Good Kids: Time to spoil that baby

Author: Darcia Narvaez

Darcia Narvaez

Believe it or not, it is common knowledge among anthropologists that the largest part of human history (about 99 percent) has been spent in peaceful co-existence. For most of humankind’s time on this planet, aggression has been rare and war did not occur. Our ancestors had equal status and few possessions. Small groups of foraging hunter-gatherers who live this way still exist today.

Research on such societies in the modern era, has shown us what facilitates peaceableness. It has a lot to do with family, especially early experience in the family.

In their 2005 book, Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods, Barry Hewlett and Michael Lamb identify the common characteristics for young children found across foraging hunter-gatherer societies:

Lots of positive touch and no negative touch. That’s right, no spanking — but lots of holding, carrying and cuddling. In 1996, James Prescott showed that peaceful societies were gentle and caring with their children, holding the young ones most of the time. In my lab, we have found that children whose mothers report more cuddling of 2-1/2 and 3-year-old children have 3-year-old toddlers who are more cooperative and self-regulated, who are smarter and have fewer mental health problems, such as aggression and depression.

Prompt response to the child’s fusses and cries. This means meeting a young child’s needs before he or she gets upset. You can’t spoil a baby. We know that a baby’s cry is an indication of pain, and when it happens the brain is flooded with toxic chemicals. Infants raised under ancestral conditions rarely cried (think of how it would have alerted predators). Babies are born with only 25 percent of the brain developed. Most of the rest of the brain develops in the first five years of life in response to experience. Warm, responsive caregiving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years when it is growing its personality and habits of response to the world. Warm, responsive caregiving is linked to better health and well-being in children, greater empathy and cooperation.

Adults beyond (but including) Mom and Dad who love and are emotionally available to the child. Who is going to do all this cuddling and responding that is so important? “Alloparents” — people beyond Mom and Dad who also love the child. It’s difficult for a single parent or a couple to care for a child alone — to be available 24 hours a day. Parents need a break; they need to do adult things or care for themselves sometimes. Some researchers find that three caring caregivers is ideal

Lots of free play outdoors with different-age kids. This was true for our ancestors’ childhoods generally. Even adults spent a lot of time in leisure (foraging on average took about four hours a day). We know that kids who don’t play enough are more likely to have ADHD and other mental health issues as well as poorer coordination and social skills.

Natural childbirth without interfering procedures and chemicals. No surprise here. For eons human mothers have given birth, sometimes with assistance, as a natural process. Only in the recent centuries of civilization have maternal and infant mortality rates skyrocketed. Our ancestors were a lot more fit than we are and didn’t eat that much, making childbirth easier. Procedures that unnecessarily interfere with childbirth and mother-child bonding after birth are harmful to both the child’s and mother’s well-being.

Breastfeeding 2-5 years with an average weaning age of 4 years. This practice may be the most challenging in the USA today, since the culture is often set up against facilitating breastfeeding. Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is concerned about how hospitals and birthing units don’t educate about and often interfere with the establishment of breastfeeding (which takes some skill and art). We know relatively little about breast milk, but what we do know points to its vital role in child development. For example, a recent study shows the immune system support that breast milk provides to the infant whose immune system takes at least six years to develop (see resources below).

The United States has been on a downward trajectory on all these early care characteristics. For example, only 15 percent of mothers are breastfeeding their babies at all at 12 months. Infants spend a lot more time in carriers, car seats and strollers than in the past. Caesareans are around 33 percent of all births. Extended families are broken up. Free play allowed by parents has shrunk in time and in distance from the home since 1970.

All these issues are of concern to me as a researcher of moral development. 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.

Want to learn more about these issues? See ND Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez’ August 15 Psychology Today blog post, or attend the symposium on Human Nature and Early Experience on October 10-12, 2010, at Notre Dame.\

If you are a mom with a 3-year-old, we could use your help with our research: Take the survey


Prescott J.W. (1996). The origins of human love and violence. Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 10 (3), 143-188.

Calkins, S.D., Smith, C.L., Gill, K.L., & Johnson, M.C. (1998). Maternal interactive style across contexts: Relations to emotional, behavioral and physiological regulation during toddlerhood. Social Development, 7(3), 350-369.

Sarah Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.

Miller, E., & Almon, J. (2009). Crisis in the Kindergarten — Why Children Need to Play in School. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood.

Panksepp, J., (2007). Can PLAY diminish ADHD and facilitate the construction of the social brain. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 10, 57-66.

Trevarthen, W.R. (1987). Human birth: An evolutionary perspective. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Study on the immune system and breast milk.

CDC Centers for Disease Control (2008). Breastfeeding-Related Maternity Practices at Hospitals and Birth Centers — United States, 2007. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 57(23), 621-625.

Scanlon, K.S., Grummer-Strawn, L., Shealy, K.R., Jefferds, M.E., Chen, J., Singleton, J.A., & Philip, C.M. (2007). Breastfeeding Trends and Updated National Health Objectives for Exclusive Breastfeeding — United States, Birth Years 2000-2004. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 56(30), 760-763.