For some creatures parenting responsibilities end at producing fertilized eggs. Birds nudge their chicks out of the nest within a few weeks and most mammals encourage their offspring to move on before they reach a stage where they can produce a family of their own. Human children are dependent on their parents for the longest period in the animal kingdom with economic and cultural factors determining when and if they will leave home. To a casual observer it might seem that we are very tolerant yet overly attached parents, or that our children are pathetically weak. Our extended parenting stage is, biologically speaking, an indication of our species’ immense potential to learn AND how critically important parenting is. Neglecting the responsibility after the fun of fertilization has a negative impact on the potential of the individual and the species as a whole.
Small fry might benefit from their parents being present to protect them from predators but it is an overinvestment of time and energy for fish. Fry are born instinctively knowing how to do everything they will ever need to do – find suitable food, recognize and avoid danger, and reproduce the species – and do not need to be taught these skills by an adult. The fish brain may grow proportionally with the animal but it does not change much in structure after birth so they have limited capacity for learning new behaviors and cannot adapt to sudden change. Lower order vertebrates, such as fish, have therefore adapted to environmental stresses by producing hundreds of eggs repeatedly over their lifespan to maximize the chance of some surviving to repeat the cycle.
A newborn mammal, such as a lion cub, is much more vulnerable than a fish fry when it is born. It can rely on instinct to recognise its mother and to locate her milk but will take some time to become independent. The lioness not only provides nutrition and shelter, she slowly trains the youngster to recognise and respond to danger, catch its own food and live in the pride. Practicing skills and roles through play is also essential during this learning phase. A domestic animal can be removed from the parent at an earlier stage as the owner takes over feeding and training, although the skills taught will be very different to those needed to exist in the wild. The ability to learn through the coaching of the natural or adoptive parent is possible because the mammal brain is not fully formed at birth. Unlike the fish brain, which is hardwired for instinctual responses and relatively complete as it hatches, the mammal brain has evolved in a way that allows it to still be programmed by critical experiences in its formative years. The small creature is therefore extremely vulnerable and will not thrive if the parent is absent. The higher up the food chain an animal sits, the more it needs to learn and the more complex its thinking needs to be. Newborn predator brain structures are therefore far less rigid than those of herbivores and they spend longer learning from their parents. By sacrificing time and energy to focus on raising fewer young through a longer dependency stage, carnivore parents have gifted their species with more capacity to learn.
As the top, and potentially smartest, predator on this planet humans seem to be most overwhelmed by the task of parenting. Despite our superior learning potential we are sabotaged by a confusing mix of instinctual drives, emotions and thoughts. Rearing humans is a huge challenge yet many parents find themselves already in the role before they realise this. Having an overall plan of what outcome you are trying to achieve can help. Certain physical skills are preprogrammed to develop if the child is given good nutrition and opportunities to move and hear spoken language. There are other cognitive and emotional capacities that need stimulation and interaction with other humans to develop optimally. Young children learn many things though modeling, exposure and practice including: setting personal boundaries; paying focused attention; organizing themselves in time and space; their sense of self worth; perseverance; advanced problem solving; empathy; to wait patiently for results; and making effective decisions. These capacities also need to begin developing during the first five years of life otherwise they may be pruned from the brain altogether.
The biological reason for having a brain that is open to programming is to ensure adaptation to a rapidly changing environment. This has allowed humans to survive many threats and grow culturally and technologically. The world is now spinning faster than parents can keep up and it can be very difficult to know what to teach when we do not know what the future holds. We are often told that the only thing we can rely on is change. Teach your children to expect change and to trust that they can cope with it. Life’s challenges can be represented as thresholds. Some doorways are expected – such as entering Grade One or turning 18. Others such as sudden bereavement and crime are less predictable. There is usually anxiety and stress about what may happen and then confusion as we adjust to what actually occurred. The human race is highly adaptable, but we dislike the uncomfortable feelings that accompany change and it’s the emotional stress that affects our bodies and our decision making in a crisis. Coach your children to recognise their feelings, trust that they are temporary, and to not be derailed by them.
The best way to teach this is to practice it. The ability to keep learning and to adapt our previous ideas and programming is not only limited to childhood – although we do become more resistant to change as we age. If children see their parents working towards a goal, solving problems, managing crises, learning from mistakes, overcoming fears, asking for help when it is needed and supporting others they will learn to do the same. This will equip them to face new thresholds with confidence in their own coping ability.
Written by Sheryl Maastrecht. Educational Psychologist in private practice. EAST LONDON South Africa