Several cultural beliefs and modern social practices may hinder children’s mental, moral and emotional development, finds a study by an interdisciplinary body of research presented recently at a symposium at the University of Notre Dame.

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“Life outcomes for American youth are worsening, especially in comparison to 50 years ago,” says Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame professor of psychology who specializes in moral development in children and how early life experiences can influence brain development. “Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become commonplace in our culture, such as the use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will ‘spoil’ it,” she added.

The study found a link between certain nurturing early parental practices, especially common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies, to healthy outcomes in adulthood. The results call us to rethink some of our modern child-rearing habits and norms.

“Breast-feeding infants, responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development,” says Narvaez.

Studies have shown that responding to a baby’s needs, not ignoring or letting the child “cry it out” influences the development of conscience; positive touch has been shown to affect stress reactivity and to guide impulse control and empathy; allowing the child to freely play in nature has a huge impact over later social capacities and aggression, and having a set of supportive caregivers beyond the mother can predict levels of IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.

Positive physical contact, responding to the child’s needs and engaging in parent-child activities are a few of the behavious the study finds important for healthy development.
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Narvaez also points that The United States’ parents exhibit these behaviors and nurturing environments are seen less often; instead of being held, infants spend much more time in carriers, car seats and strollers than they did in the past. Only about 15 percent of mothers are breast-feeding at all by 12 months, extended families are broken up and free play allowed by parents has decreased dramatically since 1970.

Whether the corollary to these modern practices or the result of other forces, an epidemic of anxiety and depression among all age groups, including young children; rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency in young children; and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, among college students, are shown in research.

According to Narvaez, however, other relatives and teachers also can have a beneficial impact when a child feels safe in their presence. Also, early deficits can be made up later, she says.

“The right brain, which governs much of our self-regulation, creativity and empathy, can grow throughout life. The right brain grows though full-body experience like rough-and-tumble play, dancing or freelance artistic creation. So at any point, a parent can take up a creative activity with a child and they can grow together.”

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