Is There a Right Way to Parent?

Parenting is hard work and the issue that holds many parents back from altering their parenting styles is that it's hard to know where to start.

'Spare the rod and spoil the child' - or so the saying goes. She's got you wrapped around her little finger. He's running circles around you. And so on. But new studies show that the exact opposite to these old adages is true.

According to a body of research studying different approaches to parenting from a wide range of leading professors, current methods of parenting are negatively impacting child brain development. The research shows that practices such as putting the baby to sleep in another room, failing to respond to his needs immediately, feeding him artificial milk in place of breastfeeding, encouraging structured play in place of free play in nature, and reduced numbers of natural childbirth, are some of the core practices that are negatively impacting crucial brain development in babies. Emotional development in particular is being impeded.

So can the mainstream approach to childrearing in countries like the UK and the US officially be considered as unnatural and unhealthy for our children?

From an evolutionary perspective the answer is yes. Society has changed in many ways since Neanderthal times, but a baby's instincts have not. Babies would once have been carried by their caregivers in slings, breastfed on demand, weaned onto the same foods their parents ate, and exposed to almost constant touch from parents and other caregivers. They were involved in family life rather than set apart from it. Particularly in the western world, we have moved away from these ancestral parenting techniques, but our babies have not adapted to the changes. Today, exposing babies to frequent touch has been found to significantly reduce stress reactivity in their developing brains, as well as improving their impulse control and capacity to feel empathy. Other studies have shown that touch dramatically reduces cortisol - ie stress - levels in their brains. Babies who experience little touch have been found to have extremely stressed brains even when they haven't shown any outward symptoms of stress.

Today, babies are often transported from cots to high chairs to pushchairs to car seats, they sleep apart from their parents and consume artificial milks, and as a consequence of these behaviours they experience little physical contact with their caregivers compared to their instinctual needs. As parenting styles have changed to incorporate less baby- or child-centred ways of living, on a deep level our little ones have not learned to relax and deal with stress as well as they would with the frequent touch and involvement in everyday activities that they have evolved to need.

It's easy to see how the emotional development of new generations of children may be unintentionally impaired.

In light of this, researchers are now linking our cultural - and relatively new - parenting practices to problems in society such as delinquent behaviour and crime; in short, problems that indicate low levels of emotional development.

But there is good news. Researchers say that negative impacts can be altered if parenting styles are changed even when the children are older. So it's possible that toddlers who are struggling with emotional issues can still learn the essential life skills that they may be lacking, and belatedly forge the necessary links in their brains. For example, it is now understood that allowing free play in nature influences social capacities and levels of aggression in young children, and this is something we can still give to our children as they grow older, though it may mean tearing them away from the TV, PC, or latest games console.

Now we leave the research behind, and enter a mode of speculation. In Zoe Weil's book on humane parenting titledAbove All, Be Kind, she argues that teaching children reverence for the things around them is one counter to modern approaches to parenting. Weil looks at different approaches to supporting brain development in children, with a focus on empathy, reverence, critical thinking and imagination. She quotes Craig Kielburger who recognised as a young child that his generation was chastised for being what he calls "dreamers." Craig states that "dreamers thought one day that we would end the slave trade Dreamers... fought so that the Berlin wall would fall." At the age of 12 Craig founded an organisation fighting for the rights of children, now known as Free the Children. His wisdom on raising children is still highly regarded today.

Parenting is hard work and the issue that holds many parents back from altering their parenting styles is that it's hard to know where to start. Our society is in turmoil; everywhere we look, we see or hear evidence of cuts, unemployment, poverty, lack of assistance to those who need it most, soaring rates of depression and cancer, stress and worry. How can we teach our children empathy and reverence when we're in the midst of social conflict, generally stressed out, and always insanely busy? Yet the benefits of returning to ancestral parenting techniques far outweigh other priorities.

We know that there are significant physiological and behavioural effects attached to different parenting practices, and we can do our best to respond to them. I'm not suggesting that the research discussed here can undo our social problems, but certainly it is our children who will inherit the situation we have created today, and if they are better equipped to deal with the social problems we face now, perhaps they will foresee and avoid many of them in future. We may not be able to make all the necessary changes overnight, but by changing the way we raise our babies and children today, we really can change the world one person at a time- through them. And we can hope that it will be a better place for them, too. I think it will be worth it.

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