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The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense

Problems that used to be rare are becoming mainstream

See co-author notes below 1, 2, 3

Charles Darwin1had high hopes for humanity. He pointed to the unique way that human evolution was driven in part by a "moral sense." Its key evolutionary features are the social instincts, taking pleasure in the company of others, and feeling sympathy for fellow humans. It was promoted by intellectual abilities, such as memory for the past and the ability to contrast one's desires with the intentions of others, leading to conscience development, and, after language acquisition, concern for the opinion of others and the community at large.

Darwin's "moral sense" is often interpreted as if these characteristics are universal among human beings.2 But empirical research demonstrates how early experience and caregiver-child relationships influence the development of community-minded maturation. Our work shows that the roots of moral functioning form early in life, in infancy, and depend on the affective quality of family3,4,5 and community support.6 Today, child rearing practices and family supports (or lack of) in the U.S. are undermining the development of the moral sense.

As indexed by a recent UNICEF study of child well-being in 21 rich countries that ranked the USA 20th in family and peer relationships and 21st in health and safety,7 by the growth of childhood problems,8,9 and by the burgeoning prison population,10 American culture may be deviating increasingly from traditional social practices that emerged in our ancestral "environment of evolutionary adaptedness" (EEA). 11 Empathy, the backbone of compassionate moral behavior, is decreasing among college students (see here).

Anthropologists, who have documented early life for young children in foraging communities (representing the EEA where the human genus is presumed to have spent 99% of its existence) note that "young children in foraging cultures are:

• "nursed frequently;

• held, touched, or kept near others almost constantly;

• frequently cared for by individuals [adults] other than their mothers (fathers and grandmothers, in particular) though seldom by older siblings;

• experience prompt responses to their fusses and cries;

• and enjoy multiage [free] play groups in early childhood." 12

• along with natural childbirth

• and 2-5 years of breastfeeding.

My laboratory and others are documenting the effects of these practices on child outcomes and finding relations to intelligence, cooperation, conscience, empathy, self-control, aggression and depression.

In fact, the way we raise our children it seems that the USA is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well being and a moral sense.

• We have among the worst mother and infant mortality in the world, in part because the obstetric system is geared toward efficiency as opposed to concerns for child well-being.13

• Breastfeeding is too frequently discouraged by a medical system that routinely interferes with the establishment of breastfeeding in the first days of life.14

• Based largely on unfounded fears and extreme cases, parents are encouraged to sleep apart from their infants who often have limited physical contact with caregivers during the day.15

• Many parents believe that letting a baby cry is compatible with adequate parenting (it's not). 16

• Instead of shared care giving by extended family members, as was typical for our species,17 many children spend their early years in emotionally suboptimal daycare facilities, with little individualized, responsive care.18

• Centers and schools typically separate children into same-age groups where they are seldom allowed to play freely with each other in the natural world, interfering with healthy development of both body and brain.19

We can now map the sub-optimal consequences that arise from sub-optimal care.

• Formula fed infants have worse outcomes on every front that has been examined. 20,21

• Lack of touch and social support have detrimental effects on children's growth and development.22

• Regular caregiver neglect through non-responsiveness to infant fusses and cries, perhaps due to overstressed parents or daycare workers, promotes the development of a stressed brain that is detrimental to physical, social and moral outcomes.23, 24

• Free play, once a hallmark of childhood is now becoming scarce, despite recent findings that it is critical for maintaining mental health, developing intelligence and a fully social brain.25, 26, 27

These are just the tip of the iceberg. It is becoming increasingly clear that the ways we are rearing our children today are not the ways humans are designed to thrive. As Thomas Lewis and colleagues point out: "A good deal of modern American culture is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most." (A General Theory of Love).

The ill effects of these missing ancestral practices are becoming evident as children's well being is worse than 50 years ago.28 Characteristics that used to be limited to a subset of the population from neglect and abuse are becoming mainstream. Too many children are arriving at school with poor social skills, poor emotion regulation, and habits that do not promote prosocial behaviors or life success.

• The USA has epidemics of anxiety and depression among the young, indeed all age groups, and these are real numbers not artifacts of increased diagnosis.29

• Rates of young children whose behavior displays aggression, delinquency, or hyperactivity are estimated to be as high as 25%.30

• The expulsion rate of prekindergarten children31 and the number of children under age 5 with psychosocial problems32 or on psychotropic medications have increased dramatically.33

• Ten years ago, it was determined that one of four teenagers was at risk for a poor life outcome34 and trends have not improved.35

Although we can continue to minimize these problems and the risks in childrearing we are taking, the negative trajectories in well-being among children in the USA suggest that a reexamination of our cultural practices is needed. To the extent that our kids are not fully functioning threads in the social fabric, the quality of our cultural moral fiber is diminishing.

What Darwin considered the moral-engine of positive human thriving may be under threat. Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become normalized without much fanfare, such as the common use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms, the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby is spoiling it, the placing of infants in impersonal daycare, and so on. We recommend that scientists and citizens step back from and reexamine these common culturally accepted practices and pay attention to potential life-time effects on people. It is an ethical issue.


Don't blame mothers. Before the last decades, mothers were never alone in raising children, they always had the extended family and friends on a daily basis. The responsibility for child rearing belongs to the whole community in how it sets up neighborhoods (e.g., is it easy for children to play outside in nature), workplace life (is there daycare where moms can nurse), policies that support families (like paid parental leave after a child is born), and school practices (is there frequent recess). We can change our culture again to support children and families. Perhaps the greatest challenge is that many of us were raised in less-than-ideal conditions and we think we turned out just fine. We are the frogs in the pot that started out in cold water. Now that the water is hot, we can't jump out.


For more information on the latest research, check out the symposium, Human Nature and Early Experience (Oct 10-12, 2010, at the University of Notre Dame), which brings together top scholars from around the world. Even UNESCO is having a World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education in September, 2010.

For more information on how to care for babies and young children, check out these resources:

Caring and Connected Parenting Guide

Attachment Parenting International

Holistic Moms Network

For more on Darwin's moral sense, see David Loye's groundbreaking work, Darwin's Lost Theory of Love



6 Hidden Myths Behind Baby Sleep Training Advocacy

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Parents Misled by Cry-It-Out Sleep Training Reports

REBUTTAL to critique of "Parents Misled by...Sleep Training Reports"

Dangers of "Crying it Out"

Baby Sleep Training: Mistakes “Experts” and Parents Make

'Let Crying Babes Lie'? So Wrong

Simple Ways to Calm a Crying Baby

Normal, Human Infant Sleep: Feeding Method and Development

Normal Infant Sleep: Changing Patterns

Normal Parent Behaviors and Why They Won’t Hurt Your Child

Normal Infant Sleep: Night Nursing's Importance

More Normal Parenting for Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep-Tiredness?

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep--Preparing Success

SIDS: Risks and Realities

Bed Sharing With Babies: What is the Hype About?

Bedsharing or Co-Sleeping Can Save Babies' Lives


New Moms Need Social Support

Painkillers for Childbirth? The Few Pros and Many Cons

What's the Use of Midwives and Doulas?

Jesus Had a Home Birth

What if Jesus Had Been Born in the USA?


Why Continue to Harm Boys from Ignorance of Male Anatomy?

What Is the Greatest Danger for an Uncircumcised Boy?

Circumcision Ethics and Economics

Circumcision: Social, Sexual, Psychological Realities

More Circumcision Myths You May Believe: Hygiene and STDs

Myths about Circumcision You Likely Believe


Stand Up For Breastfeeding

Talk About Breastfeeding With Your Family, Friends and Doctor

Breastmilk Wipes Out Formula: Responses to Critical Comments

In Light of Last Week's Posts: Is Pushing* Formula Evil?

Breastfeeding Resources

The REAL Truth about Breastfeeding

5 Things You Thought You Knew about Breastfeeding

The TREMENDOUS Benefits of Doing What is Normal: Breastfeeding

Myths you probably believe about infant formula

Your assumptions about infant formula are probably wrong

It’s Breastfeeding Week: Why should you care?


Research on Spanking: It's Bad for ALL Kids

What Happened to Ethics in Pediatric Medicine?

Baby-, Parent- or Life-Centered Parenting?

Ten Ways to Truly Respect Motherhood

Slings and Heroes

Parents Should Know the Limitations of Science Experiments

Babies "don’t cry in Africa," why should they cry in the USA?

Blame the baby or blame the experts?

Dumb Parent(ing), Dumberer Child

How to Grow a Smart Baby

Are you treating your child like a prisoner?

Undercare: The bane of American life?

Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist

Is it good to make kids afraid?

How NOT to Ruin a Child

Are you or your child on a (touch) starvation diet?

Mother’s touch of dead baby causes “miracle”

What Does Good Parenting Look Like? You Decide.


Childism Revisited

Are You a “Childist?" Test Yourself

Babies Are Needy—Does That Bug You?

Do We Need Declaration for the Rights of the Baby?

Where Are the Happy Babies?

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)

Extended families are best for raising children

Children thrive when they have multiple adult caregivers who love them

Extended families are best for raising children

Children thrive when they have multiple adult caregivers who love them

Co-Author Notes

1 Darcia Narvaez, Department of Psychology, 118 Haggar Hall, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556;; forthcoming book with W.W. Norton, The Neurobiology and Development of Human Morality.

2 Jaak Panksepp, Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology, and Physiology, Washington State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99162;; author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (Oxford).

3 Allan Schore, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, University of California at Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine, 9817 Sylvia Ave, Northridge, CA 91324;; author of Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self (Erlbaum).


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26. Sunderland, M. (2006). The science of parenting. London: DK Publishing Inc.

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34. Eccles, J., & Gootman, J. A. (2002). Community programs to promote youth development. Washington, DC: Committee on Community-Level Programs for Youth. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences Education, National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.

35. Heckman, J. (2008). Schools, skills and synapses. IZA DP No. 3515. Bonn, Germany: Institute for the Study of Labor.

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