I couldn’t find much on this topic in the paleosphere, so here’s an initial attempt at a paleo approach to parenting. I’m not a parent, but I think the basic ideas are simple enough.
The leading candidate for a primal infant care manual is Jean Liedloff’s 1975 book, The Continuum Concept. Based on her observations while living with hunter-gatherers, she recommends following the evolutionary logic. From the website:
- constant physical contact with his mother (or another familiar caregiver as needed) from birth;
- sleeping in his parents’ bed, in constant physical contact, until he leaves of his own volition (often about two years);
- breastfeeding “on cue” — nursing in response to his own body’s signals;
- being constantly carried in arms or otherwise in contact with someone, usually his mother, and allowed to observe (or nurse, or sleep) while the person carrying him goes about his or her business — until the infant begins creeping, then crawling on his own impulse, usually at six to eight months;
- having caregivers immediately respond to his signals (squirming, crying, etc.), without judgment, displeasure, or invalidation of his needs, yet showing no undue concern nor making him the constant center of attention;
- sensing (and fulfilling) his elders’ expectations that he is innately social and cooperative and has strong self-preservation instincts, and that he is welcome and worthy.
This is in contrast to mainstream practices such as: formula-feeding, leaving the infant alone to sleep, leaving the infant to cry.
Another valuable resource is the work of Judith Rich Harris. In her paradigm-shifting book, The Nurture Assumption, she convincingly argues that parents have no effect on how their childrens’ personalities will turn out. (The evidence shows that half of the variation in personality is due to genetics, the other half to the influence of the peer group.) She concludes that the Western obsession with nurturing children is a big fat waste of time. Since personality is immune to parental nurture, parents can breathe a collective sigh of relief—no longer are they to blame for their childrens’ failures. Nor do they have to worry that they aren’t spending enough “quality time” with their children, giving them enough affection, driving them to sports practices and music lessons, etc. Children turn out fine so long as they have a peer group.
This agrees perfectly with the anthropological evidence. In hunter-gatherer cultures, infants stay in their mothers’ arms until they are weaned. The mother doesn’t bother to speak to her infant as it wouldn’t be able to understand (and it will learn to speak from other children). Then, the toddler is handed over to an older sibling, usually a sister, who is given full responsibility over the child and is expected to dominate it. The parents play a very hands-off role. Harris writes:
The idea that parents should have to entertain their children is bizarre to people in [traditional] societies. They would fall down laughing if you tried to tell them about “quality time”.
There is a good reason why this trait evolved in children. Parents and children only share half of their genes, so from the selfish gene’s perspective, there are conflicts of interest. We would expect parents and children to try to manipulate each other for their own benefit, and that each would develop defenses against such manipulation. The child may try to get more than its fair share of food by crying, whining, being cute, etc. (It only shares half its genes with its siblings, after all.) The parents may want their daughter to stick around and take care of her younger siblings, while it may not be in her own best interest to do so. Hence children resist the efforts of their parents to shape their personalities.
Harris’s advice to parents is simple: 1) follow the evolutionary logic (i.e., don’t bother with obsessive nurturing), and 2) raise them in a good neighborhood, where there is a good peer group. Children are socialized by their peer group, so this is the most effective thing you can do for them.
Finally, when it comes to health, paleolithic nutrition is the most important element. For an infant, this means breast milk and then paleo foods. Please—don’t feed your baby soy formula. Sun is also important: it’s a tragedy that so many people shield their babies from getting any direct sunlight on their skin.