Is Babysitting the Ultimate Source of Our Ability to Understand Each Other?

The following is an adapted excerpt from Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010) by Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD.

Teenage girls are not especially known for empathy. To adults, they often seem self-involved, moody and inconsiderate. Their obsessions with what seem like trivial social slights and their desperate yearning for status and friendships, however, may reveal important truths about the development of altruism in humans and the conditions under which children's brains evolved. And oddly, that stereotypical first job of a young girl -- babysitting -- may be the ultimate source of our ability to understand each other.

Here's how babysitting, teen cliques and empathy intersect. For centuries, human caring behavior was either ignored or dismissed. It was seen as mere self-interest; only occurring when, in fact, the goals of the self and the other happened to coincide, as in parenting. But recent research in neuroscience has complicated matters, showing that not only is altruism and a desire for fair treatment real, it shows up early in life and even in other species.

For example, chimps will protest when another ape is not rewarded equally for similar behavior, even rejecting their own treat. And children as early as 14 months will try, without prompting, to help adults having difficulty reaching an object that the child knows how to get.

How could this kind behavior evolve? The traditional explanation goes back to Darwin himself. He suggested that humans who were better at cooperating with each other would be much better at battling other groups, and therefore more likely to survive.

But this doesn't seem to account for the origin of altruism, for why people would have the inclination to connect with each other in the first place. Cooperation in battle may well have escalated the success of groups that stuck together -- but it doesn't explain why individuals would help at first. That's where babysitting comes in.

Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy is a key proponent of this new theory. In her recent book, Mothers and Others, Hrdy says, in essence, that an early human version of "daycare" -- not warfare -- drove the rise of human empathy. And, curiously enough, this may help explain why teenage girls are so obsessed with fitting in and forming tight cliques.

To explain her theory, Hrdy notes the dismal infant mortality rates that are seen where modern perinatal care isn't available. In prehumans, half of all children probably died before reaching puberty. Among the hunter-gatherer Mandinka tribe who were studied between 1950 and 1980, nearly 40 percent of all children were dead by age five.

Consequently, she argues, our species could probably not have survived at all -- let alone in numbers large enough to fight wars with each other --  if serious energy and attention wasn't devoted to childrearing. But Hrdy believes we have been misled about what early human childrearing was like. And this misunderstanding has kept us from recognizing the roots of empathy in childcare.

Great apes have traditionally been the model for early human parenting styles. Chimpanzees and orangutans infants are nurtured exclusively by their mothers, nursing from four to seven full years. In infancy, these little apes are in constant skin-to-skin contact with their mothers, day and night. But Hrdy thinks this breeding style of intensely possessive motherhood isn't ours.

Humans, instead, have traditionally shared the burden of baby care. Typically, a human birth prompts celebration. In most cultures, a welcome new baby is eagerly passed around among the waiting relatives. But among the great apes, a new baby that was passed around would soon be dead meat -- literally. The importance of helpers -- not just moms --  in human childcare was obscured by several things. For one, the people originally seen as the best model for early child-rearing practices -- the !Kung --  turned out to be rather unusual. !Kung hunter-gatherer mothers hold their children 75 percent of the time, These infants are either in a sling which allows them to nurse whenever they choose or strapped to their mothers' backs.

But babies in other hunter-gatherer groups and certainly modern babies spend far less time in this way. And researchers had previously ignored the fact that in the great apes, moms and babies touch 100 percent of the time -- while even among the !Kung, babies spend a full quarter of their time being held by others. In contrast, if a chimp takes another chimp's newborn, that baby is in great danger. Both males and even females can and will kill unrelated babies. This, needless to say, is rarely what happens when human beings hold infants.

Indeed, most human child abuse occurs among isolated, stressed caregivers -- not among those with many helpers. The ubiquity of the nurturing, protective reaction to babies suggests that early humans must have frequently cared for each other's children. That means that, unlike great ape mothers, human moms must have spent significant time out of skin contact with their infants, though they were likely nearby.

In fact, the presence of willing "babysitters" may have been even more important to early human survival than the closeness of a father. Among the Mandinka, for example, research found that having a maternal grandmother or older sister around cut a child's risk of dying young in half. But a father's presence made no survival difference at all?and a stepfather actually increased the child's mortality risk.

As a result, Hrdy argues that while fathers and nuclear families certainly matter, the role of extended family and friends in keeping children healthy has been overlooked. Cross-culturally, studies have found that poor mothers, single moms, teen mothers and mothers of premature babies have children that do significantly better on all measures -- academic, emotional and physical -- if they have extended family, particularly maternal family, nearby and participating in their lives. Like marmosets and some other small monkeys -- but unlike the great apes -- humans seem to be cooperative breeders. .

Consequently, cooperative breeding could have been a driving force in human evolution -- and here's why that matters for teenage girls. If having female relatives and friends was necessary for the survival of your children, being able to recruit such helpers would literally be a matter of life or death. As girls become ready for reproduction in adolescence then, building a network of female supporters would become almost as important as finding the right mate. Hence, social obsession.

From this perspective, the dramatic teenage world of cliques and BFF's and Queen Bees and Wannabes makes a lot of sense. Girls would need to learn to cooperate in small groups to achieve success as mothers. This cooperation wouldn't take place automatically -- like other skills, it would take practice and would involve inevitable mistakes and misunderstandings.

But how could cooperative breeding drive the development of empathy? For it to work, cooperative breeders need to share and babysit. These nurturing experiences could promote the survival of genes that increase helping across the board. A species in which cooperative breeding was important to survival would also tend to produce babies who were increasingly good at attracting helpers.

Increased cuteness would be one possible result. A more important outcome, however, would be enhanced survival of babies who are sensitive to emotional contagion and good at reading people. As these genes got selected, people in the groups which had them would become better and better at understanding and caring for each other -- producing a virtuous spiral of escalating altruism. Or at least, escalating altruism toward group members.

The same genes might later have allowed cooperation in warfare which would further select for them -- but they probably originated in the earliest versions of babysitting and daycare. If Hrdy is right, women, teenage girls and babies drove the evolution of the caring brain, not men at war. "Were it not for the peculiar combination of empathy and mind reading," she writes, "we would not have evolved to be humans at all."

Unfortunately, today we seem to be ignoring the important role of our extended families and friends, placing intense pressure on mothers and the nuclear family. Rather than seeing shared care as "natural," we harshly judge mothers who don't spend all of their time with their infants. We don't provide affordable, high quality daycare -- consideration of doing so, despite the fact that the majority of American mothers work -- isn't even part of the political debate. We ignore the help historically given to mothers by relatives and friends which is now rarely available, viewing motherhood in an isolated suburban home with a father who is absent for most of the day as "traditional."

We don't consider the fact that for most of human history, mothers worked with other mothers, with their youngest children around them. Intense attention has been given to the problems of working mothers, single parenthood and divorce -- yet virtually no one looks at the effects of the massive breakdown of extended family that has come with industrial and post-industrial society. When extended family and related social networks are studied, however, they show great benefits to children -- especially for single parents, but for two-parent families as well.

Shared care of children was probably the original cradle of empathy -- and early nurture is still critical to its development today. If we want a kinder culture -- and to protect our capacity to connect -- we have to do better for parents, babies and teens.

Adapted from Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010) by Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD. All rights reserved.


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