The biology of parenting: letting children become

Instructions wanted

In my interview for the international project ‘40 over 40: Celebrating the strength, wisdom, and beauty of women 40+’, one of the questions talented photographer and project leader Amanda Hsu asked me was ‘What advice would you give to yourself when you were a young mother?’ Transporting myself back in time by 15 years is one of those bitter-sweet journeys that fills me up with equal doses of strong affection and light fury, as I strive to understand why a first-time mother who has been just entrusted with the massive responsibility of caring for another human being – one who does not speak and seems so fragile – should not receive at least the basic instructions for handling a baby, tattooed on her skin, preferably in ink that glows in the nighttime.

In front of the camera I confessed that it was a difficult time, and that although I had prepared myself, as I always do, by turning to America’s most trusted name in child care and parenting, Dr Benjamin Spock, I had struggled to understand what would stop the crying.

Real questions, real answers

The truth hit me years later, when my younger, always ready with those wild card interview questions, asked: “How did you learn to be a good mother?” “You taught me” I effortlessly replied. The art of learning, through trial and error, how to translate the needs of those you care for into solutions they can use, is nothing new. The real question is: why does parenting have to be such a challenge?

Our biology has a lot of answers. From an evolutionary perspective, the rationale for that baffling feeling of powerful parental love is quite obvious: selection has produced parental motivation, a series of adaptive behavioural mechanisms, to ensure that children, as the vehicles for one’s own genes, survive. But parents who protect their young do so at their own cost, even risking their own survival at times, and for this reason, parental care is not a universal, and many species do not practice it at all.

A space for many conflicts

Contrary to common belief, parental care is rarely unconditional, a situation that leaves room for many conflicts. There are a number of puzzles to be solved, with the first that comes to mind being why mothers typically provide more parental care than fathers, a concept which T.H. Clutton-Brock, author of ‘The Evolution of Parental Care’, expressed with honesty when he said that the “greatest debt is to my wife,…(who) looked after our children while I wrote about parental care.”

In 1974, evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist Robert Trivers introduced his theory of parent-offspring conflict – the notion that parents and their children are caught up in a genetic conflict of interest because they share only 50 percent of their genes. In this ‘battleground’ over the optimal allocation of resources, children are equipped with adaptations to manipulate their parents to invest in them, and vice versa (parents have counter-adaptations to share resources in a way that serves their own optimum). A struggle that sounds familiar?

Making a difference. Or not.

Having said that, the evidence confirms that parental investment does make a significant difference to the child’s physical and social well-being, and that the parents’ income, and the time spent with children correlates positively with the children’s academic and social skills, and their subsequent socio-economic status. This comes as good news to those who are genuinely concerned that ‘Malta ranks low in league table of child well-being’ (Times of Malta, September 8, 2020) and are looking for tips to improve children’s happiness.

But there’s only so much that we, as parents, can do. When Judith Rich Harris, in 1998, published ‘The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do’, her revelations that parental nurturing is not what determines how children turn out in terms of their personality development, and that children are not socialised by their parents, but by their peers, were met with more than a touch of controversy. With her brilliant work based on solid science, rather than calm nerves as she had hoped she would by showing that parents overestimate their influence, Harris had in fact stepped on a whole lot of them.  

As chance would have it

Cognitive psychologist, linguist and evolutionary psychology advocate Steven Pinker had a lot of praise for Harris. Talking about the aspect of heredity, Pinker summarised the three laws of behavioural genetics neatly in the chapter on children of his book ‘The Blank Slate’, saying that genes account for 40 – 50 percent; the shared environment accounts for 0 – 10 percent; and the unique environment for the other 50 percent. With her theory that this unique environment is outside of the family, Harris would have solved the mystery of the third law, but Pinker takes it a bit further and makes an allowance for the old-fashioned idea of uncontrollable fate to come in and represent that unique environment, saying that this can easily be reconciled with biological realities  once we acknowledge the many opportunities for chance to operate in development.

A sobering truth that was superbly phrased by a woman in a remote village in India in the 1950s when asked what kind of man she hoped her child would grow to become. “It is in his fate, no matter what I want.” As long as they stay true to their nature, I would agree.

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