Giving them what they need

Author: Susan Guibert '87, '93M.A.

Do modern parenting practices lead to healthy adults?

I’ll never forget my first “Where did I go wrong?” moment as a young mother.

My second child, a daughter, awoke from her nap and came downstairs into the family room where I was folding laundry. I looked up from the stack of towels to greet my sweet 3-year-old but was temporarily rendered speechless.

During her “nap,” Grace had cut her own hair. Her chin-length bob, a la Caroline Kennedy, was gone. Now she had “bangs.” And very little hair over her left ear.

But what really troubled me was the string of lies my toddler told me in the next 90 seconds, without hesitation or remorse, in order to deny, cover up and justify her crime. Was this the beginning of a lifetime of psychopathic behavior? Had she no conscience? What had I done wrong?

Fifteen years later, I recognize my overreaction to a 3-year-old’s fibs was silly. But a new body of research that links certain early, nurturing parenting practices — the kind common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies — to specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood does have me rethinking some of our modern, cultural chidrearing “norms.” Human development and who and what a person becomes is not only about genes — which play an important albeit small role — but how genes are “activated” through a person’s environment or experiences. Studies show that early experiences affect genes, influencing whether or not or how much they’re activated. So genes are not our fate; we do have some control over if or how much they’re expressed.

“Breastfeeding infants, responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality but also helps physical health and moral development,” says Darcia Narvaez, a Notre Dame professor of psychology.

“Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become commonplace in our culture, such as the use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will ‘spoil’ it,” she adds.

Her concern over these practices makes sense because when a baby is stressed, its body releases cortisol, a toxic hormone that kills brain cells. This can lead to a higher probability of ADHD, poor academic performance and antisocial behavior.

Conversely, responding to a baby’s needs (not letting a baby “cry it out”) has been shown to influence the development of conscience; positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; free play in nature influences social capacities and aggression; and a set of supportive caregivers (beyond mother alone) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.

The United States has been on a downward trajectory on all of these care characteristics, according to Narvaez. Instead of being held, infants spend much more time in carriers, car seats and strollers than they did in the past. Only about 25 percent of mothers are breastfeeding at all by 12 months, extended families are broken up and free play allowed by parents has decreased dramatically since 1970.

Whether the corollary to these modern practices or the result of other forces, research shows an epidemic of anxiety and depression among all age groups, including young children; rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency in young children; and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, among college students. In fact, a recent study showed that college kids today are about 40 percent less empathetic (a trait measured by standardized tests) than college students of just 30 years ago.

“All of these issues are of concern to me as a researcher of moral development,” Narvaez says. “Kids who don’t get the emotional nurturing they need in early life tend to be more self-centered. They don’t have available the compassion-related emotions to the same degree as kids who were raised by warm, responsive families.”

Drawing from research in psychology, anthropology, sociology and biology, scholars from around the globe gathered at Notre Dame last fall, presenting studies that corroborate these findings, showing that the environment in which many babies and young children are raised today fails to consider basic human needs. The disparity between the environment under which our mammalian brains currently develop and our evolutionary heritage is, the scholars say, partially to blame for mental and physical illnesses, as seen in the dramatic rise of depression and obesity in this country.

In other words, our modern culture — its social practices and public beliefs — is misshaping human development, and babies often are not getting what they need to be emotionally and physically healthy as adults.

My daughter is now an 18-year-old high school senior (with long hair) and my son a college junior. Both great kids. Although I have to admit that I wasn’t quite as conscientious in the “don’t let them cry it out” department with Grace as I was with Patrick, my firstborn. There were times when she napped that I’d allow her to fuss for a few minutes rather than drop what I was doing and sprint to pick her up. Maybe that’s why she cut her hair during naptime. Could she have known that I wouldn’t be immediately “responsive” to her?

There is good news if you feel like you dropped the ball on one or two of these recommended parenting practices: According to Narvaez, other relatives and teachers also can have a beneficial impact when a child feels loved and safe in their presence. And early deficits can be made up later, she says. “The right brain, which governs much of our self-regulation, creativity and empathy, can grow throughout life. The right brain grows though full-body experience like rough-and-tumble play, dancing or freelance artistic creation. So at any point, a parent can take up a creative activity with a child, and they can grow together.”

Susan Guibert is an assistant director in the Notre Dame Office of News and Information. She can be reached at