For decades the science of child-rearing was guided by patriarchal ideas, but now the cradle rocks to an older rhythm. Eric Michael Johnson, in conversation with eminent evolutionary biologists Sarah Hrdy and Robert Trivers, explores how Mother Nature and the social network that nurtured our past have been remembered at last.
Hrdy believes that for hundreds of thousands of years, mothers and children were given the physical and emotional support that allowed our species to thrive. Hunter-gatherers have always relied on a network of attachments so that, should one caregiver fail, many others could ensure emotionally confident and secure individuals.
“Rates of child mortality were high, but there was no child abuse or emotional neglect,” Hrdy told me. “A child that experienced the kind of emotional neglect it takes to produce the psychopathology of insecure attachment, the kind showed in Bowlby’s and Harlow’s research, simply would not have survived.”
“Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning.” Only now do we realise the full impact of 1920s parenting advice.
An environment that contained a network of support for mothers and children was formative in our species’ development. We have forgotten these memories today and, as a result, deceived ourselves about what children, and our society as a whole, ultimately need to feel secure.