Kids' brains are wired for a different upbringing than what they're getting

boy on the playground with mother
CC BY 2.0 MaxPixel

Overprotective parenting is more than an annoyance; it's an evolutionary aberration.

Children have been raised a certain way for most of human history, but only in the last half-century has the approach to parenting drastically changed. Families have gone from having natural births, shared rooms, physical contact, and frequent breastfeeding to delivering by C-sections, sleeping in separate bedrooms, formula feeding, and emphasizing 'personal space' at home.

While these changes have improved mortality rates and infant health in many cases, they have also come at a cost to the mental and emotional development of children whose brains are wired for a different kind of upbringing than the one they're getting.

A fascinating TEDx talk (embedded below) by evolutionary anthropologist Dorsa Amir points out how many of the things we take for granted in modern Western childhood are in fact extremely strange in the big picture of evolutionary history. Amir says, "Our minds and bodies are optimized for a world that most of us no longer live in."

It was while living with an Indigenous foraging society in Peru that Amir noticed how differently kids are raised, compared to back home in the United States. Alongside the adult society, there was a mini child society that mimicked all of the adult behaviors and incorporated them into their play. There were leaders and followers of different ages and genders, and plenty of drama and political intrigue. It is through years of this unstructured play that children learn how to become adults.

Back in the U.S. Amir realized that children are not given these same opportunities. They are kept in same-age groups (usually in classrooms, but also on sporting teams and in social groups) and all of their activities are controlled by adults who decide when and what they'll eat, when they'll go to the bathroom, how they'll spend their playtime, and more. Not only is this a waste of time for adults, since kids don't really need to be taught many of these things, but it can actually be detrimental. Amir says in her talk,

"When we take away mixed-age play groups, when we take away unstructured play, we are in fact taking away the training wheels to adulthood that children have had for millennia. We are contributing to an increasingly mismatched environment.

Instead of letting kids develop foundational skills like problem solving, we're flipping to the back of the book to show them the answers. That leaves them unprepared for all the new problems they're going to face."

In other words, we can become better parents by understanding that cultural evolution happens far faster than genetic, and that the way our minds develop has been shaped by that genetic evolutionary history. We should strive to give our children's brains what they're wired to expect. Amir says we can do this by implementing more of the following practices – more mixed-age play dates for our kids, room to make mistakes, and more unstructured playtime.

If you are a parent, an educator, or someone who works with children in any capacity, this is a great talk worth watching and a powerful reminder that overprotection is more than an annoyance; it is an evolutionary aberration, it stunts development, and the kids would be much better off without it.

Kids' brains are wired for a different upbringing than what they're getting
Overprotective parenting is more than an annoyance; it's an evolutionary aberration.

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