Darwin’s Parenting Tips
6 Axioms of Evolutionarily Informed Parenting
Posted Nov 28, 2016
*Applications of evolution to help us better understand significant problems of humanity are starting to emerge in all sorts of corners, such as education (see Gray & Chanoff, 1994), clinical psychology (see Wakefield, 1992), health (see Platek, Geher, Heywood, Stapell, Porter, & Walters, 2011), and the planning of neighborhoods to make cities better functioning (see Wilson, 2011). And a lot more (see Geher, 2014; Wilson, 2007). The tide has turned – and modern academia is working full-throttle toward realizing the evolutionary synthesis in higher education that many of my colleagues and I who focus on Evolutionary Studies are working to deliver.
Here, I’m particularly interested in applications of evolution to the domain of parenting. If you’re a parent, then you probably know how central parenting is to pretty much everything you do. Humans are a species characterized by high levels of required parental investment (Trivers, 1972). Offspring are nature’s vehicles for gene replication across generations. From an evolutionary perspective, nothing matters more than ensuring the success of offspring. This is probably why child death, which is an extremely prevalent outcome in pre-Western societies – and has been a very real and likely outcome for an extremely high proportion of our human ancestors – leads to unparalleled negative emotional reactions in our species (Volk & Atkinson, 2008).
One’s role as a parent is uniquely important from an evolutionary perspective. Human ancestors who were failures in the domain of parenting were less likely to become human ancestors than their “good parent” counterparts.
Below are six specific axioms of parenting that follow from an evolutionarily informed perspective. You’ll see that most of these follow from the fact that humans are an altricial ape - because of how slowly we develop in our early years, we need to learn a ton from adults in our environments so as to develop into effective and successful individuals who are ready to take on the challenges of a complex and sometimes-unforgiving social world.
PARENTING AS A MILD DICTATORSHIP
Parenting philosophies vary wildly across and within cultures. In all human societies, roles are specialized (see Wilson, 2007). And the roles that comprise the fabric of a society are crucial in shaping appropriate and productive behavior. Following the norms of a culture and behaving in a way that defers to local leadership may sound like a recipe for blind conformity, but it’s actually a recipe for group living in any human society – even the most alternative of societies. That’s because humans are a particularly “groupish” (Wilson, 2007) species – and behaving in line with group norms has been central to survival and reproduction of our ancestors for eons. This is not to say that there’s no room for creativity or independent thinking in humans. Rather, this is to say that there are species-defined parameters that constrain creativity and independence.
Part of the job of a parent is to help a child learn these parameters. Independence is crucial for life success, but independence always develops in light of particular cultural norms (Erikson, 1994).
As a practical example, consider an 18-month old who does not want a diaper change. He is exerting his will. He is exerting his independence. He is a person who is expressing a viewpoint and, like all people, he deserves to have his voice heard. And he may well demonstrate surprisingly creative ways to pursue his goal of not getting a diaper change. Fair enough. But as a parent, your responsibilities are always bifurcate – on one hand, one may see it as your job is to help your child develop a strong sense of self-worth and to feel heard – and loved … on the other hand, it may be considered your job to make sure that the poopy diaper is changed (to put it simply!). And this example works as a metaphorical model for parenting challenges that emerge across the lifespan.
As your child grows up, his or her success will hinge crucially on his or her ability to effectively demonstrate independence and creativity within socially circumscribed parameters. Make no mistake about it – humans are groupish by nature – and deferring to authority to some extent (under appropriate conditions) is, like it or not, something that must be learned during development. As such, parenting is necessarily a mild form of dictatorship. And it has to be. A kid just can’t sleep in a dirty diaper!
PREPARING A CHILD FOR SMALL-GROUP LIVING
Dunbar’s (1992) cognitive analysis of humans tells about the importance of small-group living. For generations, humans lived in small groups consisting of kin and “family friends” that went back generations. For the lion’s share of human evolution, human groups were comprised of approximately 150 individuals. And strangers were rarely encountered.
On the other hand, these days, a typical person lives in a large city of several hundred thousand people – and people travel from major city to major city many times over. The nature of human social structures has changed. One great insight from human evolutionary psychology is that the human mind has not caught up with this recent change in social structure. Human social structures did not take on their modern form until well after the advent of agriculture, approximately 10,000 years ago (see Buss, 2005).
In small groups, selfish behavior has little place. And the anonymity afforded by large-scale modern societies is non-existent. Because evolutionary changes of organic material typically take much longer than 10,000 years, the human social emotions (see Trivers, 1985) pre-date agriculture. They were shaped to help humans function in pre-Westernized contexts, in which social groups were comprised largely of kin and tended to cap out at 150 individuals.
Children these days, therefore, run into a major paradox – they live in contexts in which anti-social behavior can be carried out often – and they run into many strangers that they will likely see only a few times in a lifetime. In short, they can do bad things and not pay the kinds of social consequences that would emerge under ancestral conditions. There is a mismatch. And as parents, it is our duty to understand the nature of this mismatch – and to help guide our children accordingly. We need to teach our children about the moral emotions that exist across all cultures (see Haidt, 2007).
Interestingly, from an evolutionary perspective, we need to teach our children not how to behave in modern societies, but, rather, how to behave in ancestral societies because the psychology of everyone they will ever meet is designed to match ancestral - not modern – social contexts! In modern contexts, a kid might throw a stick at another kid in a playground in a big city – and get away with it. But we would look at that behavior with disdain – because that kind of behavior would be fully disruptive of the goals of a group that both kids belonged to under ancestral conditions. And not only would both kids belong to the same group, but their familial ties would go way back – and the best expectation would be that these kids would grow up together – and grow old together. And that’s what the human mind is shaped to anticipate. Kids these days consistently experience social contexts that do not include the same small-group nuances that typified most of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (Bowlby, 1969) for humans. But as parents, to do best by our kids – not to mention the broader society – we need to raise them with a small-group mind-set. And the evolutionary perspective provides us a clear sense of why this is.
As an important sidenote: Human religions seem to be premised on exactly this reasoning – typically being comprised of rules that foster prosocial interactions within the small group that one belongs to (and, often, beyond). Religion, then, may actually serve as a natural (and often successful) method for encouraging parenting behaviors that assume small-group living (see Wilson, 2002, for a detailed treatment of this thesis).
TEACHING ABOUT CHEATER-DETECTION
I remember when my son Andrew first learned how to play Candyland. He was two years old. My daughter Megan (then five) and I explained to him that his goal was to get to the end before everyone else did. Andrew was excited! He took his piece, started at the bottom, and, before either Megan or I drew a card, moved his little red Candyland guy – past Gloppy, past Gramma Nut, past Queen Frostine – and all the way to that rainbow-lined final space. “I win!!! I win!!! Yeah, baby!!!” Andrew shouted. “Uh, Andrew, you kind of cheated,” offered Megan. Some level of disagreement ensued. (Importantly, Andrew’s developed quite a moral code and understanding of rules since he was two!)
People do not like others who cheat. The evolutionary perspective tells us why! Think back to small-group contexts. Imagine that there’s just us 150 – and that’s it – for the next 60 years. Now imagine that one of us is always cheating. Let’s say it’s “Chuck the Cheater.” Chuck always cheats when we play games. He always takes more than his share of food. He always takes more than his share of drink. He is always trying to court the mates of others. He never cleans up after dinner.
What do we think of Chuck?
Ironically, because of the large-scale nature of modern societies, Chuck may actually have a chance these days – and this reasoning may actually account for why there is a higher proportion of psychopaths in large cities than in small villages (see Figueredo, Brumbach, Jones, Sefcek, Vásquez, & Jacobs, 2008). If Chuck lives in a city of several million people, he may irritate someone new every day, but there may be such a large pool of others for Chuck to interact with, that he may well be able to utilize his cheating strategy to exploit all kinds of people for a long time.
But that was not true under ancestral conditions – and modern evolutionary psychology makes this point abundantly clear. In a series of highly cited studies, Cosmides and Tooby (1992) provided strong evidence for the existence of a specialized cheater-detection module in humans. In short, while humans have several cognitive shortcomings, we seem to be experts at detecting cheaters in social contexts. And, evolutionists will argue, this is because ancestral human ecological contexts were comprised of small groups that remained together for long periods of time. Under such conditions, it would be extremely adaptive to be able to detect cheaters – and, on the flip side, it would be very costly to be unable to detect cheaters (as individuals without this ability would suffer adverse consequences by being consistently exploited by those who use an exploitive / cheating strategy).
So of course we teach our children not to cheat. But the evolutionary perspective sheds exceptional light on why we teach our children not to cheat. Human evolved psychology is very sensitive to cheating detection – and there’s almost nothing worse for one’s local reputation than being labeled as a cheater.
THE IMPORTANCE OF OUTRAGE
Much of what I allude to in this article pertains to the evolved human emotion system. And make no mistake about it, the human emotion system has been strongly shaped by biological evolutionary forces – and many of the basic elements of human emotion are shared with the emotion systems of many other vertebrate species (Ekman & Friesen, 1986). The human emotion system is evolutionarily old.
Recent work by Jonathan Haidt (2007) has shown that a basic part of human emotions, tied to social contexts, is the tendency to express moral outrage. Think of the phrase “Can you believe what Chuck did!?” People, in fact, use phrases like this all the time.
- Can you believe that Chuck didn’t join the worker’s union?!
- Can you believe that Chuck voted for Donald?!
- Can you believe that Chuck only gives multiple-choice exams?!
- Can you believe that Chuck never took minutes at a department meeting?!
In my world, these are the kinds of expressions of moral outrage that are typical. In your world, these may not be typical (hopefully!) – but you probably can see parallels. The story is the same. Moral outrage expressions are exactly that – expressions – outward, observable expressions of anger toward an individual or individuals. Expressions of moral outrage show something about both the target of the expression as well as the person making the statement. These statements are often emotionally charged – and they have an obvious function with a small group. They serve to devalue the status of the target of the statement while, concurrently, elevating the status of the person who is expressing the moral outrage (as the implication often is “I would never do that!”).
In small social groups, people talk. People are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating the status of themselves and of others in the group. As is true in many “groupish” species, holding high status is adaptive for humans – and our tendency to express moral outrage seems to be part of this game, even if it often leads to hypocrisy (see Kurzban, 2010).
Moral outrage and hypocrisy are not necessarily the most wonderful features of humans. But they are part of human nature. And they relate importantly to cheater detection. Cheating may have short-term benefits, but the long-term benefits of cheating are clearly costly in our species – particularly given the “we live in small stable groups” mentality that characterizes our evolved psychology. And educating our children about these issues should go a long way in effective parenting and toward helping children who come to naturally work to contribute toward the greater good. Understanding moral outrage may reduce both the likelihood (a) that one is a target of moral outrage and (b) that one uses moral outrage as a self-promotional tool in social settings.
CULTIVATING A POSITIVE REPUTATION
Just as children need to be raised by parents in a mild form of dictatorship, the evolutionary perspective has clear implications regarding the importance of reputation in raising children. Children can benefit from learning that reputation matters. Clearly, we don’t want to raise our children as mindless automatons who are only worried about their reputation. As mentioned earlier, helping develop a sense of independent thinking is clearly a basic part of parenting. But this sense of independence must be shaped within socially circumscribed parameters. While no one wants his or her child to be overly conscious about what others think (for good reasons), the evolutionary perspective on childrearing suggests that children should develop an understanding of factors that affect one’s reputation in a localized social group.
Human social psychological processes have been shaped by evolution across thousands of generations of humans – who mostly lived in small, stable groups. Trespassing on another person – be it in terms of that person’s property, person, or family – has dramatically negative consequences for someone in a small, stable group. Being tagged as a cheater or as someone who inflicts costs on others had consistent adverse consequences for humans under ancestral conditions. Carrying the label of cheater led to expressions of moral outrage directed to a person - expressions that were shared with others in the group. Carrying the label of cheater led one to fail to secure help and sharing from others. Who wants to feed a cheater? Who wants to defend a cheater? Who wants to help a cheater? Carrying the label of cheater likely often led to ostracism and, in extreme cases, death.
Humans are a groupish species – and people consistently have choices between behaviors that are (a) self-promotional (often at a cost to others) or (b) behaviors that help the broader group (and often exert a cost to oneself). The human mind is very sensitive to these issues – and evolutionists have made clear that people tend to label others in terms of these classes of behavior. In a small social group, being tagged with a reputation as a helper has dramatic long-term benefits to the individual compared with being tagged with a reputation as a cheater. Reputation matters – and evolutionists have unlocked the secrets regarding why. And this information can be extremely beneficial in childrearing.
TEACHING KIDS ABOUT THE MANY JOYS OF REPARATIVE ALTRUISM
One thing that parents are often forced to teach their children – often by example – is that no one’s perfect! Parents (often unwittingly!), trespass on others, inflict costs on others, fail to engage in helpful behavior, fail to put the needs of others ahead of their own needs, etc. From an evolutionary perspective, this should not be a surprise – as evolution does not create perfect organisms. Rather, evolutionary forces select organismal designs that are better able to survive and reproduce compared with alternative designs. Modern organisms that have survived the test of natural selection are not perfect – they are just, on average, more likely to have features that led to reproduction compared with other features that have not come to typify their species. Even parents are imperfect!
But the evolutionary psychology of human emotions anticipates such organismal imperfection (see Trivers, 1985). Humans seem to have a host of emotional and behavioral tendencies that are well-framed as reparative altruism – expressions that signal an acknowledgment that one has engaged in behaviors that have inflicted costs on others – and that, further, express both apology and a willingness to repair any damaged relationships. Reparative altruism is pretty much saying “I’m sorry – what can I do to make it right?”
Given the imperfectness entrenched in each and every one of us, reparative altruism is a powerful tool for navigating social relationships.
During socialization, children seem to need to be taught about the effective and appropriate use of reparative altruism. Humans tend to be defensive and often fail to acknowledge responsibility. Engaging in reparative altruism seems to be less natural. Perhaps acknowledging responsibility for inflicting costs on others and taking compensatory measures is a higher-level (more developed) way of dealing with such outcomes in social situations. Clearly, this is an empirical question. In any event, it is clearly a parent’s job to help his or her children develop this skill. If a higher proportion of adults would acknowledge their role in adverse outcomes and would willingly take compensatory measures (rather than get defensive), this world would be a better place!
Darwin’s insights regarding the evolution of life have an unprecedented capacity to inform all aspects of living. As I see it, we dismiss this approach to understanding what it means to be human to our own detriment. Parenting is a critical aspect of living from an evolutionary perspective - so, unsurprisingly, it can shed enormous insights into the nature of parenting in our species. Want guidance on how to effectively approach one of the most important jobs that has ever existed in the history of our species? Take a lesson from evolution.
*Parts of this post are adapted from the following article: Geher, G. (2011). Evolutionarily informed parenting: A ripe area for scholarship in evolutionary studies. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 3(2), 26-36.
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