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Beyond Attachment to Parents: Children Need Community

For good biological reasons, children want & need to move beyond their parents.

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Creative Commons

I’m all for natural parenting. The basic premise of such parenting, at least as I view it, is that you trust your children’s instincts and judgments. For example, you recognize that a baby who is crying is a baby who needs something, and you try to figure out what that need is and satisfy it. You don’t let a baby “cry it out.” You recognize that throughout our evolutionary history babies and young children always slept with their mothers or other adults or older siblings, never alone, and that sleeping alone is terrifying for many young children (see post here). You recognize that babies and children, like all of us really, crave physical contact, and you provide it. You don’t push it when it’s not wanted, but you provide it and welcome it when it is wanted.

The key concept here is sensitivity. To understand what a child wants and needs, and especially to understand what a non-verbal baby wants and needs, you have to be in tune with that person. You have to be able to see the world from the child’s point of view. That requires empathy. This isn’t really any different from the requirements for any other close relationship. To have a good marriage, you must be able to empathize with your spouse. To be a good friend, you must be able to empathize with your friend. Your spouse, your friend, and your child are not you; they have different needs and wishes than you do, but to have a good relationship with them you must be sensitive to their needs and wishes.

Natural parenting is often equated with attachment parenting, and that is fine as long as we are careful about what we mean by “attachment.” Children are not designed, by nature, to attach just to the mother, or just to the mother and father. They are, for good biological reasons, designed to form multiple attachments, to many of the people in a community. It is important to recognize here that the private nuclear family, living in a house apart from others in the community, is, from an evolutionary perspective, an unnatural environment.

Throughout most of human history, prior to the development of agriculture, people lived not in houses but in what are best described as camps. The basic social unit was the band, which consisted typically of about 20 to 50 people who cooperated with one another and who moved from campsite to campsite as needed to follow the available game and edible vegetation. At each campsite they built small, temporary huts to sleep in, all clustered together. Except when they were asleep, people spent their time outdoors with all of the other band members. Marriages existed, and children had special relationships with their parents, but parents did not “own” their children in the way that people in our culture think of parents as owning their children. In many ways, the children were children of the entire band. Everyone took part in every child’s care. Everyone developed some kind of relationship with every child; and children, even babies, were active partners in forming those relationships.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense that children would want to form close relationships with many different people, not just their parents. For starters, during most of human history, parents often died before their children were grown. Losing a parent is always a very sad event; but it is not a fatal event for a child who has close relationships with others who are already involved in the child's care. Perhaps even more important, the goal of childhood, in our culture as well as in hunter-gatherer cultures, is to become an independent being who can form relationships with lots of different people—relationships that are essential for survival and reproduction. You don’t learn to do that by paying attention just to your mother and father. You learn it by paying attention to lots of different people, who have different personalities and needs and different things to offer. Another goal of childhood is to educate yourself, that is, to acquire the ideas, lore, knowledge, skills, and values of the culture in which you are growing. If you were to try to do this by attending just to your parents, you would learn only a narrow slice of all that is out there and you would not prepare yourself well for the world.

A too-exclusive attachment of child and parent is not only unfair to the child but can also be burdensome to the mother (it usually is the mother, not the father). There is nothing natural about the idea that a woman should stop other activities and devote herself exclusively to children and domestic chores when she becomes a mother. Hunter-gatherer mothers continue their foraging activities, and continue to socialize fully with the other adults of the band and with neighboring bands. Motherhood does not isolate them; if anything, it ties them even more closely to everyone in the band, as they all enjoy relationships with the child.

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing a chapter written by my Boston College colleague Gilda Morelli and her research colleagues Paula Ivey Henry and Steffen Foerster. The chapter is based on a new analysis of data that they had collected some years ago during months of research among the Efe, who are hunter-gatherers living in the Ituri Forest in the Congo Basin in Africa.[1] Their research focused on the social relationships of infants and toddlers in the bands that they observed. Here are a few of the findings:

• When an Efe baby is born, the first to hold it are the women and children who are in the mother’s hut assisting with the birth and providing emotional support to the mother. Then the baby is passed outside the hut and held by all of the other band members who have crowded around to greet this new arrival. The mother is the last to hold her baby.

• Efe babies are nursed not just by their mothers but also by other lactating women in the band, most of whom are not genetic relatives of the mother.

• Timed, systematic observations, revealed that 4- to 6-month-old Efe infants are in close physical and/or social contact with an average of 9 different partners every two hours, and 18- to 21-month-olds are in contact with an average of 14 different partners every two hours! These partners include men as well as women and children as well as adults. On average, the researchers found, infants are in contact with a single person for only 3 minutes before moving on to another person, throughout the day.

• As infants grow older they play increasingly active roles in initiating contacts with others, by reaching toward them, smiling, laughing, and in other ways inviting the interaction. Once they can toddle, they move on their own from person to person and begin to join other children in age-mixed play groups.

• Efe infants and toddlers of all ages are remarkably cheerful and non-fussy, perhaps because of all the attention they receive from so many different people. The researchers reported them to be in good moods—smiling, laughing, bright-eyed, and attentive—on average about 90% of the time that they were awake.

Not all hunter-gatherers engage in communal nursing of infants, as the Efe do, but all such cultures are apparently far more communal than we are in their care of children. Child abuse is nearly impossible in hunter-gatherer bands. If a mother or father gets irritable and acts harshly toward a child, others in the band will immediately step in and calm the parent while also gently taking the child. Because childcare is public, every person, including young children, can witness all of the childcare in the band. Nobody becomes a parent without having had lots of experience holding and caring for others’ children and witnessing many others doing so. No adult is left alone to care for a child unassisted.

How different this all is from our society!


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[1] Morelli, G., Ivey Henry, P., & Foerster, S. Relationships and Resource Uncertainty: Cooperative Development of Efe Hunter-Gatherer Infants and Toddlers." In D. Narvaez, K. Valentino, A. Fuentes, J. McKenna, & P. Gray (Eds.), Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press. To be publshed in 2014.

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