A new study that may provoke controversy suggests social practices and cultural beliefs of modern life are preventing healthy brain and emotional development in children.
The hypothesis was recently presented at an interdisciplinary research symposium at the University of Notre Dame.
“Life outcomes for American youth are worsening, especially in comparison to 50 years ago,” said Dr. Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame professor of psychology, who specializes in moral development in children and 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,” Narvaez said.
The new perspective links certain early, nurturing parenting practices — the kind common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies — to specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood, and has many experts rethinking some of our modern, cultural childrearing “norms.”
“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,” said Narvaez.
Many experts assert that responding to a baby’s needs (not letting a baby “cry it out”) has been shown to influence the development of conscience; positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; free play in nature influences social capacities and aggression; and a set of supportive caregivers (beyond mother alone) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.
According to the Notre Dame scientists, the United States has been on a downward trajectory on all of these care characteristics.
For example, instead of being held, infants spend much more time in carriers, car seats and strollers than they did in the past. Additional negative trends include child-rearing practices where only about 15 percent of mothers are breastfeeding at all by 12 months; fragmented extended families, and declines in amount of free play — especially since 1970.
Associated with the changes in parenting, research shows an epidemic of anxiety and depression among all age groups, including young children; rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency in young children; and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, among college students.
According to Narvaez, however, despite the change in parenting, other relatives and teachers can have a beneficial impact when a child feels safe in their presence. Also, early deficits can be made up later, she said.
“The right brain, which governs much of our self-regulation, creativity and empathy, can grow throughout life. The right brain grows though full-body experience like rough-and-tumble play, dancing or freelance artistic creation.
“So at any point, a parent can take up a creative activity with a child and they can grow together.”
Source: University of Notre Dame