New Research About Making Our Kids More Compassionate

New Research About Making Our Kids More Compassionate
April 23, 2011 Gayathri

Throughout human history, there has been a lot of mistreatment of kids. Abandonment, abuse, even murder of children has been, in various times and regions, acceptable to human cultures. Despite our slow march away from such practices, the cruelty with which humans treat our young remains a well-documented and pervasive problem. But new research, led by Dr. Darcia Narvaez from the University of Notre Dame suggests that our ancient ancestors got some child rearing practices really right.

Narvaez says, “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.”. Her findings link several practices that were common to ancient foraging hunter-gatherer societies with higher intelligence, greater empathy and conscience development, and better overall mental health. 

What exactly did our ancestors do that was so great? They built attachment relationships with their kids! Here are six characteristics that were studied: 

 • Lots of “positive” touch, defined as “no spanking – but nearly constant carrying,  cuddling and holding.”

 • Responding promptly to the baby’s crying. You can’t “spoil” a baby. Meeting a child’s needs before they get upset and the brain is flooded with toxic chemicals helps create a peaceful environment for the baby to develop optimally. “Warm, responsive caregiving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” Narvaez says.

• Breastfeeding for 2 to 5 years. That’s a pretty long time by our modern metrics, but the research showed that any amount of breastfeeding increased empathy and compassion later in life, and decreased depression and aggression.
• 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.
All six of these practices are areas that parents in the United States largely fail to do, or don’t do completely. And it’s really hurting us! We consistently rank toward the bottom of all industrialized nations when it comes to children’s health and safety. We have epidemic rates of childhood depression, anxiety, ADHD and more. We know that the early experiences children have – in the first years of life – have a profound impact on their development. But natural childbirth rates are down. Only 15 per cent of mothers in the U.S. are still breastfeeding by the time our infants are 12 months old. Our babies are transported in strollers and car seats more than ever before. We don’t typically live in extended families or in communities where there are multiple adult caregivers for our children, and since 1970, “free play” allowed by parents has declined dramatically.

You get the idea. As a culture, we’ve moved away from practices that have been found to have such wonderful outcomes. We’ve adopted other practices that are often hurtful, neglectful, or downright violent. “All of these issues are of concern to me as a researcher of moral development,” Narvaez says. “Kids who don’t get the emotional nurturing they need in early life tend to be more self-centered. They don’t have available the compassion-related emotions to the same degree as kids who were raised by warm, responsive families.” 

We need to reexamine the way we raise our babies, and we can look to our ancient relations for some of the practices that can help us to promote optimal development in our children. We’re not hunter-gatherers living in small groups anymore, and it isn’t always easy to build healthy attachment relationships in today’s busy world. But it’s worth making the extra effort for our children, and for the benefit of future generations, who may one day look to us for lessons lost. 

Much gratitude to the distant ancestors, who really got some stuff right. 

Brian Joseph,

Director of Programming


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