Moral Landscapes

Living the life that is good for one to live

The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense

Problems that used to be rare are becoming mainstream

See co-author notes below 1, 2, 3

Charles Darwin1had high hopes for humanity. He pointed to the unique way that human evolution was driven in part by a "moral sense." Its key evolutionary features are the social instincts, taking pleasure in the company of others, and feeling sympathy for fellow humans. It was promoted by intellectual abilities, such as memory for the past and the ability to contrast one's desires with the intentions of others, leading to conscience development, and, after language acquisition, concern for the opinion of others and the community at large.


Darwin's "moral sense" is often interpreted as if these characteristics are universal among human beings.2 But empirical research demonstrates how early experience and caregiver-child relationships influence the development of community-minded maturation. Our work shows that the roots of moral functioning form early in life, in infancy, and depend on the affective quality of family3,4,5 and community support.6 Today, child rearing practices and family supports (or lack of) in the U.S. are undermining the development of the moral sense.

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As indexed by a recent UNICEF study of child well-being in 21 rich countries that ranked the USA 20th in family and peer relationships and 21st in health and safety,7 by the growth of childhood problems,8,9 and by the burgeoning prison population,10 American culture may be deviating increasingly from traditional social practices that emerged in our ancestral "environment of evolutionary adaptedness" (EEA). 11 Empathy, the backbone of compassionate moral behavior, is decreasing among college students (see here).

Anthropologists, who have documented early life for young children in foraging communities (representing the EEA where the human genus is presumed to have spent 99% of its existence) note that "young children in foraging cultures are:

• "nursed frequently;

• held, touched, or kept near others almost constantly;

• frequently cared for by individuals [adults] other than their mothers (fathers and grandmothers, in particular) though seldom by older siblings;

• experience prompt responses to their fusses and cries;

• and enjoy multiage [free] play groups in early childhood." 12

• along with natural childbirth

• and 2-5 years of breastfeeding.

My laboratory and others are documenting the effects of these practices on child outcomes and finding relations to intelligence, cooperation, conscience, empathy, self-control, aggression and depression.

In fact, the way we raise our children it seems that the USA is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well being and a moral sense.

• We have among the worst mother and infant mortality in the world, in part because the obstetric system is geared toward efficiency as opposed to concerns for child well-being.13

• Breastfeeding is too frequently discouraged by a medical system that routinely interferes with the establishment of breastfeeding in the first days of life.14

• Based largely on unfounded fears and extreme cases, parents are encouraged to sleep apart from their infants who often have limited physical contact with caregivers during the day.15

• Many parents believe that letting a baby cry is compatible with adequate parenting (it's not). 16

• Instead of shared care giving by extended family members, as was typical for our species,17 many children spend their early years in emotionally suboptimal daycare facilities, with little individualized, responsive care.18

• Centers and schools typically separate children into same-age groups where they are seldom allowed to play freely with each other in the natural world, interfering with healthy development of both body and brain.19

We can now map the sub-optimal consequences that arise from sub-optimal care.

• Formula fed infants have worse outcomes on every front that has been examined. 20,21

• Lack of touch and social support have detrimental effects on children's growth and development.22

• Regular caregiver neglect through non-responsiveness to infant fusses and cries, perhaps due to overstressed parents or daycare workers, promotes the development of a stressed brain that is detrimental to physical, social and moral outcomes.23, 24

• Free play, once a hallmark of childhood is now becoming scarce, despite recent findings that it is critical for maintaining mental health, developing intelligence and a fully social brain.25, 26, 27

These are just the tip of the iceberg. It is becoming increasingly clear that the ways we are rearing our children today are not the ways humans are designed to thrive. As Thomas Lewis and colleagues point out: "A good deal of modern American culture is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most." (A General Theory of Love).

The ill effects of these missing ancestral practices are becoming evident as children's well being is worse than 50 years ago.28 Characteristics that used to be limited to a subset of the population from neglect and abuse are becoming mainstream. Too many children are arriving at school with poor social skills, poor emotion regulation, and habits that do not promote prosocial behaviors or life success.

• The USA has epidemics of anxiety and depression among the young, indeed all age groups, and these are real numbers not artifacts of increased diagnosis.29

• Rates of young children whose behavior displays aggression, delinquency, or hyperactivity are estimated to be as high as 25%.30

• The expulsion rate of prekindergarten children31 and the number of children under age 5 with psychosocial problems32 or on psychotropic medications have increased dramatically.33

• Ten years ago, it was determined that one of four teenagers was at risk for a poor life outcome34 and trends have not improved.35

Although we can continue to minimize these problems and the risks in childrearing we are taking, the negative trajectories in well-being among children in the USA suggest that a reexamination of our cultural practices is needed. To the extent that our kids are not fully functioning threads in the social fabric, the quality of our cultural moral fiber is diminishing.

What Darwin considered the moral-engine of positive human thriving may be under threat. Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become normalized without much fanfare, such as the common use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms, the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby is spoiling it, the placing of infants in impersonal daycare, and so on. We recommend that scientists and citizens step back from and reexamine these common culturally accepted practices and pay attention to potential life-time effects on people. It is an ethical issue.

EPILOGUE

Don't blame mothers. Before the last decades, mothers were never alone in raising children, they always had the extended family and friends on a daily basis. The responsibility for child rearing belongs to the whole community in how it sets up neighborhoods (e.g., is it easy for children to play outside in nature), workplace life (is there daycare where moms can nurse), policies that support families (like paid parental leave after a child is born), and school practices (is there frequent recess). We can change our culture again to support children and families. Perhaps the greatest challenge is that many of us were raised in less-than-ideal conditions and we think we turned out just fine. We are the frogs in the pot that started out in cold water. Now that the water is hot, we can't jump out.

MORE INFORMATION:

For more information on the latest research, check out the symposium, Human Nature and Early Experience (Oct 10-12, 2010, at the University of Notre Dame), which brings together top scholars from around the world. Even UNESCO is having a World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education in September, 2010.

For more information on how to care for babies and young children, check out these resources:

Caring and Connected Parenting Guide

Attachment Parenting International

Holistic Moms Network

For more on Darwin's moral sense, see David Loye's groundbreaking work, Darwin's Lost Theory of Love

OTHER POSTS ON PARENTING ISSUES :

BIRTH

New Moms Need Social Support

Painkillers for Childbirth? The Few Pros and Many Cons

What's the Use of Midwives and Doulas?

Jesus Had a Home Birth

What if Jesus Had Been Born in the USA?

CIRCUMCISION

Why Continue to Harm Boys from Ignorance of Male Anatomy?

What Is the Greatest Danger for an Uncircumcised Boy?

Circumcision Ethics and Economics

Circumcision: Social, Sexual, Psychological Realities

More Circumcision Myths You May Believe: Hygiene and STDs

Myths about Circumcision You Likely Believe

BREASTFEEDING

Stand Up For Breastfeeding

Talk About Breastfeeding With Your Family, Friends and Doctor

Breastmilk Wipes Out Formula: Responses to Critical Comments

In Light of Last Week's Posts: Is Pushing* Formula Evil?

Breastfeeding Resources

The REAL Truth about Breastfeeding

5 Things You Thought You Knew about Breastfeeding

The TREMENDOUS Benefits of Doing What is Normal: Breastfeeding

Myths you probably believe about infant formula

Your assumptions about infant formula are probably wrong

It’s Breastfeeding Week: Why should you care?

SLEEP

1. Baby Sleep Training: Mistakes "Experts" and Parents Make

2. Letting Crying Babes Lie? So Wrong

3. Simple ways to calm a crying baby

4. Normal, Human Infant Sleep: PART 1,  PART 2, PART 3, PART 4, PART 5

5. Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep: PART 1, PART 2, PART 3

PARENTING: GENERAL

What Happened to Ethics in Pediatric Medicine?

Baby-, Parent- or Life-Centered Parenting?

Ten Ways to Truly Respect Motherhood

Slings and Heroes

Parents Should Know the Limitations of Science Experiments

Babies "don’t cry in Africa," why should they cry in the USA?

Blame the baby or blame the experts?

Dumb Parent(ing), Dumberer Child

How to Grow a Smart Baby

Are you treating your child like a prisoner?

Undercare: The bane of American life?

Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist

Is it good to make kids afraid?

How NOT to Ruin a Child

Are you or your child on a (touch) starvation diet?

Mother’s touch of dead baby causes “miracle”

What Does Good Parenting Look Like? You Decide.

CHILDREN’S RIGHTS

Childism Revisited

Are You a “Childist?" Test Yourself

Babies Are Needy—Does That Bug You?

Do We Need Declaration for the Rights of the Baby?

Where Are the Happy Babies?

The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense

Believing "children are resilient" may be a fantasy

How America Morally Fails its Children: What Needs to Change

Increase the well-being of children around you

Extended families are best for raising children
Children thrive when they have multiple adult caregivers who love them
http://www.clickphotodesignsblog.com/

Co-Author Notes

1 Darcia Narvaez, Department of Psychology, 118 Haggar Hall, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556; dnarvaez@nd.edu; forthcoming book with W.W. Norton, The Neurobiology and Development of Human Morality.

2 Jaak Panksepp, Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology, and Physiology, Washington State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99162; jpanksepp@vetmed.wsu.edu; author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (Oxford).

3 Allan Schore, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, University of California at Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine, 9817 Sylvia Ave, Northridge, CA 91324; anschore@ucla.edu; author of Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self (Erlbaum).

 

References


1. Darwin, C. (1871/1981). The Descent of Man. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

2. Krebs, D. (2008). Morality: An evolutionary account. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(3). 149-172.

3. Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 191-195.

4. Schore, A.N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum.

5. Narvaez, D. (2008). Triune ethics: the neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities. New Ideas in Psychology, 26, 95-119.

6. Hostetler, J.A. (1993). Amish Society, 4th Ed.. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

7. UNICEF (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries, a comprehensive assessment of the lives and well-being of children and adolescents in the economically advanced nations. Report Card 7. Florence, Italy: United Nations Children's Fund Innocenti Research Centre.

8. Felitti, V. J. & R. F. Anda. (2005). The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente.

9. Sanchez, M.M., Ladd, C.O., & Plotsky, P.M. (2001). Early adverse experience as a developmental risk factor for later psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 13 (3), 419-449.

10. Pew Center on the States (April, 2008). One in 100: Behind Bars in America. Washington, D.C.: Pew Charitable Trusts.

11. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss Vol 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

12. Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine, p. 15.

13. Wagner, M. (2006). Born in the USA: How a broken maternity system must be fixed to put women and children first. Berkeley: University of California Press.

14. CDC Centers for Disease Control (2008). Breastfeeding-Related Maternity Practices at Hospitals and Birth Centers --- United States, 2007. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 57(23), 621-625.

15. Gessner, B.D., Ives, G.C., Perham-Hester, K.A. (2001). Association between sudden infant death syndrome and prone sleeping position, bed sharing, and sleeping outside an infant crib in Alaska. Pediatrics, 108, 923-927.

16. Gethin, A., & Macgregor, B. (2009). Helping baby sleep: The Science and Practice of Gentle bedtime parenting. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

17. Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

18. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Early Child Care Research Network (2003). Does Amount of Time Spent in Child Care Predict Socioemotional Adjustment During the Transition to Kindergarten? Ann Arbor, MI: Society for Research in Child Development, Inc.

19. Miller, E., & Almon, J. (2009). Crisis in the Kindergarten-Why Children Need to Play in School. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood.

20. American Academy of Pediatrics Work Group on Breastfeeding (1997). Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk Policy statement. Pediatrics, 100(6), 1035-1039.

21. American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Breastfeeding (2005). Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. Pediatrics, 115(2), 496-506.

22. Cushing, B.S., & Kramer, K.M. (2005). Mechanisms underlying epigenetic effects of early social experience: The role of neuropeptides and steroids. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 29(7), 1089-1105.

23. Anisman, H., Zaharia, M.D., Meaney, M.J., & Merali, Z. (1998). Do early-life events permanently alter behavioral and hormonal responses to stressors? International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, 16(3-4), 149-164.

24. Cirulli, F., Berry, A., & Alleva, E. (2002). Early disruption of the mother-infant relationship: Effects on brain plasticity and implications for psychopathology. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 272, 73-82.

25. Schore, A.N. (Ed.) (2001). Contributions from the decade of the brain in infant mental health. Special issue of Infant mental Health Journal, 22, 1-269

26. Sunderland, M. (2006). The science of parenting. London: DK Publishing Inc.

27. Panksepp, J., (2007). Can PLAY diminish ADHD and facilitate the construction of the social brain. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 10: 57-66.

28. Heckman, J. (2008). Schools, skills and synapses. IZA DP No. 3515. Bonn, Germany: Institute for the Study of Labor.

29. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (1999). Mental health: A report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health.

30. Raver, C. C., & Knitze, J. (2002). "Ready to enter: What research tells policymakers about strategies to promote social and emotional school readiness among three- and four-year-old children." New York: National Center for Children in Poverty.

31. Gilliam, W.S. (2005). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems. New Haven, CT: Yale University Child study Center.

32. Powell, D., Fixen, D., & Dunlop, G. (2003). "Pathways to service utilization: A synthesis of evidence relevant to young children with challenging behavior." University of South Florida: Center for Evidence-based Practice: Young Children with Challenging Behavior.

33. Zito, J., Safer, D., dosRies, S., Gardener, J., Boles, M., & Lynch, F. (2000). Trends in prescribing psychotropic medications to preschoolers. Journal of the American Medical Association, 282, 1025-1030.

34. Eccles, J., & Gootman, J. A. (2002). Community programs to promote youth development. Washington, DC: Committee on Community-Level Programs for Youth. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences Education, National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.

35. Heckman, J. (2008). Schools, skills and synapses. IZA DP No. 3515. Bonn, Germany: Institute for the Study of Labor.

 

 

Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.

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