Evolutionary Psychology and Parenting

By: Dr. Susan Siegfried, Clinical Psychology

Parenting in the Past

Reproduction has not changed much, but the world in which we raise our children has changed. Think of life in the United States one hundred or one hundred and fifty years ago (a nanosecond in terms of evolutionary psychology). Life expectancy was forty-five to fifty years, most people were farming, clustered around small town.  Transportation was difficult and there was no such thing as adolescence.  By the age of fifteen,  the average man was married, in charge of or taking over the family farm and likely have at least one child of his own and more to come. An eighth grade education was like a college degree today. If one produced enough to feed his/her family it was adequate.  Hopefully there was extra produced to sell or barter for goods and services.

Stress was of a smaller scope.  It centered around survival and community. Education was available but little was needed for most people. People survived based on physical abilities.  One could travel to a University but it was not very common.

Parenting in this period was done in close quarters, including the physical living conditions and the community.  Everyone knew everyone and what everyone was doing, so supervision of children was constant. This also afforded children frequent access to parents, adults and grandparents. Culture was passed on very directly and compliance with cultural rules was directly enforced. Parenting basically ended around the age of twelve to fourteen when it was necessary for the next generation to take over for the aging parents.

Parenting Today

The world is very large and fast paced today.  To function in this world, children need more than 12 years of education. To function well they likely need an additional four  to ten more years of education.  Now we have people in adult bodies around the age of twelve who must stay in the role of children (adolescents) for another ten years. We have also added stress to our world.  It often takes two incomes to support a family. Transportation and city clusters have forced long travel time on a daily basis. Parents are only available to children four hours a day or less. With the movement of people around the country,  grandparents and extended family are often in different parts of the country or the world.  We often do not know our neighbors and certainly they are not keeping an eye on our children in the community. The need to parent differently is certainly evident. The need to parent longer into the child’s life is also evident. So, how has it changed?

Parental Investment

Having children is an investment in humanities future. Today we are limited in how much time we can spend parenting. The quantity of parental investment directly affects the health and welfare of the child. We know that at least in early ages the mother is likely to make a greater time investment in the child considering lactation, protection, and nurturing. Today with sexual activity not connected to a long term commitment between parents we see greater mother commitment than father commitment when looking at the whole society. We know from the evolutionary perspective that the sex of the parent that has the greatest commitment has and effect on strength of  sexual selection in the future. That is, the parent spending the most time on care giving is less likely to reproduce as often as the parent not or less involved.  The parent physically protecting the child is more prone to injury affecting the likelihood of reproduction and the parent bearing he financial burden of the child reduces their chance of reproduction due to monetary constraints.  The result is fewer children.

There is a cost benefit effect in parenting. The input of the parents has large effect on the children. This affects such things as condition, growth and survival and eventually the reproductive success of the child. The cost is on the parent side. The costs are time, finances and physical wear and tear as well as limiting relationships and opportunities for reproduction. Evolution occurs when the costs out way the benefit to the child. This is how evolutionary psychologies look at the evolution of parenting. It is not the macro concept of survival of the fittest that affect our system. It is the micro concept of the effect on the individual.

Cinderella Effect and Parenting Today

Evolutionary Psychologists have notices that there is a much higher rate of step children being neglected, abused or murdered by a step parent than by biological parents. It was the evolutionary thinking that led researchers to discover that the greatest risk factor for homicide committed against a child was when there was a step parent present. This stresses the old system. Today they found that the adaptive problem that parents face are accurate identification of ones own child, ability to provide resources of the right kind at the right time and maintaining ones own psyche.

Because parenting takes place over almost double the amount of time as it did in the past, because it is done in a high stress demanding environment and because there is less group support parenting has indeed gotten harder. Given what we know about adaptation in the brain the key here is for parents to understand this. While we can not change the demands on parenting we can provide knowledge and information to parents so they understand they are not done when the child is twelve.  Supervision is needed far beyond that.  We know that the brain is not complete until the age of twenty-five to twenty-seven years so parents are needed that long; frequent interaction is necessary.  Children learn how to be, from parents. Evolution of the individual tells us that we learn when others model problem solving. Watching effective parental problem solving helps the child’s brain evolve. For their own and their children’s support, parents must maintain their own mental health so that their relationships with other adults are stable. Children also do best when their biological parent are involved. Others in the kinship need to be aware of their importance for children as well. An investment in a grandchild, nephew or niece is an investment in the families future and the future of humanity.