Darwin's Advice for Parents
10 evolution-inspired lessons for parents
Posted Jun 10, 2018
Like so many folks who are near the midpoint of life, I find myself having all kinds of responsibilities. I oversee and direct a research lab. I teach several classes a year. I play leadership roles in various volunteer organizations. I am a homeowner with a big yard, vegetable garden, and pool (none of which maintain themselves). I write this blog for Psychology Today. I am a reasonably attentive and responsible husband. And more.
This all said, my role as parent of two kids (who are now both deep into their teens and are snarky as anything!) is, by a good margin, my life responsibility sine qua non (i.e., without equal). Fifteen years ago, it was changing diapers. Ten years ago, it was getting home to get the kids off the school bus. Five years ago, it was scrambling home to pick up the kids off the school bus and helping oversee school projects. Today, it’s shuttling them from here to there and helping them navigate the famously complex teenage years. Oh, and giving them money. My guess is that it does not really end!
From an evolutionary perspective, why we care so much about our kids is downright easy to explain. Our kids are our most primary and direct paths for getting our own particular genetic footprint into the future (see Dawkins, 1976). For this reason, humans, like many kinds of species, have special adaptations that seem to be focused on helping our offspring thrive.
Hey, I know that giving out parenting advice can always be a little bit dicey. And if you know my kids, you’ll know that my wife and I have only partly kept to these pieces of advice ourselves over the past 17+ years! This said, for what it’s worth, from the perspective of someone who has been in the parenting business for nearly two decades — and from the perspective of someone who has done a lot of work in the field of evolutionary psychology (see my book, Evolutionary Psychology 101 and Geher, 2011) – here are 10 tips for parenting that follow from work in the field of evolutionary psychology. Hopefully, people find this all at least somewhat useful.
1. Realize that we are an altricial species and that your kid will make lots of mistakes.
Species of animals vary in terms of how slowly developing their young are (see Trivers, 1971; Bowlby, 1969). Our young are VERY slowly developing. Human babies are nearly completely helpless at birth. And the human brain develops slowly across the first decades of life. You might find this information helpful when dealing with your kids! Every now and again, as a parent, it is helpful to step back and remind yourself that a kid is a kid — and that development is still in progress! That is a pretty basic part of what it means to be human.
2. Teach your kids to stand up for themselves.
Humans are organisms. And like any organism, a human is the product of the selections of many adaptations that helped his or her ancestors survive or reproduce (see Dawkins, 1976). Organisms that do not look out for their own interests tend to not fare all that well in the game of natural selection. It’s partly up to parents to teach kids the importance of standing up for themselves. Remember, you’re not always going to be there for them. So you need to make sure that they learn life skills necessary so that they can handle things in your absence.
3. Cultivate an other-oriented approach to life.
Homo sapiens have a long history of implementing various forms of altruistic behaviors. In fact, our tendencies to help others and to work together, in a cooperative fashion, is a hallmark of who we are (see Wilson, 2007). And this tendency can help explain such human products as the jet plane, the internet, and the Great Wall of China. Parents teaching kids skills needed to cultivate cooperation with others is critical in the development of other-oriented behavior in humans.
4. Feed your kids like they lived 20,000 years ago.
If you live in the United States, then you live in a world in which processed food is boss. More than 60% of the food eaten in the U.S. each year is processed (read as: unnatural) food (see Guitar, 2017). And a diet that is heavy in processed foods is famous for leading to all kinds of adverse health outcomes, such as obesity and Type-II diabetes (see O’Keefe et al., 2006; Wolf, 2010). Because of our evolved taste preferences, humans will gravitate toward cookies and french fries over brussel sprouts and strawberries almost every time. This is especially true of kids, who have a disproportionately strong evolved tendency to prefer relatively sweet foods. Limiting the amount of processed foods available to your kids early on in life is setting them up to be healthy eaters in a world where it is downright difficult to be a healthy eater!
5. Get your kids to develop identities tied to sport or exercise.
Humans are like any animal. We don’t move around much, naturally, unless we have to do so. Conserving energy is evolutionarily wise. The problem is this: In our modern lifestyles, we are not hunter-gatherers (as most of our ancestors were during the lion’s share of human evolutionary history). We don’t have to go out and forage for food every day as if our lives depend on it. So we have the option of being sedentary. And many of us choose to “exercise” that option every single day. In our modern worlds, we need to create regular exercise opportunities — for ourselves and for our kids. Starting at an early age, there are plenty of activities that are available to kids to get them to be physically active. Soccer, swimming, baseball, softball, basketball, tennis, etc. In modern worlds like ours, being someone who identifies as an athlete, or simply as someone who regularly engages in exercise, has all kinds of dividends in life. It is the only way to offset the often-sedentary lives that we find ourselves living today. We need to help our kids on this front. Otherwise, they will become zombie couch potatoes!
6. Cultivate artistic and musical interests.
Across human groups around the world, various art forms are prevalent. There is visual art, poetry, singing, dancing, etc. While the ultimate evolutionary reasons for us being an artistic ape are multi-faceted and complex (see Miller, 2000), pretty much all evolutionists who study the human condition would agree that art is a basic element of who we are. As a parent of two very artistic kids, I can say from experience that cultivating your kid’s artistic side is something that you probably won’t regret.
7. Allow for plenty of free play with other kids.
While we cannot use time travel to enter our ancestral past, we can examine trends that are found in modern hunter-gatherer groups across the globe to make educated guesses as to how ancestral humans lived. In such an analysis, Peter Gray (2011) discovered something pretty provocative: Children who live in hunter-gatherer groups today — from South America to Central Africa — spend a large majority of their time with other kids in unsupervised settings. Think about that! Now I’m not saying to go send your kids out into traffic, but this finding does have an important implication for parenting.
8. Get your kids outside — a lot!
For the lion’s share of human evolutionary history, people were pretty much always outside in nature. All day long. For this reason, renowned evolutionist E. O. Wilson (1984) talks about humans as having a natural proclivity toward what he calls “biophilia,” or a love of the living world. We are drawn to plant and animal life. We are enamoured by the deer that run across the yard. We are thrilled each year when the azalea plant in the front yard beams with pink flowers. We watch nature documentaries on TV with awe. This all is because our ancestors evolved in nature and, as such, we have minds that connect strongly with the natural world. This all is probably why it is rare that you will hear a parent complain that his or her kid likes to spend time outside in nature.
9. Teach your kids values that would be helpful for small-scale living.
Before the advent of civilization and agriculture about 10,000 years ago, all of our human ancestors lived in small-scale societies, rarely exceeding 150 members (see Dunbar, 1992). In such a society, people rarely interacted with strangers. They did not communicate with others by cellphone — they interacted with others in direct, face-to-face interactions. And they saw the same people over and over again across life. These are the social conditions that our minds evolved to deal with. Under such conditions, being respectful and appreciative of others was essential for staying connected to others. And staying connected to others was essential for survival. As parents, we often teach our kids to be polite and respectful. From an evolutionary perspective, we can see why these attributes matter so much.
10. Allow yourself to make mistakes.
Just as kids are inevitably going to make mistakes along the way, every parent is going to make mistakes along the way as well. This is part of life. You might find yourself to be too strict on some front. You might find yourself to not be strict enough on another front. You might find yourself having little control over an important domain in your kid’s life. You might find yourself feeling helpless in a situation that you will look back at years from now and laugh about. Kids are resilient. So while you should, of course, do your best as a parent, don’t spend much time beating yourself up about any questionable parenting decisions that you may have made at some point. Your kids will benefit more from you using that time to help them grow moving forward.
While there are many facets of life, there are few that compare with parenting in terms of time, effort, or priority for many people. The evolutionary perspective tells us why. The evolutionary perspective also has some clear implications for the nature of parenting. The list included here is hardly complete — but hopefully folks find it useful for moving forward in life as a parent. Remember, from an evolutionary perspective, we’re all passengers on the same train. Enjoy the ride.
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Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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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.
Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.
Gray, P. (2011). Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books.
Guitar, M. (2017). Evolutionary Medicine: A not so radical (but absolutely necessary) Paradigm for Modern Health and Behavior (seminar given in SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Studies Seminar Series)
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