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Believing "children are resilient" may be a fantasy

Are people in the USA thriving, resilient, or neither?

"Kids are resilient." How many times have I heard that in a Hollywood movie as a self-centered adult 'does his/her thing' at the expense of the children? How resilient are children? If you look at the whole picture of health and well-being, not that much. Believing in children's "resilience" actually may be undermining parenting and social policy.

What does "resilient" mean? Among researchers, it usually means that the person is doing better than expected for the situation they are in; e.g., coping despite neglect. In child development it means that the person is not a clinical problem or a criminal or a drop out, even though they did not get their basic needs met in some fashion. I contrast resiliency with thriving. Thriving means that your needs were met during sensitive periods and that you have what you need for wellbeing.

It seems like adults today want to think that a child's poor outcome is mostly the result of genetics or a random process (which occur in evolution and everyday life) instead of realizing that poor outcomes are widespread. There is systematic deprivation that is causing systematic flaws in neuro and biological development which of course influence one's psyche and health.

How did resilience become a standard? How did we come to view children almost as nuisances who just need minimal support? How did children's needs become dismissable?

I think there are four basic causes.

One is that more and more parents themselves did not receive optimal care and so have no physical memory of it or intuitions for it. When you have to grow up on your own, you learn to NOT get pleasure from caring for others even though we are evolutionarily prepared to get great pleasure from caring for children. Animal studies show that poor parenting snowballs across generations, especially if natural childbirth is disrupted (which is done routinely in US healthcare).

Two, US popular culture encourages self-centeredness among everyone including parents ('have it your way', 'just do it'). When is the last time you heard of the importance of parental self-sacrifice? Today parents are encouraged to shape babies around their lifestyles, like sleeping through the night--which is the last thing you want for a baby's wellbeing. "You are going to spoil that baby" is said by people who don't understand child development. They don't know that babies who are allowed to cry themselves to exhaustion are more likely to turn into aggressive or depressive people.

Three, we have cultural ideologies driving our behavior. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors and cousins did not have an ideology that told them to go against their maternal and paternal instincts, to avoid touching babies and to let them cry. These would have been unthinkable practices and laughable ideas that would have put the group at increased risk for predation because unhappy children make for noisy and uncooperative children.

Four, we systematically overburden parents and families. Children need happy and unstressed caregivers. But parents are expected to care for children on their own while holding multiple jobs. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have ongoing distractions from the social life that grabbed attention and established habits of detachment and flightiness from children's needs (e.g., electronic media, driving). We think that this is acceptable, again, because 'children are resilient.'

So are people in the USA resilient or are they thriving? Very few of us got our basic mammalian needs met when we were young, according to evolved principles of parenting. See here. So overall we are not thriving.

Are we resilient across the nation? If you think of health outcomes, then "resiliency" drops precipitously. As research methods improve on gauging health effects of life experiences, we're finding out that there are longterm effects of undercare on children. Just take a look at the ACE study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) which estimates that 2/3 of American adults had adverse experiences as children that are negatively affecting their health and wellbeing. The effects of abuse, neglect and trauma on physical and mental health are longterm, even with interventions.

The USA has epidemics of anxiety and depression, obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The rates of these things cover up to 2/3 of adults but it is unclear who has none of these types of problems. I would guess at 1/3 or less. Thus, as a nation we are not resilient either.

So let's stop aiming for resilient children, which is just an excuse for minimal care, and start thinking about thriving children. To thrive, children's needs must be met. In early life that means constant touch, no distress, breastfeeding as long as possible, multiple responsive adult caregivers, free play in nature, not to mention laughing and joyful social relations. Early life wires the brain and body for lifetime functioning. So if you want your children to flourish now and later, start with the above-named ancestral practices.

Those who put their children first and feel good about it are going to have to help the rest of us who get annoyed by the idea.



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Bed Sharing With Babies: What is the Hype About?

Bedsharing or Co-Sleeping Can Save Babies' Lives


New Moms Need Social Support

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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


1. Kindness in Kids and the Nature-Nurture Debate (Dr. Sarina Saturn)

2. Why Synchronize and Bond With Your Children (Dr. Ruth Feldman)

3. “I want it—now!” How Children Learn Self-Control (Dr. Julie Braungart-Rieker)

4. Why Kids Should Be Protected from Toxic Stress (Dr. Bruce Perry)

5. “Mr. Mom” The New (or Old?) Normal (Dr. Lee Gettler)

6. Why Dad’s “Talk” is Important (Dr. Holly Brophy-Herb)

7. Conflict in the Family: Why Mom and Dad Should Say “Sorry” (Dr. Mark Cummings)

8. Domination or Partnership? How Does Your Family Stack Up? (Dr. Riane Eisler)

9. Why Carefully Invest Daily in a Child (Dr. Robin Nelson)

*Posts are based on talks presented at the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.

ALSO SEE: What is Child Flourishing?


When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.

When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).

The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.

All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.

My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works see (my Website to download papers):

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L. (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.

Also see these books for selected reviews:

Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (W.W. Norton)