Friday, May 8, 2009

Mothers and Others: Those Who Make Us Who We Are

With Mother's Day coming up I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the hugely important role mothers play in child development. In thinking about this, though, I ran across an interesting article that made me think outside the box a little.

In her book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding Dr. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy considers the role other caregivers play in helping us humans become social. As we all know, human babies, in contrast to most all other mammals (including primates), are born surprisingly dependent on adults and stay that way for a long time. Most other mammal babies can leave their mothers within a few months or a couple of years at the most and function quite well in their environment. Not so with human babies. They require many years (some would say more than 18) to become independent people.


Because of this long period of caregiving, Dr. Hrdy argues, human mothers need a lot more help from "other mothers" in the community. These "other mothers" can be anyone who helps care for the baby--fathers, grandmothers, aunts, etc. This willingness to let other adults care for infants is a uniquely human trait. Even primates like chimps and gorillas do not let other adults hold or care for their babies. Dr. Hrdy argues that it is this cooperative caregiving that has allowed humans to develop many of the social skills that these other species don't have--like social trust, cooperation, altruism, and empathy. 

One article described it this way,
"Our capacity to cooperate in groups, to empathize with others and to wonder what others are thinking and feeling — all these traits, Dr. Hrdy argues, probably arose in response to the selective pressures of being in a cooperatively breeding social group, and the need to trust and rely on others and be deemed trustworthy and reliable in turn."
Personally, I think this is a fascinating idea and one that also sheds a little light on our modern day culture. In our individualistic society, I think it's easy for mothers to think that we have to do everything. Of course, we all know that mothers share a special bond with their children that no one can replace. 

Mothers and Others: Those Who Make Us Who We Are

But I think this article gives us insight into the idea that raising children really is a social activity. Babies enjoy human interaction above just about anything else and this interaction can be with mom but also with dad, grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, etc. This shared caring for babies really helps us become human. It helps us (and baby) learn to trust, cooperate, and anticipate the feelings of others.

Unfortunately, in our modern world, you rarely see examples of this social child rearing. Sometimes at a large family or neighborhood gathering, you will see babies being passed from adult to adult who coo and awe at the baby while mom is looking after other tasks. In this setting, you can almost imagine how it must have been thousands of years ago as humans raised children in a more communal setting.
Today with our individual houses, gated neighborhoods, and fenced yards, it is hard to imagine close friends (or even extended family) being so involved in the daily raising of children. In some ways, however, I think we all yearn for some level of community like that. As a new mom, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the demands of a newborn and me being the only one that could really meet those needs. I think many mothers feel this way. Spend any time listening to a mothers' group and you will know that community is still what we long for deep down.

On this Mother's Day, it's a time to reflect on the unique relationship between mothers and their children. However, as mothers, we might also be reminded that we are not the only ones that nurture our children. Other caregivers give our children a wider sense of the world and help them understand how to empathize and trust. Ultimately, it's nice to know that we are not alone in guiding and shaping our children.
So on Mother's Day, I'm going to thank my mom for helping me become who I am. But I may also think about those "other mothers" too--my dad, my grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
- Watch a video on this topic
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