Parenting. You hear people say that it’s the most important thing you can do with your life, that nothing else compares with the highs and the lows associated with it. It is arguably the most central act that a species has as it allows for the perpetuation of the species – without parents, offspring die and the species die out too. So one would think that because of this central importance, evolution would have made it as natural and effective as possible, right? It shouldn’t be rocket science. It should be instinctual.
This is exactly as it looks in the animal kingdom – animals care for their offspring intuitively and ensure their offspring have the necessary tools to go out on their own. Although most (but not all) animals may not have the lifelong bond that the human animal does, they certainly do look out for the young ones. Arguably more so than we do. Our modern-day practices, with a focus on ignoring our instincts or at least ignoring human biology and evolution, seem to have made us rather incompetent when it comes to parenting. There’s been no progression here, just a very bleak landscape where family and children don’t hold the same value that they used to or still do in other parts of the world. (And to be clear, we’re not talking about the type of “family values” discussed in politics, we’re talking about taking the time and effort to ensure your kids grow up to be functional, secure, moral, empathic, happy members of society. Something that is on the drastic decline.)
When was the last time that you heard on the news a story about a child dying or being severely injured due to neglect or abuse? Probably today, but maybe yesterday if you’re lucky. I’m perpetually shocked by the number of incidents involving children that make it to the headlines because for each one of those, there are probably 10 or more that never get reported; indeed, some researchers have stated that most abuse and neglect cases never come to light. In the United States, children in the birth to 1 age range have the highest rate of victimization, with 21.9 victims for every 1000 children in that age group and they make up 44.4% of deaths due to neglect or abuse. That’s over 2% of babies reaching a critical stage whereby the government becomes aware of the problem and finds the child to be abused or neglected. In Canada, the number of substantiated cases of child maltreatment was 14.2 per 1000 children.
What’s happening? Isn’t North America supposed to be a beacon of modernity and advancement? Do we not look down upon other nations for not being as great as we are? As another example, information from the World Health Organization on child homicide incidents (which are a good indication of abuse) show Sweden with 3 per year, Canada with 24 per year (and 3 times the population of Sweden, so a comparable number would be 9), and the USA with 723 (and 20 times the population of Sweden, so a comparable number would be 60; the USA also has 10 times the population of Canada which would allow for 240 as a comparable number against Canada). Although our rates are small compared to some other nations, shouldn’t we be aiming for even better?
One must ask, how and why is this happening? I don’t think anyone knows for certain at the moment, but we can hazard a guess. Let’s look at the practices we (sadly) employ with newborns in North America. We put babies in their own room to sleep alone, we use strollers and car seats to hold our children for most of the day, drastically reducing the amount of touch newborns receive, we “train” babies to stop signalling to us so we can sleep more, other individuals in the form of daycare – many of which don’t reach the level of alloparenting that exists elsewhere – raise our kids most of the day, and much more. These practices can all negatively influence the degree of attachment between child and caregiver and if that attachment isn’t there, it’s easier to abuse or neglect. (Note that they don’t necessarily indicate this, but they can be contributing factors, even though most parents that use these practices will not abuse their children.)
Let’s consider the policies in place, too. Parental leave in the US is abysmal with some the best you can hope for being the Family and Medical Leave Act which allows for 12 weeks UNPAID to care for a baby (but that doesn’t actually apply to everyone) and many individuals can’t even afford those 12 weeks meaning our youngest of babies are being placed in overcrowded and unregulated daycares. In Canada, the shortage of daycare spaces and the high cost of what is available (in major cities it costs between $1000-1500 per month), children are being placed in centers with high turnover and little affection, even if that starts at a later age (around one).
We must be honest though: Most people don’t do things as extreme as abusing their children. Does this mean that all parenting is equal? No. Not only do some practices and parenting beliefs ignore infant biology and evolution, some ignore the need for secure attachment in infancy that is paramount to later success. We can see the effects of our parenting (amongst other social problems) as rates of childhood anxiety, depression, and behavioural disorders are ever increasing; for example, the rates of Conduct Disorder, a serious problem in which a child acts out aggressively, can be manipulative, violent, and is a prerequisite to the adult diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder, has steadily increased over the last ten years.
Much of what will be said on here isn’t new. The practices I plan to talk about are as old as human history – it’s why it’s called Evolutionary Parenting – we just seem to have lost our way more recently. Some of these practices are also talked about by other professionals – the Sears family and their focus on infant-parent attachment comes to mind first, but I feel we need a radical change to the way we think about parenting. Unlike ‘baby experts’ who strive to tell parents what to do, my plan is simply to provide information from an evolutionary and scientific perspective because even with the support for the practices that I will focus on here, not all of them are ideal for every family.
I’m a firm believer in having the facts and there are cases where the practices I focus on here won’t work or be right for a given family because parenting, like the children we parent, are not the same and in turn one-size-fits-all solutions never really work. Therefore, having information is critical to parents making decisions about what is best for them and their children. I also believe that we need changes to the systems in place (or lack thereof) that deal with family in our society. Although I don’t believe the government has no role in parenting, I believe that the government’s role is to allow parents the best opportunity to be parents, not to parent for them. This is why things like parental leave, or ensuring daycare options are of high quality, or ensuring all relevant information is shared (not just what the media cherry-picks), or supporting the human rights bestowed on our children are the things that government should take an interest in. They should first and foremost be facilitators, not regulators.
Bit by bit, entry by entry, I hope to tackle these issues from infancy to childhood. I hope people will comment and engage in discussion about these practices and recommendations. Without discussion, there’s will be no change. And if there is no change, we will all suffer.
Hopper J. Child Abuse: Statistics, Research, Resources. Boston, MA: Boston University School of Medicine, 1998/2002. (full text: http://www.jimhopper.com/abstats/)
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2013). Child maltreatment 2012. Available from: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/child-maltreatment.
Hewlett BS. Diverse contexts of human infancy. New York: Prentice Hall (1996).
Ingersoll R, Previts S. The prevalence children’s mental disorders. In E Welfel & RE Ingersoll (Eds) The Mental Health Desk Reference: A Source Book for Counselors. New York: Wiley, 2007.