Why Does “Caveman” Parenting Influence Adult Morality?

How does early parenting influence morality in adulthood?

Posted Dec 22, 2015

Babies develop dynamically in response to the care they receive, which influences the trajectory of their health and wellbeing. But the foundations for moral sensibilities are also influenced by early life care.

My colleagues and I have a paper in press that suggests so-called “caveman” parenting (aka primal or evolved parenting) is related to adult sociality and morality (Narvaez, Wang & Cheng, in press). That is the more positive touch, free play, social connection and support you got in childhood, the better attachment, mental health, and social capacities you have. But also, the more open-hearted and relationally attuned to others rather than socially withdrawn or socially oppositional you are in adulthood.

In a class on moral development recently, students read The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland and my recent book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality, which explain the neurobiological underpinnings of early parenting that fosters or impedes health, wellbeing, and sociality. Here are some of their summaries that explain how early experience is related to moral development.

“Too many youths are essentially being written off at an early stage for mistakes that can often be linked back to their early development. The field of moral development teaches that our brains and cognitive reasoning develop and change. Environmental factors such as early childhood experiences, culture, and self-identification as a moral person influence moral development and moral behaviors. Morally upright adults are raised by parents who are emotionally responsive, consistent, and firm.

A child’s brain is intricate and needs adequate parenting to develop properly. A child has three brains- the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the rational brain (Sunderland, 2006, p. 18). All are connected in such a way that they sometimes function together or are sometimes dominated by one brain. All three are vulnerable to parental influences on the child’s emotional development. When a child is born, his or her brain is only 25% developed and 90% of growth occurs in the first five years making this the child’s critical period where life experience and emotional development can shape the rest of her life (Sunderland, 2006, p. 21). Thus, a baby’s brain is delicate and highly receptive to the environment leaving it particularly vulnerable if the environment is not ideal. Consequently, it is imperative that parents adopt emotionally responsive parenting in order to equip the child with the proper skills he or she will need to handle the myriad of emotional situations that will occur later in life.

Emotionally-responsive parenting allows the child’s brain to form advantageous connection that increase his emotional intelligence. Conversely, if a parent is not emotionally responsive or even cruel, these neural networks will be constructed in such a way that aggression and fear are the prominent coping mechanisms. Even if the parent is not cruel, without proper support, a child cannot learn how to cope with stress, manage anger, and engage in compassion (Sunderland, 2006). Unless parents demonstrate these very emotional skills to their children during early childhood, it is unlikely that they will develop to their fullest extent.

Scientific research has recently revealed that children’s brains are not as resilient to stress as previously thought and in fact are particularly vulnerable. One’s stress response system must be well established in order to allow for proper reactions later in life (Sunderland, 2006). Without a well-developed system a child is likely to over-react to minor stressors, be full of worry and have a short-temper.  To avoid this scenario, parents need to develop effective stress regulating systems and antianxiety chemical systems in the brain. Additionally, it is possible that the child may perceive many situations as intensely threatening when they are in fact rather benign, but due to the inefficient development of the stress regulating system, he is not capable of judging the valence of stress inducing situations.

--Ann Anosike and Katie Schultz, undergraduates, Class of 2016

“In order for a child to experience healthy development in all fields including morality, they must have adequate care and support from birth. Reacting negatively to a child’s needs can hurt their brain development, which can lead to poor emotional control (Sunderland, 2006). Sunderland (2006) explains that it is important for parents to understand the correct and most efficient means of reacting to their child’s strong emotions to help them establish stress response systems, because there are long term effects to the lack of these stress response systems, including depression, anxiety, phobias, lethargy and emotional distance from other individuals. It is therefore important for parents to understand the importance of soothing their babies and how to do so (Sunderland, 2006).

Two of the most important aspects in child raising are how parents can promote love, as well as how they can foster a social brain in their children. Through the promotion of love, a child’s self-esteem can be built, and through fostering their child’s social brain (through means such as face-to-face conversations), parents help the child develop pathways for recognizing and understanding faces and emotions, and appropriate social responses (Sunderland, 2006).

Joy can be grown in a child by providing an emotional connection with others and play is crucial for long-term emotional health (Sunderland, 2006). It is important for parents and caregivers to play with their children in order to facilitate healthy development of the brain (Sunderland, 2006).

Another aspect of child raising that greatly impacts the child’s moral development is how they are disciplined, because resorting to anger will teach children that anger is the appropriate response, thus other means such as using clear language to discuss the issues with the child are more beneficial (Sunderland, 2006).

When moral traits such as love and self-esteem are established early on, and immoral behaviors such as aggression are avoided, the child is better able to develop into a moral adult who possesses these qualities.”

--Anna Kiely, undergraduate, Class of 2016

“Developmental psychology has revealed time and again just how central the first few years of development are to the future happiness and health of children.  In fact, one of the most important steps in developing a healthy morality lies in forming that initial secure attachment between babies and their parents.  Sunderland (2006) wrote that:

When you help your child with his big feelings, a great number of cells in his higher brain start to form pathways connecting with those in his lower brain.  These are called top-down brain networks or pathways.  Over time, these networks will naturally start to control those primitive impulses of rage, fear, or distress in his lower brain, enabling him to think about his feelings, rather than just discharging them in some primitive action. (p. 29)

Unless children can learn to regulate themselves and understand their own emotions, they cannot hope to process and appropriately respond to the actions of those around them.  Since a central part of any moral theory focuses on the way that we begin to empathize with other and appreciate their emotions, it is important for children to have the tools to deal with this knowledge and be independent enough to care about others’ emotions, rather than spending all of their time attempting to regulate their own.

--Rachel Kubasak, undergraduate, Class of 2016

See prior post on the relation of early parenting to wellbeing: Why does Caveman Parenting Support Adult Mental Health?

For more information about the effects of early life parenting on child outcomes and related matters, watch videos from the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference.

REFERENCES

Narvaez, D., (2014.) Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture, and wisdom. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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.

Narvaez, D., Wang, L, & Cheng, A. (in press). Evolved Developmental Niche History: Relation to adult psychopathology and morality. Applied Developmental Science. 10.1080/10888691.2015.1128835

Sunderland, M. (2006). The Science of Parenting. New York, NY: DK Publishing Inc.

NOTE on BASIC ASSUMPTIONS:

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.

Narvaez, D., Wang, L, & Cheng, A. (in press). Evolved Developmental Niche History: Relation to adult psychopathology and morality. Applied Developmental Science. 10.1080/10888691.2015.1128835

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 (W.W. Norton)