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Putting Childraising Back on Track

Childraising in the Western world is off the rails.

Key points

  • Traditional indigenous childraising provides nested support and fosters well-being.
  • European colonizers brought to the "new world" childraising practices that traumatize children.
  • Babies are often thought of as manipulators, as if meeting their needs will "spoil" them.

Colonizers don't just settle lands. They take away or tried to take away cultural and spiritual practices, communal sharing, respect for elders, self-respect, and ecological intelligence (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014; Trafzer, Keller & Sisquoc, 2006). They also left a legacy that still haunts us all, an internal colonization within the human psyche.

Settlers brought their harsh parenting practices to the “new world,” shocking Native Peoples, who would step in to prevent it when the settlers tried to whip children (Greer, 2000). In turn, early settler recollections indicated astonishment that the Native Nations did not punish their children.

Settlers brought a European pattern of unnested care (e.g., isolation apart from the community, corporal punishment, unwelcoming community, nature disconnection). Colonizing childraising practices are flavored with ideas of original sin (Jacobs, 2001)—that babies are born in sin and must be coerced to be good. Therefore, babies’ needs are minimized (‘they are resilient’). Babies were and still are coerced into schedules for eating and sleeping, and even spanked, “for their own good” (Lee, Grogan-Kaylor & Berger, 2014; Miller, 1990). They spend a great deal of time physically isolated (not in arms) and if they cry it is considered "what babies do." All these ideas and practices are contrary to humanity’s heritage, as documented by ethnographers (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Konner, 2005).

Babies have a built-in compass that indicates good or bad feeling. When needed support is not provided, the alarm bell goes off. Babies initially indicate discomfort with a grimace of gesture. Crying is a late signal of distress. But babies are often left to cry in settler childraising. Instead of their needs being met, babies often are held in contempt, as if they are manipulators of adults, as if meeting their needs will “spoil” them.

Adults think they have to win a power game or the child will be a terror. Neuroscience and clinical studies show us that the opposite is the case. Leaving a baby in distress causes toxic stress for developing brain systems (Murgatroyd & Spengler, 2011) and for psychological development (Moloney, 1949; Ribble, 1943; Winnicott, 1987).

Neuroscientific studies now show us the mechanisms of how trauma affects child brain development in the short and long term. When babies are distressed too long, intensely, or routinely, brain development is thwarted by the overproduction of cortisol, killing brain cells and their connections (McEwen, 2017; Murgatroyd & Spengler, 2011). Unsupportive care enhances survival systems in the brain and self-protectionist social attitudes and behavior, making self-breakdown or oppositionalism more likely to become part of the personality than cooperation (Narvaez, 2014; Schore, 2003).

If we are going to decolonize ourselves thoroughly, we need to decolonize trauma-inducing childraising practices and return to the wellness-promoting practices of our ancestors (Gleason & Narvaez, 2019). See the chart for a contrast between traditional Indigenous and European-colonizing child raising practices.

Darcia Narvaez
Chart Comparing Traditional Indigenous and European-Colonizing Child Raising
Source: Darcia Narvaez

Traditional First Nation and Native Peoples of the world, particularly hunter-gatherers, are known for their “indulgent” (loving) treatment of children, shocking Western explorers, settlers, researchers who documented it (Konner, 2005). They provided our species’ evolved nest (Narvaez, 2014, 2019). Like every animal’s nest, humanity’s nest evolved to meet the maturational needs of the child to ensure optimal normal development (Gottlieb, 2002). It includes soothing birth and perinatal experiences (which includes extensive maternal support), breastfeeding on request for several years, responsive care to keep baby comforted and calm, a welcoming community and a set of supportive stable caregivers, extensive affectionate touch (and no negative touch), self-directed social play, nature immersion and attachment, and routine healing practices (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Narvaez, 2021; Narvaez & Tarsha, 2021).

Understanding the neediness of babies is the first step (Narvaez, 2014). Babies resemble fetuses of other animals till at least 18 months of age and so need extensive assistance in growing brain and body well, including learning to breathe, maintain heart rate, digestion, and a calm physiology (Montagu, 1968, 1970). The provision of the nest ensures a well-functioning neurobiology (e.g., stress response), which mostly grows after birth and undergirds flexible intelligence and sociality (Carter & Porges, 2013).

The second step is understanding the effects of not meeting young children’s basic needs (Karr-Morse & Wiley, 1997, 2012). To avoid the myth of spoiling babies with too much attention, the third step is to understand that children cannot consciously manipulate adults until perhaps four years of age (they don’t have the cognitive capacity until around that time). The final step is to realize that children whose caregivers meet their needs from the beginning (providing the evolved nest) develop into cooperative members of the community, as can be noted from the personality and social characteristics of nest-providing communities (Narvaez, 2013, 2019).

According to First Nation child raising practices around the world, to raise a good child you let them make their own choices and honor their unique spirit (MacPherson & Rabb, 2011). The community supports them through the evolved nest and surrounds them with stories, role models and daily rituals showing what being a good member of an earth-respecting community looks like (Cajete, 2001). Integrated into community life, children grow into their uniqueness and into goodness when scaffolded with such practices.

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