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. Babies became adorable and keen to make connections with every passing adult gaze. Mothers became willing to play pass the baby. Dr. Hrdy points out that mother chimpanzees and gorillas jealously hold on to their infants for the first six months or more of life. By contrast, human mothers in virtually every culture studied allow others to hold their babies from birth onward, to a greater or lesser extent depending on tradition."

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 they have to do everything themselves. Of course, we all know that mothers share a special bond with their children that no one can replace. 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, well, human. It helps us (and baby) learn to trust, cooperate, and anticipate the feelings of others. 

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.

- Listen to a Podcast on this topic
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