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Democracy Starts with Babies and Responsive, Nested Care

To maintain a democracy, do we need democratic skill practice in childhood?

Key points

  • Humanity's evolved nature is to be egalitarian and democratic, not authoritarian (that's apes).
  • Authoritarian character structure emerges from harsh family life, as German Nazis knew.
  • A responsive family life fosters skills for living in a democracy.

Experts are warning that democracy in the USA is under grave threat today. How did we get to this situation?

Most scholars examining democratic attitudes and behaviors focus on adolescents and adults, assuming that cognitive capacities are primary sources of democratic capacities. They emphasize such things as knowledge of the rights and duties of citizenship (i.e., civics; Colby et al., 2003), moral reasoning about sociopolitical life (Narvaez et al., 1999), and process and procedural knowledge for civic discussion of controversial topics (Guttman, 1987), influencing government representatives, as well as formulating and passing legislation.

All in fact comprise a set of experiences that are vital to bringing about a democratic citizenry. But rarely discussed is the personality character structure needed for life in a democracy.

Abraham Maslow (1970) noted that self-actualizing people have a democratic character structure. That is, they do not dominate others but have a sense of egalitarianism towards others, generally, demonstrated by their acceptance of others as they are. This contrasts with an authoritarian personality structure that tends to distrust others, expects hierarchical relations, including dominating others or submitting reflexively to a trusted authority. Authoritarian personalities “rubricize” life (Maslow, 1970), meaning that they follow social scripts instead of being flexibly responsive to others.

What are the sources of these character structures? Researchers have long noted that harsh parenting breeds an authoritarian character structure (Adorno et al., 1950; Jost et al., 2003; Murray & Mulvaney, 2012; Tomkins, 1965). Harsh parenting refers to unresponsiveness—rigid, rule-based relations enforced with punishment. For example, spanking is known now to be equivalent to physical abuse in its long-term effects on child aggression and social reactivity (Afifi et al., 2017).

How does a democratic character structure come about? A mutually responsive parent-child relationship longitudinally through childhood into adolescence predicts greater cooperation, flexible social skills, and empathy (Kochanska, 2002). In effect, practicing reciprocal relations with parents fosters the social skills for negotiation and creative response with others. Multiple, consistently present, responsive caregivers in early life ensures more openness and flexibility overall (Hrdy, 2009).

Perhaps the most important difference between harsh and responsive parenting is the fear factor. Keeping a young child feeling safe and helping them learn to settle through comforting care keeps their brain and body developing in a healthy, prosocial manner.

On the other hand, treatment that leads young children to feel distressed and unsafe, a factor in early life stress, undermines healthy development (Shonkoff et al., 2012). Such experiences become engraved in neurobiological structures, leading to enhanced focus on self-protection when triggered (Lanius et al., 2010; van der Kolk, 2014).

Early trauma enhances the stress response (flight, fight, freeze, faint), often leading to a freezing orientation in response to threat. Self-protection mechanisms conduce to a hierarchical orientation, authoritarianism, a characteristic of apes and prior hominid lines (Burkart et al., 2009). Our hominid line, however, evolved to expect and promote egalitarianism (Boehm, 1999), which responsive care provided by the evolved nest fosters.

In other words, a democratic character structure emerges from a wellness-informed childhood, one that follows our species developmental system for raising the young. In contrast, an authoritarian character structure emerges from a harsh childhood that goes against our species-typical evolved nest.

The German Nazis knew this, promoting harsh treatment of young children so that later they would automatically (without free will) submit to authority without question (Haarer, 1934). If we want to promote a democracy, we need to start with baby and young-child care, providing our species evolved nest to ensure that full human capacities are developed.

References

Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D, J., Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. Oxford, England: Harpers.

Afifi, T. O., Ford, D., Gershoff, E. T., Merrick, M., Grogan-Kaylor, A., Ports, K. A., MacMillan H. L., Holden G. W., Taylor C. A., Lee, S. J., & Bennett, R. P. (2017). Spanking and adult mental health impairment: The case for the designation of spanking as an adverse childhood experience. Child Abuse & Neglect, 71, 24-31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.01.014

Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burkart, J.M., Hrdy, S.B. and Van Schaik, C.P. (2009), Cooperative breeding and human cognitive evolution. Evol. Anthropol., 18: 175-186. https://doi.org/10.1002/evan.20222

Colby, A., Ehrlich, T., Beaumont, E., Stephens, J. (2003). Educating citizens: Preparing America’s undergraduates for lives of moral and civic responsibility. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Guttman, A. (1987). Democratic education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Haarer, J. (1934). The German Mother and Her First Child (Die deutsche Mutter und ihr erstes Kind). Berlin: Lehmanns Derlag Munchen.

Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339–375. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.3.339

Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 191-195.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row.

Lanius, R. A., Vermetten, E., & Pain, C. (2010). The impact of early life trauma on health and disease: The hidden epidemic. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Murray, G. R., & Mulvaney, M.K. (2012). Parenting Style, Socialization, and Political Values. Politics & Policy, 40: 1106-1130. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-1346.2012.00395.x

Narvaez, D., Getz, I., Rest, J. R., & Thoma, S. (1999). Individual moral judgment and cultural ideologies. Developmental Psychology, 35, 478-488. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.35.2.478

Shonkoff, J. P., … & Wood, D. L. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129, e232 (originally published online December 26, 2011)

Tomkins, S. (1965). Affect and the psychology of knowledge. In S.S. Tomkins & C.E. Izard (Eds.), Affect, cognition, and personality. New York: Springer.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York: Penguin.

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