Recently, some friends shared an article by Mr. Keith Gessen from the New Yorker with me. It was the tale of a father (Mr. Gessen) who struggled with the toddler years of his oldest upon welcoming their second child. The tale told of parental anger, an unruly child, lots of parenting books, ignoring “bad behaviour”, parental dislike of children, and more. At the end – when all the discipline and ignoring and time outs and yelling didn’t work – the realization that this young child was a human being with real feelings seemed to finally emerge.
It was honestly one of the saddest pieces I’ve ever read, not only because of Mr. Gessen’s unflinching honesty to which we see the real struggles of this little boy, but because I can only imagine how many parents were reading it, nodding their heads in agreement, while the piece really offered nothing much to change this reality that so many families face. There was no cautionary tale of how to avoid the pitfalls that plagued the family, but simply a journey that one family went on that seems to have become our cultural norm.
This raised the question for me: Why do we struggle with our toddlers so? What is it about this age that seems to send parents in our culture towards the abyss?
I believe it has a lot to do with one fundamental truth: We – us adults and our children – are not only humans, we are primates. We have biological needs and expectations that extend backwards millions of years. By ignoring this truth, we ignore the vast amount of information we have about what our young infants, toddlers, children, and us parents require to thrive in this relationship between adult and child. Unfortunately, most modern parenting advice and techniques don’t necessarily fit within this biological reality and we end up right where Mr. Gessen did… with anger towards the child we were born to love.
How did we get to this stage where our experts are giving us advice that seems to lead us away from what our children – and us – need as parents? I believe the theory of evolutionary mismatch may be at the heart of the issue. As the name suggests, this theory focuses on how certain biological features may become maladaptive due to cultural or environmental changes. On one hand, we can look at this as biology being outdated, but on the other hand, we can look at this as our culture ignoring biological implications of sudden change.
One example of how this theory can explain competing evolutionary interests in parenting is the issue of deformational plagiocephaly, or ‘flat head syndrome’. Though it has become highly common for babies to have this in much of the developed, Western world, it is not something that is inherent for babies. That is, biologically-speaking, they aren’t supposed to have a flat head.
Drs. Herbert Renz-Polster and Freia De Bock tackled the issue of deformational plagiocephaly using evolutionary mismatch theory in an article in Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health. Starting with why a round (not flat) head is thought to be important from an evolutionary perspective (the head of an infant is one of the features that endears us parents and others to the child to ensure appropriate care thus there is a evolutionary interest in keeping that round head), they explore possible reasons why this would occur. The most common has been that it is a side effect of learning that the supine – or back – sleeping position is safest. Thus the competition is between safe sleep, which keeps our babies alive (another evolutionary interest) or a round head.
In exploring this potential explanation, Drs. Renz-Polseter and de Bock find the evidence doesn’t back it up. They found that less than half of the studies that have examined deformational plagiocephaly have found supine sleep to be a predicting factor. So right at the start we have a theory that sounds logical and nice, but that isn’t actually supported by the evidence. What next?
Where they end up is that deformational plagiocephaly is likely a by-product of a biological-environmental mismatch; it is a cost or side effect, but not of safe sleep, rather of modern caregiving practices more generally. An examination of feeding practices (i.e., bottle-feeding versus breastfeeding), how we move babies around (i.e., strollers versus baby wearing), and infant sleep (i.e., supine in a crib versus a mix of side-laying and supine while breastsleeping as well as more active sleep during cosleeping which results in more movement) provided by the authors makes a strong case for how our current practices result in deformational plagiocephaly. When compared with the supine sleep hypothesis, we see that supine sleep on it’s own is not a reasonable explanation as babies have always spent some time sleeping supine. However, when taken in consideration with other caregiving practices, we can see how too much time with gravitational pressure on the head can result in the flat head.
What does this have to do with our toddlers and their tantrums, struggles to regulate, and our parenting for them? Everything. Our culture is not what our children expect from an evolutionary perspective. It’s not what us parents should expect either and why so many struggle more than those in other cultures or those historically (not 20 years ago, not 50 years ago, but think hundreds and thousand of years ago). If we can understand how our primate history and biological expectations have shaped who we and our children are, perhaps we can better face those times that Mr. Gessen highlighted without anger, resentment, yelling, or the rupture in relationship that too many children experience.
Types of Dependency
Critical to our children’s biological reality is the idea of dependency. We are a culture awash with hatred of dependency, striving to raise children who are independent and capable. The idea of asking for help or needing assistance is something that we often associate with weakness, and no parent wants to be the one raising weak kids. However, dependency in and of itself is not a negative thing, it is a reality for all primates, but what varies is the length of time and the type of dependency we have.
Where we as a culture show some (albeit limited) understanding is in the realm of physical dependency. No one argues our infants need our help feeding themselves, dressing themselves, changing themselves, and so on. (Though sadly too many people feel that children shouldn’t need assistance with sleep, but that’s a topic for another day.) For human infants, who have the longest period of physical dependency of all primates, this continues until our infants reach toddlerhood and they can walk unassisted, with most humans reaching this milestone by 18 months. (Of course then there are things like getting dressed and using the toilet which extend physical dependency in humans to a certain degree.)
Not surprisingly, this is when we see a chasm develop in what is deemed culturally appropriate in how we respond to our children. With their physical dependence almost done, the expectations for their behaviours and the demands on us should be rapidly diminishing, right? Parents can get their lives back, things should be easier… but they aren’t. In fact, most parents will tell you this is when it gets harder. After all, wasn’t that the entire point of the New Yorker piece – the hard times are just beginning?
What we’ve forgotten – much to the anger and frustration of most parents – is that there is still a very strong psychological dependence that continues for years. In most primates, this is maternal psychological dependence, but for humans this is often on the primary caregiver, whoever that may be. Our toddlers may be toddling around and able to get to things on their own even though we still expect to do things like dress them or make food for them, but equally important to this is the fact that we are also there to make them feel safe, secure, and loved. Anthropologist Adolph Schultz theorized that humans have a 14-year psychological dependence as juveniles, suggesting that our toddlers are still just at the very beginning of this form of dependency.
For all parents out there, this means relinquishing control and shifting expectations. We want to have more control over our lives, but the needs of our children will mean that often we are asked to compromise and change our plans for ourselves in order to meet their needs. I think of the many parents who struggle when their toddlers reach the peak of separation anxiety at 18 months, wondering why they have these little kids who can’t seem to be apart from them. They struggle to shower, cook, work, eat – you name it, they don’t get to do it. Or the 4-year-old who has started to have nightmares after starting kindergarten and wants to spend all moments possible with their caregiver as they process the reality of school.
And it goes on. And on. I often tell families that you can almost expect a period of struggle every year for as long as our kids are with us. We don’t need to fear this, but rather embrace that it means we are actually providing valuable tools to our kids at their times of need. When our kids come to us to find safety and love in times of struggle, this should serve as a reminder that we have built that relationship with them we hopefully set out to do all those years ago. The problem is that it can be hard when our kids are young and need so much.
But it is these early experiences that give rise to us having input in how our children respond to struggle later or how much they are willing to come to us when the stakes are higher. If you ask the parent of a teenager, they want their child coming to them over friends when things are hard because we know the risks they face are more serious. What we have to remember is that our teenagers will only come if they have had the foundation of us being there for them and accepting of them prior to this stage in their lives. Unfortunately for many families, they find the teenage years so hard precisely because the stage hasn’t been set for this type of parental involvement.
It’s not all on parents though. Even parents that think about the long-term and try to be there for their kids when they are young (and setting the stage for when they are older) face many struggles because, again, of our cultural and evolutionary mismatch in the structure of support. Or rather, the completely lack of structure of support.
The Role of Others
Raffi, the older child of Mr. Gessen, was just 3 when his little brother arrived. As parents, we often think that we’ll have this under control by number two. We survived one, now we’re old hats at this parenting thing, right?
Raising children is physically demanding and they have this long period of dependency on us in order to allow them the chance to thrive. This occurs whether there’s another child in the picture or not. This places a burden on parents that many of us ignore, much to the peril of us and our children. So what is the biological issue we’re missing and how can we get it?
Start with the fact that non-human primates are generally (but not always) social creatures. This is in part what has enabled primates to thrive and evolve to where we are today. Group living impedes individualism, and although there are definite exceptions to this practice in primates, overall when food is plentiful (it is for humans) and we have groups that aren’t too big (we can control that), group living is more normative than not. This is likely because the benefits far outweigh the costs. One of the elements driving these benefits is that group living reduces infant mortality; the larger the group, the more chance the offspring has for survival. When kids live, the species continues and that is an evolutionary interest that we cannot deny.
Why does group living do this? Is it something we as a culture have ‘grown out of’? We have some of the lowest infant mortality rates in our Western culture so perhaps this is something we don’t need to consider ourselves, right?
We first have to examine the issue of mortality and morbidity. Our mortality rates are low, but arguably our morbidity is not. Not for children, not for parents, not for most of us. If we look at mental health as a proxy for how well we’re doing, we aren’t doing well. According to data from the Canadian Addiction and Mental Health Institute at any time, 1 in 5 individuals has a mental health illness or problem and by the time we are 40, and 50% of people have had, or have, a mental illness. Half the population. The Spanish flu infected a third of the population and yet mental illness tops that by another 50%.
If we accept this as a sign that our culture is not healthy, we have to consider why. And evolutionary mismatch theory may have an answer and it has to do with how we live in our small groups.
David Brooks recently wrote an opinion piece for The Atlantic in which he argued that the nuclear family has been a rather large mistake in our culture. I would tend to agree. The historical unit has been that of extended family in which multiple people live together and share the burdens of surviving in this world. When it comes to child-rearing in particular, this larger social framework allows for the type of support that we parents need, especially if we are expected to also contribute to the group in any other way.
This is likely due to what is called alloparenting, which is the shared responsibility of child-care that exists amongst members of the same community. It’s the type of care that exists in many primate societies and in many collectivist cultures, but which is not much of a feature in our Western culture anymore.
Allocare goes beyond daycare and involves a level of integration and support that most families don’t experience. This means that having another child can come at an exponential cost from a mental resource perspective. Raising one child isn’t just adding another person to the roster, it’s a complete change in the way you live and think about your life. If a second comes along, raising two isn’t twice the work, it’s ten times the work. But we lack the resources to make this easier and the cost comes to us in terms of our mental health and, perhaps even more so, to our kids who start to miss out on the type of support and dependency they need to feel safe and secure, exactly what happened with Mr. Gessen as he described it. Without additional support to occupy and help the older Raffi, all that happened was that he missed out on time with Mom or the extended family he never really had. This lack of support then leads to a child that tries to be more independent, but isn’t there and thus struggles even more.
The Inversion of Independence
One of the more fascinating – yet frustrating – evolutionary mismatches in our society is the way in which we have inverted the expectations of independence. A natural progression for primates generally includes an infancy period with heavy maternal dependency which slowly decreases over many years. Humans are no different, but in our Western culture we certainly treat them differently.
Parenting an infant is often thought to be all about pushing them towards independence – sleep alone, play alone, eat alone – despite the fact that our infants evolved for us to want to be near them and care for them. Those cute features and high-pitched squeals are there to make sure we don’t leave them alone. Interestingly, babies across various species (who require care) have these cute features and although we don’t know if a mother cat, for instance, cares about cuteness, the fact that her babies are so cute speaks to the possibility that it does matter to other creatures as well. We do know that these features are important for our human babies though and so when we push this idea of independence, we are also asking parents to move away from their instinctual drive to care for and be present with these adorable little creatures. It’s not only their cuteness, but their cries as well. An infant crying creates an urge in us to respond immediately. This isn’t by chance. Their cries signal to us so we can be there to care for them when they need us.
I know many people argue that these must have only evolved under harsher times when creatures might eat our young. Perhaps there’s some truth to it, but there also are flaws in this thought pattern. The first of which is that we have moved beyond the type of cave-dwelling situation thousands of years ago and our infant cries do not seem to get any less urgent suggesting our infants have not moved beyond this stage; their fear is as great as it always was. The second is that our children’s neurological development seems to require us to be there for them during times of distress. When our kids are young (starting around 2-3 months and extending likely to around 3 years of age) and distressed, if they are comforted by a responsive individual their physiological arousal is blunted, avoiding the negatives of too much cortisol flooding their developing brain. Called ‘the period of hyporesponsivity’, it suggests that us adults buffer their negative experiences in a way that benefits their neurological development. Hardly something worth ignoring.
It’s not just this push for independence in infancy that poses problems, but also the hovering and failure to provide independence in an age-appropriate way as our children get older. Because toddlerhood and the preschool years are filled with intense curiosity and exploration, we often find ourselves saying nothing but “no” and trying to control them all the time. This often leads to power struggles and children who are intensely upset over their inability to simply be exactly who they are supposed to be.
I will be the first to acknowledge that our society is not structured in a way to facilitate a young person exploring the world as they see fit. Our houses are filled with valuable or breakable items, we have furniture that could really hurt them, and they certainly can’t wander around outside independently. All of these constraints result in struggles with our kids. We try to reason with them as to why they can’t do all the things that they feel driven to do (yes, this is their drive to learn and explore), but that’s like having someone try to reason with you that you shouldn’t date or work or exercise – it’s not going to resonate well. We try to give some control with certain choices, but they are often in realms our kids don’t care about. And then we resort to getting angry which shuts off their other great need – connection.
Our families are also often missing something that can ease this transition for younger children: other children. Many families have 1-2 kids and this is hard because children naturally learn from other children, especially older ones. Their independence builds from seeing what other kids are doing and trying to mimic. These other kids are more ‘like them’ than us adults and they seem to trust them more too. (And let’s face it – older kids are way more fun than us old folks.) But nowadays most siblings are too close in age to take good advantage of this until they’re older, meaning parents have to continue to monitor closely and regularly, hindering that building of independence as it is supposed to unfold.
All of these things converge to make a period of time where our toddlers and preschoolers can struggle mightily, but they aren’t doing this because they are defective or broken. They aren’t doing this because we’re bad parents. They’re doing this, as a friend of mine put it, because they are wise.
If there is one thing our children are very good at, it’s knowing implicitly what they need to survive. This isn’t a conscious knowledge, but they cry to ensure that they are cared for, they smile to make you love them, their skin is soft to ensure lots of touch… in short, they make sure they have the best chance for survival before they can even speak.
As they age, this doesn’t stop, though it shifts. A toddler gains that physical independence, but will still cry for help, learning to regulate themself through the co-regulation of their caregiver. A preschooler who feels anger and stress from the caregiver will likely act out in order to bring attention back to them. It’s a call of “Look at me!” not because they feel you have no right to worry about others, but deep down they know if you stop looking at them, they won’t survive. And so they do all they know how to do in order to gain your attention. In fact, arguably your attention is more important than affection. As long as they know you’re looking at them, they will survive.
This is wise. Or to paraphrase my friend as he spoke about his own daughter who was struggling at times, “I know she’s not acting badly, she’s acting wisely.”
If we can remember our children are mammals, primates, and humans which means they have a history longer than we realize; built into this history are mechanisms and behaviours that are designed to keep them safe and give them the best chance at growing up and having kids of their own. In our society, many of these behaviours may seem contrary to their thriving, but they have their purpose, one we need to respect and learn from.
When we can remember our shared history and our children’s expectations, we can move beyond the tears and tantrums towards a stage where our children – and us – can thrive. This doesn’t come from books and experts who have schedules and plans for how to get the best out of your child, but by falling back on this shared history. Our children aren’t the only primates in this situation. We are too.
This leads to the question of what this means to parent in a way that respects the wisdom of our children and of our history. When we look at how many practices in today’s parenting counter this history, falling prey to evolutionary mismatch, the overarching piece seems to be our refusal to accept the type of co-dependence, shared responsibility, and earned respect of raising children that led to our thriving as a species in the first place. Thousands of years ago, had we been parenting as we expect today, chances are we wouldn’t be here.
Our modern society tells women that either they are best suited to work outside the home and that they should defer to experts on how to raise their children or we should return to the time when all women did was raise children (while deferring to experts on that). Their value to their own children is minimized and the support for any work they do engage in is virtually absent. Think of the mother who says she stays at home with her child, she is often asked, “What else do you do?” or “Are you planning on getting back to work?” as if the work of raising her child is negligible. When mothers are tired or stressed out from trying to juggle work and parenting, people suggest methods that shift responsibility to the child – sleep train, send the child to daycare, more discipline. These criticisms have also now moved towards the men who are taking on the role of raising children, becoming an issue of parenting more than mothering.
If we are to thrive in the realm of parenting, we need to not only accept what it means for our children to be primates, but what it means for us. This first means looking at the role of mothers in history. Mothers were not “just mothers”, but rather they were mothers and more. Female’s value to their group (whether it be great apes or humans) goes beyond raising children, even though it’s the center of their culture. With value that goes beyond parenting, the individual doesn’t feel lost or demeaned, a common struggle for parents today.
However, the value placed on parenting itself is also necessary to thriving. Many (if not all) Indigenous cultures place children near the center of their practices for they – like their animal relations – realize that without children, there is no future and thus the act of raising children is actually the most important work there is. With this realization comes the crucial element of support. The mother/parent surrounds the child and others surround the parents to offer much-needed assistance in the process of raising children.
It’s important to note how different this is from our typical view of ‘help’. Help is passing off care to daycare workers or reading books and having to follow experts. Support is different. Support considers the real needs of the child, the parents, and the group to which they belong and this support enables all to thrive. It also allows everyone to share in the responsibility of raising children because they also have the shared goal of continuation of their group. This co-dependency, shared responsibility, and value in child-rearing is the wisdom the adults in our society have lost.
I understand saying this may ruffle feathers as parents today already feel like they aren’t doing well enough. Parents get defensive if we suggest that buying into our societal views may actually be part of the problem. But this isn’t about blaming parents, but acknowledging the shortfalls of our society. Yes, that means sometimes we have to actively choose to move away from them, but that can happen in small ways to start.
Mr. Gessen, for example, could have seen his son as acting wisely instead of acting “badly”. He could have seen the struggle he and his wife faced as one of lack of support from a society that no longer values its role as part of the village that is needed to raise a child. Simply altering his viewpoint in this way would lead to an alliance between parent and child – understanding that neither is trying to harm the other, but each is responding to the false expectations placed upon them in our society. I could go on about all the evolutionary mismatches that likely led to Mr. Gessen and the struggles with his son (and how seemingly a move to accept some of our shared wisdom got them out), but really his story is not unique. It’s a common narrative shared by parents across Western cultures today. What this story provides for all of us is a warning. Like the canary in the coalmine, we should not ignore when we read of these struggles nor think that they are normal and to be expected. We should recognize this struggle for what it is – there is danger ahead if we keep going on this path, it’s time to turn around and try another route.
And this is – I hope – the final piece of the puzzle for parents: Our children are not our enemies, they are our allies. Each side wants to do more than survive, but we cannot do that apart from each other, as our history has shown us. When we choose with path to take, we should know that we must walk it with our kids, not apart from them, and then we may find the type of thriving we are all looking for.