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Parenting isn’t what it used to be Hunter-gatherers knew how to raise strong children

Is breast best? (Credit: Getty Images)


October 26, 2021   5 mins

It is 2am, and the baby is screaming and crying in the other room. Alone in his crib, he is inconsolable. There have been months of nights like this. The new parents have the best intentions, but they are at their wits’ end. Yanked out of a sleep only recently obtained, the baby’s father pulls himself from bed, thaws and warms some of the mother’s milk, and offers it to his son. The baby takes it eagerly, and is satisfied — but also now very much awake. If left, he will cry.

And so the father rocks his son back and forth, holding him safely with one hand. Now fully awake himself, he pulls out his phone, and falls into the abyss. His complete attention is on the screen, its blue light seeming like a balm but acting like a bomb, destroying any natural tiredness. The baby, unable to find his father’s gaze, reaches for the phone. The father, jarred into consciousness, pulls up an animated show created for infants. He puts it in his child’s view. The baby looks. He laughs. The characters on the screen do not respond. The baby frowns. He has no friends here. It is a long time before he falls back asleep.

For all its conveniences, the modern age has not removed the challenges of parenting: the exhaustion, the constant demands, the necessary subordination of one’s needs. In fact, in many ways it has intensified them. Parents’ lives are busier — both with necessary things, like work, and tempting distractions, like Instagram. And so to get through the night, we turn to technological solutions like breast pumps, or the expensive advice of sleep trainers. Meanwhile, we spend our days in front of screens, eating food so processed it barely resembles food anymore, and so brings less nutrition and more risk into our lives.

In our new book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life, Bret Weinstein and I argue that humans are the ultimate generalists, with such incredible capacity to create new niches for ourselves that we have created a rate of change even we cannot keep up with. And so our brains and bodies are out of step with the 21st century. This mismatch has given rise to all sorts of conditions and diseases that would have been unknown in antiquity — from the widespread need for orthodontia to obesity. A lot of these disorders have their roots in our earliest years.

As a species, we are social and long-lived, with generational overlap and long childhoods. Some other animals are similar to us in these regards — elephants and orcas, parrots and crows — but humans seem to do everything more. We live in larger groups, with the longest post-reproductive lives, and have the longest childhoods.

If a foal can gallop within a day of its birth, why does it take a human baby months just to learn how to roll over? Childhood is not an error, or a waste of time. It is when we learn to be human. Our giant brains, and our ability and need to connect with other human beings, take years to mature. Very early, we need to be assured of our safety. Soon after, we need to be tested, stretched to our limits.

But the baby introduced earlier may rarely be taken outside, never feeling the sun on his face, or experiencing the minor discomfort of being momentarily cold. That experience can offer not just valuable evidence that discomfort can be recovered from, but also enables the reassuring embrace of his mother as she holds him close, warming him, protecting him. As the baby grows, he learns to self-soothe, to a point. But on a path that is cleared of all challenges, he will not learn what real risk is. Nor can he know the true depth of his parents’ love. They have so successfully cocooned him, including from their own selves.

Imagine a baby from 15,000 years ago, or 150,000. Before the advent of farming, but after we were fully modern at the anatomical and physiological level. We had language and fire and tools, were cooking our food, living in community, exploring ideas around campfires. Sometime late in that time span we began to make art, to hold funerals, to have rites of passage.

Such a baby would have been snuggled close in the embrace of family and friends, never alone, never isolated. A baby alone in that environment was at high risk; he would have been in actual contact with his mother, or another caregiver, for most of his early life. But as he grew, he would have been allowed more and more freedoms. He would have watched the older children, and played around the fire, and handled sharp tools. He would not have been completely protected from harm, but he also would not have been completely protected from exploration. When his body achieved adulthood, his mind would too: he would be anti-fragile, unlike today’s 18-year-olds.

In A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide, we argue that though modernity has made us healthier in many ways — and expanded our minds — there are exceptions. We do not argue for a return to a simpler time — such a prescription has many problems, but it’s also impossible to fulfil. But we do argue for some caution in adopting all the modern advances, as many of them bring hidden costs, which become visible with an evolutionary lens.

Do not expect tiny babies to sleep alone. It sends a confusing and terrifying message: nobody has your back. If you provide utter reassurance, while they are tiny, that you are there for them, then — far earlier than their coddled counterparts — they will be confident enough to explore on their own, to take and manage risks. They also sleep better — which means you will, too.

Do share parenting as much as possible; early on, this may mean pumping breast milk to save for later. This tool of modernity is so freeing for many women. A mother’s milk is best for nutritional, immunological, and bonding reasons, but the pressure to provide it at all hours can be a burden; sometimes allowing a baby’s father, or another caretaker, to provide it is a gift.

But here is an example of where moving away from our ancient ways may have hidden costs. What else besides nutrition is stored in that milk? There’s some evidence that breast milk contains circadian cues. If true, then milk delivered at 2 am, straight from the breast, would not only satiate the baby, but also send the signal that it is now time to sleep. Milk expressed at noon, in contrast, would send the opposite signal. When feeding the baby at night, then, it’s best to provide nighttime milk. It won’t hurt, and may very well help.

Do not put screens in front of children, especially screens that have animate objects on them. As Bret and I posit in our book, babies and young children who are entertained by screens will learn to flatten their emotional range; they do not expect humanoid forms to respond to them.

Do eradicate all blue light from the space where you and your baby sleep. Early morning sunlight is so very blue, and those who are regularly exposed to bright outdoor light early in the day are more productive, and more fit, than those who are not. But expose yourself to blue light late at night, when our ancestors would have been gathered around a campfire — or navigating by the pale light of the moon — and find yourself struggling with sleep, and therefore with productivity, creativity, and health.

Do feed your children real food, tempting though it is to lean on processed meals. A healthy person has an incredible diversity of gut flora, obtained from the consumption of whole foods, with as short a supply chain as possible. An unhealthy person ingests shelf-stable products containing multi-syllabic ingredients synthesised in a lab. In house sparrows, eating a diet that is out of whack makes the birds slower to learn, quicker to anger, and generally more stressed. What are the chances that humans are completely unlike house sparrows in this regard?

Do move your body, and encourage your children to move theirs. We are embodied beings. Our screens may compel us to believe that we are mere brains in jars that can manage to type sarcasm and anger and emojis — but we are in fact more, and far better, than that. And it is during our long, lovely childhoods that we find out how connected and creative we can be.


Heather Heying is an evolutionary biologist based in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent book, co-authored with Bret Weinstein, is  A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life

HeatherEHeying

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David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

I think the real message here is that a successful life (including a successful family life) involves making a compromise with nature. You cannot simply have what you want and expect everything to work out fine – but this has been the message.
Women will have to accept that if they want to have healthy, non-neurotic children then their career will be compromised. But men should make adjustments too, to lessen that burden. And society can aid – for example by making affordable housing available to young couples on a single wage.
But the emphasis needs to be on compromise. We can’t go back to the past, and we can’t “have it all” but if we make it a priority, we can have fulfilling lives without crippling the next generation, and without women paying an unacceptable price.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

That seems to me to be a particularly sane and balanced viewpoint, thank you.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Exactly that, well said!

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

Friends of mine who have become mothers have admitted to themselves that ‘equal parenting’ is a myth. They’ve had to wake up to the realities of biology on parental roles – and therefore the myths sold to them for years about men and woman being equally suited to the nurturing aspects of it, that going to work and having a baby is not the liberating experience they were told, that there was no problem at all letting a stranger raise their child while they go to work, that biology really does matter.

Heidi M
Heidi M
2 years ago

I find this topic so immensely interesting. As a recently new mother it was mind boggling the amount of information and advice and approaches out there, with so much of it disagreeing. I saw so many of some of the other new mothers struggling with the pressure and anxiety of doing everything perfectly, and when things were not as expected there was collective troubleshooting among our group or online. Even the generational divide on what is right and correct (spoiling the baby, etc) has changed so much. There is a disagreement on what is normal behaviour (like sleep, feeing, or burping) and then you throw in things like chiropracters who think that babies need realignment! Surely, something we have been doing forever, something intrinsically innate, should not be so complex?

I have tried to take a more practical road for our own sake and relied as much as possible on a research based approach and in some ways one which relied more on learning from our evolution as a species and across cultures. Our child seems to have fared well with it and I certainly do not have the issues many of my peers seem to face (he eats everything, sleeps normally, easily overcomes upsets), but it is unclear what is due to our approach or just to his nature. And there is no doubt that I am still always comparing to other parents methods, questioning if I have done it right, am I too laid back, could it be better. It is no wonder there is such an industry around babies and such contention.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  Heidi M

Rule of thumb, do what feels right for you and your baby. Ignore many of the text books telling you to do this, that or the rest of it, they are usually money spinners for the authors. Don’t be afraid to ask for help on the days when you don’t know which end of an egg is up,( ignore the dust, but clean the loo!) concentrate on basics, food, clean clothes. The rest will follow, and above all remember no-one is perfect. Just be good enough.
I had three children under five and an eight years old to contend with, and I wouldn’t change a thing if I could go back in time. Enjoy your baby!

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

The chief irony is that so much of baby care is instinctive. There seemed no mention of grandmother mentoring either. There’s an industry preying on parenting by dividing the generations to sell their wares and their latest ideas. In fact the way I was raised as a child would now be considered abuse I imagine.
We were fortunate having a family before the general availability of computers and mobiles. Although one of our youngest’s early words was computer! Screens and American YouTube trash are now in control of our grandchildren. Trying to read with them or play games turns into war.
My wife was also able to mother full-time and created a career later in life. Committed mothering and creating daily routines for babies is the secret to healthy management. I appreciate that is nigh on impossible with both parents in full-time work, but if possible I would always recommend full-time mothering even if it means reducing some of the normal expectations and indulgences of modern life.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Both our babies slept with us until they were sleeping through the night, then they went into the cot at the end of the bed. I did’nt get up to feed them, just lay there and nursed them lying beside. Providing you don’t drink alcohol or take drugs it seems to be safe, no guarantees.
Re breast pumps etc, sorry but breastfeeding is still a physically symbiotic stage. In a way it is as if the baby is still part of you, even though it is now on the outside, your bodies become tuned in to each other. I breast fed on demand. Perhaps breast pumps are most useful at the weaning stage.
If I have one regret, it is that I did not allow myself to use a dummy/comforter sometimes later on. This would have comforted the babies and been soothing for all of us as we transitioned from full on breastfeeding to more regulated feeding and weaning.
Added bonus, never been so thin in my life.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Nicholas Rynn
Nicholas Rynn
2 years ago

I am a grandfather blessed with four granddaughters. My biggest concern is how, in the era of everyone being a victim, will they learn resilience.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rynn

Tough one! I am a grandmother of two little girls, and share your concerns.
Thus far, I can only think of sharing with them the family history, and Rudyard Kipling’s “IF”.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

Hang on in there all new Mums! I can promise you it does change, life does return to a relative normal, but a different normal. You now have the greatest gift anyone can have, enjoy it. Cherish it, time is fleeting.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

Imagine a baby from 15,000 years ago, or 150,000.

Much I agree with here, but we need to be careful not to idealise the Hunter gatherer past. Hunter gatherers almost certainly practised infanticide, and more generally, their lives were even more driven by necessity than ours are. Where necessity rules, ideals are rarely achieved. And their parents would have been just as imperfect as modern parents, and at least as prone to anger and violence.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Those were cultural things though. We don’t practice infanticide anymore but human biology hasn’t really changed much at all.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Although some of the objectives for infanticide are satisfied these days in the practice of abortion.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

I would add: talk to your baby, hold up objects and describe them; imbue your child with an understanding that these sounds have meaning, that a red, wooden brick is slightly different to a blue, wooden brick.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

I like this piece – sane and sensible. Also honest: we are a technological civilization and we cannot at this point undo that, even if we can see every single downside of technological modernity in technicolour detail. Anyone who imagines that we can revert back to being hunter-gatherers, or bronze age farmers etc, would quickly discover that life was short, uncomfortable and brutish, with multiple random dangers, not least from our fellow humans, although no doubt the food would taste better (or indeed even just actually taste).

As the author states, we are indeed embodied beings, but our reaction to this fact is what is determining how we navigate the technological maelstrom we are living through. Humanity’s singular capacity is that we can build layers of abstraction over our societies and ourselves, not static but animated and reactive models – and we are losing our link to that embodiment. Why are we allowing it?The most basic reason is that the millennia have proved, our experience of that abstraction, that disembodiment if you like, is in truth indistinguishable from our embodied experience (well, mostly) – everything from our inventions, like money, to our behaviour, like wanking, has proved that.

We are unquestionably out of sync with our genetic inheritance, precisely because we are undergoing such incredibly rapid change, that we have at this point, outrun that inheritance. A pitiless, cold-eyed, Occam-sharp viewpoint (like one I often indulge), as opposed to a humanist, warm, fuzzy, wooly one inside the head of a brahmin priest or a CofE vicar, which repeatedly either gives in to the chemicals in the brain, or equally randomly makes a virtue of resisting those chemicals (also viewpoints I equally indulge), would say, all humanity’s current problems are, ultimately, engineering problems, so just be patient for a bit until more technology and biotechnology arrives as the saviour to our technology generated troubles, and allows us to alter ourselves to our satisfaction.

I feel there is a second, more subtle aspect to our current moment of malaise. There is an element of precognition in how we are behaving as societies right now, because we are already projecting how we are about to alter ourselves both genetically and technologically, imminently. The supposed two great certainties of, death and taxes, are neither of them any longer certain.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Angela Carter wrote a novel, Heroes and Villains. Two separate societies cut off from each other by an impenetrable wall, on one side the clever, sophisticated, scientific ones; on the other the wild, natural, “dangerous” ones. I won’t give the game away in case someone wants to read it, but I know which side I’d choose.
My point being, there’ll always be the others, one way or another (I hope), more natural, instinctive, anarchic (not politically anarchist) and free, because that is what a good number of us prefer.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

The only thing I have read of Angela Carter was fabulous: ‘The Bloody Chamber’ collection of stories is a work of genius. I look forward to checking out ‘Heroes and Villains’.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

A censor system which puts a comment up for moderation because it references a book title with the word ‘B****y’ is bonkers. Come on Unherd, you can do better.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Well, reading this article has reaffirmed my decision not to have kids. Thank goodness I live in the 21st century where the societal pressure on women to have to reproduce has considerably lessened and my choice is respected.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Which is fair enough. It shouldn’t be obligatory. It’s a big commitment, and is not for everyone.
I’m curious, though, what it was about the article that confirmed you in your decision.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

My guess is that many women in previous eras who wanted to be childless joined a religious order.

Katrina Collins
Katrina Collins
2 years ago

I brought up my children more or less the way the author is advocating. I breast fed, was an at home Mom ( and loved it). They played outdoors everyday once they got old enough, went to a very laid back non academic parent run co-op school. I followed Waldorf parenting ideas, including that children benefit from benevolent authority when they are young. ( ie, we didn’t negotiate over bed times, food, whether to go to school, etc. The parents decide.) At 60, I can now say my children turned out to be very healthy adults. They are kind, resilient, insightful, adaptable, and successful by any. measure.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Heather, I have watched a number of your ‘DarkHorse’ youtubes – I really liked them when you did covid, but the rest is out of synch with my thinking (I have a Zoology background and spent almost 2 decades living on the road and remote in the bush) – I find evolutionary Biology to be the softest of the soft sciences…..

But on children – I spent a great deal of time around very poor people, often desperately poor, and they usually had babies and children all over like you say. But the thing is they mostly were just standing and wondering and sitting around, not doing very spohisticated games or projects – the parents were working at something very tedious a lot, and the children just hung out not doing much but wondering about and wile young often working at tedious stuff…. Then they grow up into the limited drudges their parents were, who do not do much but tedious tasks and then sit around.

That is the side of the hunter-gather (simple agrarian) you do not bring up. They were pretty limited and dull. We would think their existence to be painfully dull beyond belief. But they grow up in that life, and become that life. Their life, and they, become dull beyond belief – even if their gut flora are optimized.

The modern children in the West are mentally stimulated, exposed to a huge amount of data, second hand expierences of every manner – stimulation all the time. And they tend to grow up vastly more intellectually curious, and intelligent because of that. That most of their stimulation is Cra* on phones is bad – but still, I would NOT want to have grown up like the primitives.

For me growing up was being let run semi-feral. That I lived through it amazes me – and then went on to live like that through much of my adulthood. My childhood as feral thing, meant I became a feral adult – but also with great intellectual stimulation growing up – so I also was intellectual as an adult. We become what we grew up as – so parents – look at what your child does – that is what they will be like as an adult.

Children now are so soft I am amazed – and they will be soft adults, and weird adults by being raised by Phones rather than by Parents – but looking to primitive ways to raise children is silly, humanity has moved on totally, I would not look to the past for guidance.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Hold on though, surely the poor you are referring to, that you have experienced living alongside, are the poor of our era, I’m not sure they are modern equivalents of our hunter gatherer forbears. So much is tied up with culture and the culture of our poor today cannot be the same. The very concept of “poor” is cultural.
During the Stone Age/Neolithic period there would have been stories of love, battle and courage, rituals, knowledge of herbal medicine, primitive engineering, and who knows what else as part of their different cultures. Different because the landscape would have been part of the culture, eg, the Inuit and the Kalahari Bushmen. (I don’t mean these people are examples of the Stone Age but as examples of people tied to their landscape.)

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

If you think you are an example of the bright product of your era and environment, then it’s your opinion. I could easily say you are a prisoner of your upbringing & culture.

Those that are sitting around not doing much is your opinion and by your benchmark. While even if that may be true, they are hardly a burden on their environment or their resources.

Each to their own although I thought your comment was highly judgemental & conceited about other less well off society. While you may think them deathly dull, I wonder what they think of you !!!

Btw, like it or not, primitive (boring) man has existed 100000yrs and known history barely goes back 5000 yrs. Your present is the consequence of your past ( a long one). You are it’s product and not so far away from it either.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

Heather,
So wonderful to see you writing on UnHerd. You won’t make a customer out of me for the Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide, however.
For the simple reason that I already ordered it some time ago!
All the best with the book!