By Tracy G. Cassels
“We view this as a central concept in examining the potential mismatch between certain contemporary Euro-American infant care practices, and our infants’ ability to accommodate these practices—and suggest that we are pushing infant adaptability (and indeed maternal adaptability) too far, with deleterious consequences for short-term survival and long-term health.”
̴ JJ McKenna, HL Ball, and LT Gettler (2007)
As the name suggests, this site is dedicated to the notion of what I have labelled “Evolutionary Parenting”, a parenting style based on the way in which humans and other mammals have evolved to raise their young. Many of you reading this will have long considered yourselves “Attachment” parents, focusing on a theory that a certain brand of caregiving promotes the best attachment between mom and baby. You will have also found that many of the practices I’ve discussed on this site and in these articles are the same as what you have found in Attachment Parenting. So why the different name? If it’s all the same, why bother to call it something else? Well, first off, Evolutionary Parenting and Attachment Parenting are actually somewhat different, though they definitely overlap and I will go into the similarities and differences shortly. Secondly, and more importantly, the basis for these two approaches is quite different and it is my hope that the Evolutionary Parenting approach may be able to cross chasms that have not been penetrated by Attachment Parenting in order to get more parents on board with many of these practices that we know are beneficial to the entire family.
Let’s start with where Evolutionary Parenting and Attachment Parenting collide. Both practices speak out for bedsharing (or co-sleeping), breastfeeding, babywearing, and lots of touch. There is little doubt that all of these practices are hugely beneficial to baby and to the relationship between caregiver (usually mom) and baby; I’ve written as many articles stating as much. But while both types of parenting preach these concepts, there are areas in which Evolutionary Parenting goes a little bit further.
First, Evolutionary Parenting has an interest in the type of play and toys given to young children. This concern with play has been outside the realm of Attachment Parenting because it really has little to do with how a mom and baby form their attachment, but it’s central to Evolutionary Parenting because of the evolutionary implications. A child who is given many toys to play with from birth learns something very different about the world than a child who is left to explore the world slowly but naturally on his or her own. Historically, children didn’t have tons of playthings but rather were strapped to mom and learned about the world by watching adults interact with it and then by interacting with it themselves. By taking this route, they not only developed the same understanding of cause and effect (one of the big things toys manufacturers like to tout), but the high rates of Attention Deficit Disorder and problem of kids who simply can’t entertain themselves were non-existent. Children who grew up with minimal toys (and none at the start) learned to use their imagination and systematically explore their environment. These children became well-equipped for the world because they had a real understanding of the world around them – they didn’t expect instant gratification and they learned that things were more difficult than simply pressing a button and getting a reward. Children grew up focused on looking at the people around them, regardless of whether they were getting lots of direct interactions or not. By a year of age, their social understanding was vast. They could decode individuals’ facial expressions, they were rapt when seeing a new face, and they had started to learn the nuances of how to interact with others – what got people’s attention, what sustained their attention, how to get what they needed without screaming. And while children today still do learn to decode emotions and interact with others, it seems that these abilities are definitely weaning. I’ve heard from teachers and day care workers that they witness the lack of emotional connectedness between kids on a daily basis and I believe a large part of that is that from day one, their focus is now on objects instead of people. So to parent evolutionarily, one has to think about what types of stimuli you want for your child – fake, company-made toys that provide instant gratification with no work or the more subtle, yet rich, stimuli of human being and the world around your child. The differences in outcomes could be vast.
In addition to a focus on minimizing toys, Evolutionary Parenting also focuses on the role of community. While this is a difficult thing for parents to control, there is a certain degree of control over how many people you let into your life and how social you are at any given point. Traditionally, hunter-gatherer societies lived together, hunted together, gathered together, and raised children together. Children were surrounded by multiple caregivers and multiple children. Mothers were surrounded by their family and typically had at least one other mother there with whom she would could socialize and work. What does this mean? It meant that the isolation mothers (and children) are faced with in mass numbers today was not the norm. Having a child didn’t mean you were ostracized from your life, your friends, and society in general, it was simply an added member to your family, everything else pretty much remained the same. Some small towns and close-knit communities still share this old feel, but by and large, our post-industrial society has changed things so drastically that to have a child is to remove oneself from the social network entirely.
Because of our society’s focus on work, the workplace environment is, for most people, the hub of their entire social network. They play with the people they work with. In and of itself, this isn’t new at all, but the way in which we structure work is. In our society work and family do not collide – they are entirely separate – and thus to play with work people is to shun the familial. Children aren’t welcome at work so when a family welcomes a new child into the mix, there is no place for the mother (or father) to go; she is left to stay home, ostracized by her social community, unable to continue the work she once took part in. In order to have a semblance of a social life, she must start over on a hunt for other mothers with whom to spend time and types of activities that are for her (e.g., crafts, writing) to keep her sane. It’s no wonder many mothers yearn to return to work, despite the fact that the best thing for her child is for her to stay home and care for her offspring. Evolutionary Parenting, then, asks that we not only think about the ramifications that this societal shift has caused on families (stay-at-home parents in particular), but how we can fix this. Maternity leaves are key for babies’ health, but equally good would be work initiatives that allowed parents to bring their babes to work with them. Yes productivity could be hurt, but isn’t the overall well-being of the members of society more paramount? As for the neighbourhood, we need to start finding ways to make sure we know our neighbours, whether it be by making sure neighbourhoods have yearly get-togethers or making sure every neighbourhood has a park for families to congregate and socialize. You’d be amazed at the effect these seemingly small acts can have on a community. So while community in and of itself has no bearing on attachment, it is equally important for both parents and children to be involved in a community, which is why it is a large component of Evolutionary Parenting.
A final area where Evolutionary Parenting diverges somewhat from Attachment Parenting is in the realm of pregnancy and birth. Attachment Parenting speaks of making knowledgeable choices about your birth, with an emphasis on natural birth and choices, all things I firmly believe fall into the realm of Evolutionary Parenting as well. However, there are other aspects about birth and pregnancy that do not seem to be discussed in the Attachment Parenting realm which have evolved to help our species. First is the overall health of pregnant women today. Pregnant women today are more likely to be assigned bed rest and run into myriad health complications, almost all of which could be addressed by simply eating healthier and getting more exercise during pregnancy. Historically, pregnant women were consistently active and were thus physically more able to handle the intensity and hard work that is pregnancy and labour. Second, certain birth practices like delayed cord clamping have fallen out of favour and yet the more we learn about this practice, the more it seems like there are good reasons why the immediate cutting of the cord was nearly impossible prior to modern medicine. Another practice is immediate skin-to-skin contact including the breast crawl which was common for hundreds of thousands of years for human babies and mothers and yet was replaced with immediate checking and removal of the baby from mom for no good reason. We now know that immediate contact has immense benefits and the evolutionary breast crawl has great breastfeeding outcomes for mothers and baby dyads. Finally, post-pregnancy practices like eating the placenta are not typically discussed as a part of Attachment Parenting (though many AP parents will have researched and been interested in it) but historically it has served a role in the recuperation of the mother post-birth, providing her with tons of nutrients at a time when her body is depleted and needing such nourishment.
These differences speak to the larger difference between Evolutionary Parenting and Attachment Parenting – the theoretical underpinnings of the two approaches. In Attachment Parenting, the focus is on trying to maximize attachment between mom and baby. That is, parenting is about doing things that will help baby securely attach and bond with his or her mom. While this is wonderful and a laudable goal, I do believe it turns quite a few people off because a) it sounds rather hippie-esque and b) many mothers ask, “What about me?” – they want a parenting technique that is catered to their needs. In contrast, the basis behind Evolutionary Parenting is that these parenting practices are there to make everyone’s lives easier and better. Not only do these practices help baby attach to mom (and dad), but they also enhance your child’s ability, keeps him healthier, promotes better sleep for everyone, provides social support (if you live with others who practice Evolutionary Parenting), allows mom to do her thing while also caring for baby, etc. The primary goal is to allow families to continue functioning while also allowing baby to thrive; remember that in hunter-gatherer societies, there is no long break because you have a baby – you have to get back to work as soon as possible. So these practices allow for families to care for their children – keeping them fed, safe, and warm – all the while continuing to do what they need to do in order to survive. In today’s society, that freedom still remains. However, because we’ve come up with other ways to gain “freedom”, namely shipping our kids off to daycare, we don’t consider that we can continue our lives while also caring for our children. It’s never quite the same (you have a new child after all so it shouldn’t be the same), but Evolutionary Parenting provides practices that allow for parents to continue in their own lives while also giving children the best start at life.
Some may question the distinction when the end-result is the same, but when it comes to trying to convince people to try a different way of parenting and to change our collective mindset over how we treat babies and new families, the distinction is critical. We live in a society that is overrun with corporate gimmicks to care for children. Be it strollers, cribs, toys, formula, we have an abundance of “things” that we are told we need in order to raise our children properly. My goal with Evolutionary Parenting is to get people to realize that we don’t need these things in order to be the best possible parents – in fact, using them to an excess means we aren’t giving kids the best we can because they’re replacing one of the most important things kids need – human contact. We have in our capacity the means to care for children in a way that not only provides them with the chance to thrive, but in a way that provides us the best chance to be sane and happy individuals who parent. You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to worry about “spoiling” your baby. You shouldn’t have to worry about the isolation that exists in modern parenting. Simply put, if we return to the way things were (and are elsewhere) when it comes to family and community – namely Evolutionary Parenting – we’d have happier kids, happier parents, and a happier society. All we have to do is what we have evolved to do.