Cavemen were better parents than we are today

Leaving babies to cry, keeping them restrained for long periods and not letting them roam outdoors is raising a dysfunctional generation.

  • Dec. 4, 2012 2:00 p.m.

Being a parent is an ancient art. And it seems we could learn a thing or two about child rearing by going back to the days of the hunter-gatherers.

Today’s practice of leaving babies to cry, keeping them in buggies and car seats for long periods and not allowing them the freedom to roam outdoors is raising a dysfunctional generation, a psychologist claims.

Early societies had better ideas about being a parent than many 21st century families, according to Professor Darcia Narvaez.

Happy families: Early societies had better ideas about being a parent than many 21st century families, Narvaez claims.

Their children were cuddled and carried about, never left to cry, spent lots of time outdoors and were breastfed for years rather than months.

“Our research shows that the roots of moral functioning form early in life, in infancy,” she said.

“But child-rearing nowadays is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well-being and a moral sense.”

Narvaez led three American studies, including one looking at the parents of three year olds and how they compare with the child rearing of foraging hunter-gatherer societies of the past.

She found that unlike parents nowadays, ancient communities relied on extended families to look after their children or, as she said, “people beyond mum and dad who also love the child.”

They were also more likely to promptly respond to a baby’s crying and fussing.

“Warm, responsive care-giving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” said Narvaez, who is based at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

“At the same time, our distant ancestors spent much of their time being held and caressed by their mother, forming a close bond. They were not spanked.”

Children also spent much more time outside playing and exploring rather than being kept indoors by themselves.

Studies have shown that children who don’t spend enough time playing are more likely to develop hyperactivity and mental health problems, the psychologist said.

Breastfeeding is also an area of difference. Centuries ago, mothers would breastfeed children until the age of around five.

Humans have been foraging hunter-gatherers for most of their history. Farming gradually began to take over from the time of the last Ice Age 13,000 years ago, although some hunter-gatherer societies remain.

Narvaez pointed to studies showing a decline in the well-being of American children over the past 50 years.

Separate research in Britain has also suggested an increase in mental health problems among children.

“There’s an epidemic of anxiety among the young,” she said. “Kids who don”t get the emotional nurturing they need in early life tend to be more self-centred. They don’t have the same compassion-related emotions as kids who were raised by warm, responsive families.”

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