Modern Parenting May Hinder Brain And Emotional Development
January 8, 2013

Modern Life May Prevent Healthy Brain And Emotional Development In Children

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

Only the other day I was out to lunch with a lifelong friend of mine. He and I began to lament as we reminisced of our own childhood about how you never see kids out in the streets playing anymore. There are no early evening/dusk sprints home once the streetlights begin to flicker on. Roving bike gangs of 8-12 year olds are, sadly it appears, a thing of the past. Little did I know that psychologists were looking into the matter and presented their findings at the University of Notre Dame recently.

Of course, their presentation was not simply a lament of a bygone era. It actually sought to explain how the recent changes in social practices and cultural beliefs of this modern life are actually working to prevent healthy brain and emotional development in children.

"Life outcomes for American youth are worsening, especially in comparison to 50 years ago," says 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 says.

Modern American parenting has seemingly run afoul of earlier human nurturing and parenting practices. In the pre-cursor to the current form of society, the hunter-gathererer paradigm promoted several specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood. The earlier forms of childrearing are causing many experts to reconsider our modern, cultural “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," says Narvaez.

In previous studies, the development of a conscience is influenced greatly by responding to your child´s needs rather than letting them learn to self-soothe or “cry it out”. Additionally, empathy, impulse control and positive stress reactivity are affected by frequent touch. Allowing your child to play in nature has a definitive effect on both social capacity and aggression. Most interestingly, and harkening back to the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, having a set of caregivers, above and beyond the mother alone, help to predict the IQ of the child, along with ego resilience and empathy.

Narvaez is quick to point out that the United States has been slipping on all of these individual markers. Where children once were held, they now spend more time in carriers, car seats and strollers. Breastfeeding, which the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends continue to around the age of 2, is stopped by all but 15 percent of mothers by month 12. With our ever increasing mobility, extended families have been broken apart. And, as my friend and I noted regarding our fancy free childhood in the mid-80´s, free play allowed by parents has decreased severely since 1970.

Correlation or causality has not been specifically determined, to date. However, previous research has shown there is an epidemic of depression that spans every age group, including young children. Additionally, we have seen increasing rates of aggressive and anti-social behaviors among younger and younger children. And, perhaps as evidenced by the disturbing video of those Steubenville, Ohio athletes, an appalling decrease in empathy, which is the backbone of compassionate and moral behavior, has been noted.

Narvaez is quick to offer a small glimmer of hope, however. Whether it is the trust and safety a child can feel around other relatives or teachers, deficits incurred from flawed modern parenting practices can be made up at a later date, she says.

"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."