by Kali WendorfBEFORE I BECAME a mother, my love for Nature and my grief about its destruction at the hands of humankind caused me to question deeply what it means to be human. Are we a peaceful species or a violent one? Are war, tyranny and ecological destruction inevitable? Are we motivated by love or by fear? When I later became pregnant these questions were more urgent. So, as my belly grew, I went in search of answers. What I discovered, through the work of visionaries such as Michel Odent, James Prescott, Sarah Blaffer Hardy and others, changed my life forever, because I found incontrovertible evidence that human beings are biologically ordained for love and connection – not violence, greed and fear.
A large body of groundbreaking research across a range of disciplines has ended the ‘Nurture versus Nature’ debate and uncovered our greatest potential; how we are nurtured determines the kind of people we will grow up to be. Love, empathy and compassion are hard-wired into an infant’s brain by certain sensory inputs such as touch, smell, taste, movement and vision, specifically breastfeeding, holding, skin-to-skin contact, eye gazing, emotional nurturing, co-sleeping and the movement experienced while being held in the arms of walking carers. Such practices positively alter the developing brain and translate into important developmental advantages as well as a well-functioning nervous system and overall psychological wellbeing.
In addition, there is a neurological ‘expectation’ that these intimate inputs be provided by those whom the infant first experiences (through sound and rhythm) in the womb – the mother and father. This is often referred to as a “continuum of connection”, experienced in utero, through birth, and in the first three years. After that period, the biological need for connection continues, but with the circles expanding to extended family members, a caring community and, very importantly, time in Nature.
SO, IF WE are hardwired for love, what has gone wrong? Unfortunately, modern Western culture is increasingly at odds with this kind of nurturing. Rather than encouraging physical and emotional closeness to children, our culture discourages it. The dissolution of family life and community, and the resultant ‘outsourcing’ of parenting and over-reliance on television as a babysitter interfere with these fragile and critical processes of connection, which occur in the small developmental window of the first three years of life.
Ours is a society of disconnection: births are unnecessarily medicalised, interfering in the primary bonding process of mother and infant; babies and toddlers are fed with bottles, sleep alone in their own cots, in their own rooms and spend an inordinate amount of time in prams, playpens, car seats and day care, away from the physical contact and closeness of their parents. As they grow older, the disconnection expands, with increased time in front of television and computer screens, and little time in Nature.
Without a foundation of bonding and connection, children grow up exhibiting a plethora of stress signals, indicating that primary connections have not been made: depression, attentional issues, aggression, suicide, failure to participate in relationships, and substance abuse. Their ability to look after themselves and each other – let alone care about the wider environment – is highly compromised. And so, in a vicious circle, our disconnected culture raises children who perpetuate the same disconnection with their children, their neighbours and the Earth.
In her book Motherhood: How Should We Care for Our Children? Anne Manne describes what she calls the “McDonaldisation” of childhood. The trend to put very young children in long-day care, she says, is leaving us with a behavioural time bomb. “Care is a different word to love,” says Manne. “Children need not trained, expert professional care, but the passionate partiality of parental love.” She believes the commodification of private life in general will produce societies noted for their “waning of emotion or affection”.
Early learning centres twist neurological findings on early brain development to imply that the first three years of life are an important time for ‘learning’. However, what young children are wired to be learning is not the alphabet but love and connection. Nature is striving for our success as peaceful, joyous human beings, not for our success as accountants!
It’s important to look at research relating to childhood development from a civilisational perspective rather than just a personal one. Many people who read such material often retort with comments such as “Well, I was spanked and I am fine,” or “My child wasn’t breastfed and she is happy.” But imagine the impact to our planet of generations of Western children being raised collectively without the neurobiological imperatives of connection. We’ve heard lately of the “credit tsunami”; well, this is what I call the looming “disconnection tsunami”. And it is heading right for us. Our children are already reflecting a society in crisis and warning us of this impending disastrous wave. Indications such as bullying, school violence, depression and secondary-school drop-out rate are on the rise, as well as the alarming increased rates of autism, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and childhood asthma.
Robin Grille, psychologist and author, is a passionate advocate of uncovering the psychological roots of social and environmental ills. In his groundbreaking book Parenting for a Peaceful World he writes, “The suffering of children ends up producing human rights abuses anywhere in the world. Every war, every genocide, has been a direct consequence of society’s war against children.” Explanations for major societal ills have traditionally been economic, historic, religious or moral, he says, but few have addressed the psychological aspect when trying to understand war and tyranny. He reminds us that it is well established that delinquency is the product of violence or neglect experienced in childhood. “Is it not logical to suspect the same to be true of large-scale violence?” he asks.
How babies are born and raised determines the kind of society that is forged. We can save a forest today, but if children are not brought up feeling love, connection and empathy, then that same forest will be cut down tomorrow. All the ecological and sustainability initiatives in the world depend on one common denominator: conscious parenting.
THE GOOD NEWS is that for the first time, we have an evidence-based model for how to raise a peaceful society. Until now, parenting methods have been shaped by culture and enforced by societal norms having little to do with meeting the emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of humanity. Now science confirms what a mother always knew deep within. Not surprisingly, most of the methods of attachment parenting are still practised in indigenous societies. For the first time in human history, we can now take an active and deliberate role in forging a better society and reaching our evolutionary potential to live in harmony with Nature and with each other.
And our potential doesn’t stop with earthly matters. We’re built for spirit as well. Immediately behind the ridge of our brow lies the prefrontal cortex, the largest and apparently most recent of brain additions. This is the ‘third eye’ of Eastern spiritual traditions. Attributed to the prefrontals are the ‘higher human virtues’ of love, compassion, empathy, as well as our advanced intellectual skills. The extent of nurturing, emotional support and care an infant receives actually affects the development of the prefrontals at a cellular level. From the very beginning and throughout childhood, the prefrontals are experience-dependent, shaped by the environment the child experiences – a chilling fact, considering how much violent imagery children are exposed to. Joseph Chilton Pearce writes, in The Biology of Transcendence, “Transcendence, the ability to rise and go beyond limitation and restraint, is our biological birthright, built into us genetically and blocked by enculturation. Were we to conceive, deliver, and bring up our young within the bonds of love, our full human nature might unfold with no more struggle than any other aspect of our growth.”
On whose shoulders rests this responsibility of forging a new enlightened, sustainable society through the connected raising of children? It would be a fatal mistake to place the entire burden (and blame) on parents. Modern mothers and fathers are confined by the cultural systems that dictate how well they can nurture their young. Besides needing supportive friends and neighbours, adopted uncles and aunties, we need policy change, support networks, workplace reform, birth reform and education reform to help break the cultural disconnection spiral and bring children back into our arms. All community members should take an active interest in their local children. Remember, in most indigenous cultures, the idea of ‘my child’ or ‘your child’ does not exist.
A peaceful, sustainable world is possible. The effort required to adjust how we collectively meet the optimal developmental needs of children is minute in comparison to the cost of fighting wars and decimating forests. Our commitment to nurture will most certainly begin to heal Nature, and create a just, sane and compassionate future.
Kali Wendorf is the founding editor of Kindred, a sustainable living family magazine.