Mother is shown holding her baby.


Parenting invites dichotomies: Not only are there two kinds of parent, mother and father, but their skills provoke questions about nature vs. nurture. In what sense are they innate or acquired? Are they necessary or superfluous?

In each case the answer is “some of both” and we need to beware of false dichotomies. Single parents are common, nature can’t express itself without nurture, and parenting is not an all-or-none effort.

No one doubts the biological primacy of Mother, who gives us birth and nourishes our mammalian selves while we are helpless.  

what does Catherine du Lac, a respected researcher, mean by saying that parenting is hardwired? The psychological evidence makes us skeptical of the idea that if kids are neglected, their hardwired natures will keep them on the right road to becoming good parents. Isn’t parenting a little like the much-studied case of birdsong, which has strong influences from both genes and the environment? And must we not admit that nature and nurture–a false dichotomy if there ever was one–can’t be separated in the final behavioral outcome? Some have likened it to trying to separate the flour and the eggs after baking a cake.

But to move on…No doubt parents would prefer having low-maintenance babies like the giraffe or wildebeest instead of being stuck with the panda model. Are we responding to instinct or a conscience? (Which one is hardwired, in Prof. du Lac’s language?)

We have some biological constraints that fit the moral rules of most cultures. There is even some evidence of moral decisions activating some areas of the brain more than others. However, though morality appears very early in development, there is obviously postnatal learning as well. A way to bridge these views is to argue that early and limited tendencies allow the emergence of adult patterns.

However, if human nature is thought of as an inner essence, it doesn’t exist. We’re free to think of human nature as a set of statistical averages, but perish the thought that there is a human nature that is superior to animal nature. We are part of the animal kingdom.

Babies require care, and arrive with the cuteness and screams that attract parents’ attention. My perception of it is that each species resolves the challenges to infant survival separately by the way it times birth (or hatching). For example, panda infants are cute, like human babies, maybe for the same reason. They are also born helpless, like babies, but probably for a different reason, bamboo.

As we might expect, primates share parental similarities, though with differences. I would argue that any primate nature must be the sum of observable traits like improved color vision, social organization, and so on.

When it comes to caregiving, evolution has pitted women against embryos metabolically. The idea of mother-infant competition once led to the idea that our bipedal gait rearranged the pelvis and forced women to have their babies earlier, before the fetuses became too big to be born. The advantage of bipedalism was presumably that it freed our hands for new uses. (There are numerous bipedal animals but they’re different from humans in the way they stand.)

Now that idea shares the stage with the metabolic crossover hypothesis, another account of mother-infant conflict, but focusing on energy supplies. Instead of childbirth forced by fetal growth, the timing is metabolic.

This is a long-winded approach to the idea that prolonged parental care became necessary because early childbirth was adaptive. There’s some evidence that sexual selection favors men who might stick around, and this would explain years of parental care: women invest a lot of time in bearing children, and favor men who will keep the kids alive. Of course, that raises another question: Where did monogamy come from?

Father helps his son on a ride in an amusement park.

BIO: Evolution can enable behavior like parenting, but there is no gene that specifies parenting. Instead, we are endowed with brains that triggers some behaviors more readily than others. You may remember the famous case of conditioned taste aversion described by John Garcia. We are biologically prepared to learn some associations more readily than others.

Our genes may enable us to secrete hormones that alter our sensitivity to environmental stimuli, for example, in both parents’ behavior.

Then, too, parenting is not a single behavior like blinking or swallowing. Some kinds of parenting show greater heritability than others.

But infants are also particularly susceptible to their surroundings. The brain develops under the guidance of exploration, stress and nurturance during the early years.

Experience can even feed back onto the genes themselves. This biological embedding of experience in our genes is called epigenetics. It means that our habits, for good or bad, can influence the way that genes control development in our offspring.

Furthermore, experience has its greatest effects on our genes when we are very young ourselves. The best known example comes from studying children who survived the Dutch Hunger Winter (1944-45) during World War II:

Experience leaves an imprint on the brain in the synapses that form to remember or respond to the experience. By one estimate, 700 synapses are formed every second during the first three years. Then, when one synapses is strengthened by experience, others weaken by a process called synaptic pruning and nibbling.

Unlike eating and speaking, the ability to be a parent develops slowly, particularly when it is imminent. Pregnancy and childbirth change the bodies and brains of prospective mothers and those of fathers as well, mostly to prepare for parenting. In prospective mothers this has been termed matrescence, which has given rise to the term patrescence.

Nurturance from either parent depends on a hormonal foundation: estrogen, progesterone, oxytocin and prolactin in the mother, and oxytocin and testosterone in the father. The parts of the brain that are sensitive to these hormones—chiefly the limbic system, preoptic area and hypothalamus—are associated with organizing parental behavior.

PSYCHO: There’s been a fascinating debate over the importance of parents. Intuition is not a good foundation for understanding parents, considering how diverse the examples of parenting are and how varied one parent’s performance can be. 

So even though the relationship between a parent and a child is basically social, let’s begin with the individual psychology. Despite some controversy, perhaps most psychologists accept the importance of parents for an infant’s attachment. Although you can find thorough descriptions of attachment behavior in infancy, its importance is equally evident (and compellingly described) in adult behavior, either when it has not developed well or when it has*.

Besides attachment, caregivers (including parents) seem indispensable for boosting a baby’s brain development by serve and return interactions, described by Harvard here, there, and yonder, and two years later by Michigan at this site, that site, and wherever , and even more recently by the British.

*But don’t rely on the notion that oxytocin is the cuddle chemical (or at least a trust chemical) took off in the popular press and some of the difficulties got left behind. Now the inconsistencies in the relationship between oxytocin and love are leaking out and provoking modified theories (research here).

All of this has left the attachment theory of love without a simple chemical reaction to rely on. However, the complexities are useful in alerting everyone to the dangers as well as the rewards of intimacy. The real delight of trusting someone makes us vulnerable to a good story, allowing a con artist to hack our oxytocin system (which is sometimes called THOMAS).

Oxytocin does have some influence on attachment and love. On the other hand it also seems perfectly at home with stupidity. How else to explain the eagerness of spies and diplomats to fall for the honey trap? It often features intelligent men, who may be powerful as well, and a woman to whom they reveal all their secrets. (There are honey traps with men as the lure, too.) We trust attractive people more than unattractive people. It can be a result of secreting oxytocin from the pituitary gland. Though potential victims might save themselves with acne medicine, some men–but not women–may be beyond help.

SOCIAL: Mother and Father have provided the historic basic pattern of parenting with more exceptions than we might realize. One-parent families are on the increase with fewer mishaps, though perhaps more stress, than we often acknowledge.

Cultural differences in parenting are obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to look around and travel a bit, depending on culture and geography.

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