The most important social environment to get right – the family

Michael Rose is clear – the closer we can live in environments that we have evolved to thrive in, the better off we will be. No environment has more of an effect on our well being than our family.

For we are not birds with most of our behaviours wired into us. We are moulded by the culture of our family. Our identity – how we see ourselves – how we understand how the world works and how we fit into it – how we will parent – how we will learn – how we will react to events – and our health – is largely set by the social and physical experience we have from inception to the age of 3.

Let me show you the power of this statement. This slide is taken from the work of Dr Doug Willms - the leading scientist in the field of culture and child development.

Here we see two trajectories. One of a child who can understand 150 words aged 2 and the other who can understand 300 words. It looks like a small difference. But it isn’t. The child that can understand 300 words is set on a trajectory of learning. By grade 10, they will operate at a 2 year university level. The child that understands 150 words is set on a very limited trajectory. They will stall at grade 10 at a grade 5 level. What has happened?

What has happened is that the 300 word children have been raised in a social environment that is close to the ideal for all human infants. There is a very high level of touch and affection. It is highly likely that the baby is breast fed – not only offering the ideal food but also the touch that all primates need to develop. The child is listened too. Parents respond. The child is cared for physically - fed, washed etc but as importantly is cared for emotionally. The child is given space but also boundaries. The child is allowed to discover the world about it but within safe bounds. She is not confined all the time. The child is exposed to lots of conversation. (Hart and Risely) By 4 the child on the better trajectory will have heard about 50 million words. This wires the neurons for language and so expression and the comprehension of complex thoughts. The baby is being cared for as we are designed to care for our children.

So what then about the other baby? This baby lives more in an instrumental world. It has much lower levels of touch. It is likely bottle fed. It tends to be confined much more and not allowed to explore. It is talked too or at. It is not listened to. It hears very few words. By 4 often only 10 million – a 40 million word difference – so the brain is wired largely for immediate and instrumental thinking. It can never catch up.

What happens to these two children that sets them on this course.

Here we come back to stress and Cortisol. All primates endure social stress. They worry about how they fit. Who is in and who is out. Who is rising and falling.

When we have these feelings – Cortisol kicks in. Primates reduce their Cortisol by Grooming. Babies that don’t get enough touch can die. Babies that get not enough touch tend to have much more Cortisol in the system for longer periods. They tend to react to events in a more stressed way and so wire not to be able to cope well with challenge. The floods of cortisol also work to damage their system.  Babies that get a lot of touch, feel safe and have a much greater resiliency. They also have much less cortisol around to threaten their system.

Robin Dunbar then makes the key assertion that humans developed language as a means of making grooming more efficient. Gossip or Conversation enables us to groom at a distance and while using our hands for work. It enables us to groom in groups. The essence of conversation or gossip is that it is a two way exchange as is physical grooming. So when a father has his son on his lap and is exploring the room with him or his body “Look Alfie here are your toes” he has taken his power down from God to equal. When Alfie’s mum reads to him aged 3 months this is not a waste of time. This is grooming.

But when a child only hears orders and in a order tone – he is not being groomed – he is being hit. His response? Cortisol. When a child is ignored – he is abandoned. His response Cortisol.

Just as Insulin is the marker for a poor diet, so Cortisol is the marker for poor social development. Dr Megan Gunnar is exploring this now.

Not the ideal parenting has become our norm today. It is largely a middle class issue.

Why?

I think that the answer is to be found in the larger culture of the industrial world we live in. It robs us of time and attention and energy. It is why we feed our kids and ourselves the wrong food. It is why we do not have the energy and the will to raise our children in the best way.

I don’t think that the way home to a better family is to be found in techniques – though knowing what I have put down here may help. I think, as with the food issue, the way home is to be found is to find a new life outside the bounds of the industrial economy. Now that so may of us are being expelled from it any way – there are millions of us around now that are being forced to think our lives anew.

Most of my posts about the “Fix” will focus on how we might  best do that. But before we go there, one last post about the nature of the industrial workplace that will show you how toxic it is and how all the issues of Stress and Cortisol apply there. For it is the family on steroids.

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