Saturday, October 13, 2012

Your Daycare Provider Better Be Your 'Family Member'

I recently read Mother Nature, by Sarah Hdry, which is a totally fascinating book and one I highly recommend for anyone interested in motherhood, babies or parenting. It will challenge pretty much every assumption you had about these topics: for example, humans are innately rather bad parents and the risk of being abandoned (or killed) at birth has apparently been a major driver in human evolution. So much for "natural parenting"!

One of her main arguments has to do with "alloparenting". Human babies being the almost ridiculously helpless, needy creatures that they are, it is basically impossible for mothers to raise them alone (unlike, for example, bears). Instead, they make use of alloparents, who are non-mothers acting in a maternal role: stand ins, if you like.

The problem with alloparents, though, for mothers in every era/culture, is that it is very difficult to find good ones. It is the rare non-family member who is willing to provide the careful, responsive, personalized affection necessary to properly raise a human being. (This is why most alloparents are in fact close relatives, particularly maternal grandparents: and may even be one reason for the striking longevity of human females post-menopause.) Note that this isn't because non-relatives can't: they just, by and large, are not motivated to do so.

It made me think differently about childcare. I wrote before about how sending children to daycare, even at very young ages, does not necessarily seem to have negative effects. This isn't surprising if human infants have evolved in an environment where multiple caregivers might be involved (up to dozens, for certain close-knit hunter gatherer groups in central Africa).

But for successful outcomes, these other caregivers must have the status of alloparents: basically mother-figures, with the passionate love, continual involvement into adulthood or at least late childhood, and absolute loyalty than this implies. By involving someone else in daily/very frequent care of your child, you are therefore not just hiring a babysitter, you are adopting a member of the family (almost literally).

Daycare is no longer a convenient place to leave babies/children, but truly their second home. If parents don't treat it that way (by frequently switching situations/caregivers, not developing a familial relationship with caregivers), then children are likely to suffer from a whole host of psychological, emotional and even physical problems. Makes me look at sending R to preschool in a whole new way!


  1. I know you've talked extensively about the absolute necessity of early childhood bonding, care, and stimulation being some of the most important things you can do for your child, which I find interesting and a little scary. I'd love to know where you're getting most of this information from and just how widespread this school of thought is.

    The reason I always cringe away from asking these questions is because Mike and I will be adopting our children, therefore not in charge of our child's early development, which from previous posts of yours points to disaster! I know plenty of adopted children have caught up to their peers, but I'd be really interested in reading more about this information as it may be one of the challenges we deal with as adoptive parents to a child who has been in an orphanage situation in a foreign country, who will probably be over a year old by the time they are in our hands.

    I personally think that no matter what the background, yes we will face challenges, but I'm really hoping that their psychological & emotional damage is not quite so extensive as this research that you refer to! Nevertheless, I would be interested in learning as much as possible because you always have really been very passionate about early childhood care and I would like to feel more prepared!

  2. A lot of the information can be found under attachment research. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth are two of the most famous researchers, but there is a ton of stuff available (Harry Harlow on monkeys is really interesting for example). It's been quite well studied and while like everything in science is a theory, is pretty universally accepted. Note that it's completely different from "attachment parenting" which has no scientific basis and is basically a lifestyle choice.

    Humans are immensely flexible so it's not as if there is one crucial "bonding period" (like right after birth or something). I've read before that adopting children six months or under very rarely leads to attachment problems, because the real attachment process doesn't start until after then (with the development of stranger anxiety). It would make me very nervous to adopt an older infant however, especially one 18 months or over (when stranger anxiety begins to subside in normal children, meaning that a strong, secure attachment has now been formed), and especially from an institution (as if the child was raised in a family setting it's likely that they would have an attachment to their primary caregiver: a loss would therefore occur, but they would be more or less normal).

    Something important to keep in mind though is that there is a lot of individual variation. Suomi did various experiments on attachment (also in monkeys, as for ethical reasons it's difficult to conduct controlled experiments on humans). (Here: Some monkeys are normal even if they were "orphaned", while others are totally screwed up, and this is due to their genetic differences. Something similar is probably true for humans.

    So it depends a lot on the individual child and their particular personality. I don't know if you are able to choose the child that you adopt with international adoption? Being able to do so would give you a better chance of adopting one with a more resilient personality, ie one not very likely to be damaged by a bad start (this paper: lists the "protective factors" which allow children to succeed despite adverse life starts; being smart is also a protective factor).

  3. Unfortunately, getting to know a child before committing to adopting them is extremely rare and only allowed in certain countries, though of course the adoption process can be halted if a child has more severe needs than indicated. Personality and emotional climate are not exactly considered as "important" in the process because many agencies, parents, orphanages, etc are more concerned with overall physical health of the child.

    It's also rare to adopt a child under 12 months when it is international adoption, with 18 months being a more realistic age before they come home.

    Thanks for giving me some materials to read. I don't think that these issues will put us off from our plans, but it's always good to be prepared.