure. It is natural for kids to want to be with their parents all the time. If you are unsure if this is true just ask you’re two year old who he wants to play with and the answer will be his primary caregiver. Ask her where she wants to sleep, in her room or with mommy and daddy, and more than likely she will choose to co-sleep. While individual desires certainly are not proof of an evolutionary predisposition, the near universality of this desire is a strong indicator of this basic human need.
Hunter-gatherers were affectionate and loving with their children holding and cuddling them often. Young children stayed with their primary caregiver the majority of the time and families slept together.
On the other end of the touching spectrum is spanking. Several cultures around the world condone the spanking of children. As previously discussed it arose in conjunction with the authoritarian style of parenting that coincided with the rise of agriculture. It is supposedly used as a teaching aid to help children learn who are “unable to reason.” In reality it is a method to conveniently get children to comply and it erodes the bonds between the caregiver and child. Children need to feel secure with their caregivers and that sense of security comes from predictable, caring action on the part of the parent. To add the uncertainty of a violent response by someone who quite literally the child relies on for survival is confusing at best and quite likely traumatic. For reams of statistics on the deleterious effects of spanking please see Project No Spank.
Hunter-gatherers guided their children with quiet reprimands. They did not intimidate their children with raised voices or the threat of violence through spanking.
Responsiveness to needs
Responsiveness to a child’s needs is paramount practice in helping the child develop empathy. The child learns by example. If he is shown empathy he will follow his natural inclination to be empathic. If she is shown that everyone’s needs are equally important and that cooperation is necessary in order for everyone to get their needs met in a win-win fashion then she will follow her inclination to understand the human condition and care for others. If coercion and violence are used against him to teach him that might makes right and only those in power get their needs met then he will learn how to be a slave to those who have power over him and a master to those that he has power over.
Hunter-gatherers were responsive to the needs of their children. They did not let their children “cry it out.” Crying was a signal that something was wrong and adults responded to the need. When your child is upset that you are leaving the park do you threaten to leave her or validate her feelings and work on a compromise? The latter undoubtedly takes more time and patience, but it also helps foster the kind of empathetic and caring people that we want our kids to become.
Free play with kids of varying ages
At three to four years of age the child begins to desire to spend more time with his peers. During the first three years of life (a time when the personality is forming) the child needs to spend as much one-on-one time as possible with primary caregivers, forming nurturing parental bonds. Care should be taken to space siblings far enough apart to allow for this critical bonding. After the initial bonding period if the child has had an opportunity to become secure in his attachment he will desire a peer group. Again, kids learn by example and the role of peer groups cannot be underestimated. It is very important that the parent be cognizant of the influence that this group will have on the child. We have an innate predisposition to learn in a mixed age group setting and this group will have an effect on your kids. Children want to learn from “big kids.” It is beneficial for the younger kids who learn as well as the older kids who teach. The learning takes place as the children play together and they should be free to choose activities that interest them.
Hunter-gatherers assumed the autonomy of the individual, including children. The parents therefore let their children play all day using a non-directive style of teaching, which allowed the children free reign to pursue their interest and learn how to contribute to the group. Public education with its rigid curriculum and grades stratified by age does not allow children to learn in this natural way.
Back to basics
Understandings of our evolution as humans will help us reintegrate practices that will foster strong, positive relationships with our children. When we meet the needs of our children in an environment that lacks coercion it allows them to follow their natural inclinations to become cooperative and empathetic adults. Also, by changing from an authoritarian style of parenting back to a more nurturing style of parenting we have the potential to fundamentally change society. A peaceful, egalitarian society that respects personal freedom is not a utopian fantasy, but a realistic goal based in our very nature. Once children are freed from coercion and guided towards their predispositions for empathy and cooperation, the need for an authoritarian government to control the social structure will evaporate. A negative view of human nature is one of the main myths that keep governments in power. Political freedom begins with personal freedom and an understanding of the dynamics of our nature and nurture is a good first step in unraveling the lies that keep us enslaved.