“Life outcomes for American youth are worsening, especially in comparison to 50 years ago,” says Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame professor of psychology who specializes in how early life experiences can influence brain development. “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.”
The new research links certain early, nurturing parenting practices – the kind common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies – to specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood, says Narvaez, who believes that modern, cultural childrearing “norms” need to be rethought.
“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,” she said.
She cites studies that have shown how responding to a baby’s needs (not letting a baby “cry it out”) has been shown to influence the development of conscience; how positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; and how a set of supportive caregivers (beyond mother alone) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.
Narvaez claims the United States has been on a downward trajectory on all of these care characteristics. “Instead of being held, infants spend much more time in carriers, car seats and strollers than they did in the past. Only about 15 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,” she notes.
The end result of modern parenting, she contends, is the current epidemic of anxiety and depression; rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency in young children; and decreasing empathy.
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