Hunter-Gatherer Parents: Better Than Today's Moms and Dads?

New research suggests that our early hunter-gatherer ancestors raised happier, more compassionate kids—thanks to natural birth, extended breastfeeding, and co-sleeping. Should modern parents follow suit?

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When we envision parenting role models, few of us likely think of our mud-caked, animal hide-wearing early ancestors, or ask ourselves, what would a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer do?

But maybe we should. After all, the human race has spent about 99 percent of its existence living this tribal, foraging lifestyle. Evolution honed our instincts, and many of the key conditions for our emotional well being—our essential humanity—were programmed into us during this time. Can we return the souped-up Bugaboo strollers and turn off the shiny iPhone rattles in favor of simpler tools for raising a child?

In three new studies out of the University of Notre Dame, psychology professor Darcia Narvaez—who’s dedicated her career to studying morality and character development—argues that, indeed, our Flintstone kin were better caregivers than some modern-day parents. And that by incorporating some of their practices into our own childrearing, we can raise more compassionate, socially savvy, smarter kids.

Narvaez’s research, which she’s presenting at a national symposium at the university this week, focuses on early childhood development, from birth to 3 years old, when much of our neurobiology and core personalities are formed. “The way we raise our children today in this country is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well being and a moral sense,” she says.

Narvaez points to recent research revealing that today’s college kids are 40 percent less empathetic than co-eds 30 years ago, with the most dramatic plunge occurring over the past decade. She also stresses the spike in psychological conditions like ADD/ADHD and the childhood depression plaguing young kids. “And it’s getting worse,” she told The Daily Beast.

Indeed, Narvaez’s research raises a compelling question: Have we really evolved as parents since the days of our cavemen ancestors? Or are our more robust brains actually hindering us?

First, let’s clear one thing up: Contrary to many popular perceptions, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not warring, heartless brutes. While the data is a bit hazy—and tribes varied—researchers believe that, for the most part, they committed minimal acts of violence and were remarkably generous and cooperative. They routinely shared meat, for example, says renowned anthropologist Douglas Fry, who will be speaking at the Notre Dame conference.

“They had a pretty good understanding that, if they were to get hostile with other people, that probably wouldn’t be good for the overall life plan,” says Fry. “Hunter-gatherers are really important in understanding our human nature. We can gain insights into our own behavior, and how to make the world a more peaceful place.”

Anthropologists have also studied more contemporary tribes that live and parent as they believe our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, and noticed similar trends of non-violence and compassion. It's not until societies became (or, become) more complex that these characteristics begin to break down.

So just how did our ancestors raise such noble kin? Narvaez highlights six key practices—many controversial, and many consistent with attachment parenting, the philosophy championed by star pediatrician Dr. William Sears that emphasizes mother-infant bonding.

Natural birth: If you want to up your chances of rearing an empathetic, well-adjusted kid, you might try to give birth as our ancestors did: naturally. Research shows that various medical interventions can inhibit important “love hormones” like oxytocin from being released during labor and delivery, interfering with the mother-baby bonding process. These hormones help provide moms with the energy and instinct to nurture their children, says Narvaez.

Breastfeeding: When possible, moms should breastfeed their infants—for a long time, says Narvaez. Ideally, for two to five years. A child’s immune system isn’t fully formed until around 6 years old, she explains, and breast milk lays its building blocks. The World Health Organization recommends that babies nurse for at least two years.

Lots of cuddling—and no spanking: Along with the nutritional value of breast milk, kids develop a sense of wellbeing from the positive touch that breastfeeding involves. Narvaez advocates near-constant holding and cuddling. “We know that positive touch has benefits to brain development, hormone-functioning, and appropriate social interactions,” she says, noting that babies’ brains are only a quarter developed at birth. She also encourages co-sleeping, and she cautions against spanking.

Responsiveness: Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t likely see much value in letting a baby fuss or cry. You can’t “spoil” a baby, says Narvaez. Parents should aim to meet a child’s needs before he or she gets upset. “Kids who have really responsive parents tend to be more agreeable, and they tend to develop a conscience earlier,” Narvaez says. “This responsivity helps the child regulate. Gradually, the baby learns to calm him- or herself down.”

Many adult caregivers: Our early infant ancestors benefited from being cared for by mom, dad, and other adults who loved them. Surrogate parents also help to share some of the burden of parenting, helping to prevent exhaustion.

Free play with kids of varying ages: Needless to say, hunter-gatherers weren’t separated into age-specific play circles, exposing them to kids at different stages of development—and thus, enhancing their own growth. And studies show that children who don’t spend enough time playing are more likely to have ADHD and other mental health problems.

At this week’s symposium, Narvaez and her colleagues, spanning a range of disciplines, hope to brainstorm ways in which “on every frontier, society can pull together” to make it easier for parents to adopt these practices—from supporting breast-milk banks and paid parental leave, to office day care centers and a maternity care system that encourages natural birth.

Of course, we no longer live in a hunter-gatherer society, by a long stretch, nor do most of us live in tribes—or even in the same city as our nuclear family. But perhaps by heeding our evolutionary roots, when practical, we can reverse figures on empathy and mental illness.

“This information is a wake-up call,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist, author, and parenting expert. “It may get mothers and fathers who are on a treadmill to stop and pay really close attention to their children and think, ‘Hey, putting my child on my lap or cuddling him is more important than looking at my BlackBerry or answering my email.’

“There are people who are doing superbly at this, but some who need a reminder,” she says. “Even if we can’t follow the recommendations to the specifications in this study, we can do a better job than we’re doing.”

And more broadly— very broadly—Narvaez sees potential for changing the way we think about the future of civilization. “People have this tendency to think that humans are born good or bad, rather than realizing that we develop and change,” she says, and that we have the ability to set society on a more peaceful path. Perhaps looking backward will guide us forward.

Danielle Friedman is a homepage editor and reporter for The Daily Beast. Previously, she spent five years working as a nonfiction book editor for Hudson Street Press and Plume, two imprints of Penguin Group. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.