“Snakes and Ladders”: the game of psychological evolution

In the animated movie “The Croodz” set in prehistoric times, a grumpy grandmother hears the definition of a pet (“It’s an animal you don’t eat”) and responds, bewildered,  “We call those: children.”

She reminds me of the villagers in the mountains where I spend summers in Greece, who also don’t have the concept of a pet.
They may keep a cat to chase away mice or a dog to guard sheep, but they will drown, torture, kill, or abandon the rest without a second thought. Meanwhile, in San Francisco where I live, people give their pets names, pedicures, clothes, toys, strollers, personalities and much love. People consider animals very differently (primarily as someone who deserves love, versus primarily as something to use) and consequently treat them very differently.

The same kind of variation applies to children through history and across cultures, as painful as it may be to conceive it. A close look at historical records and anthropological studies from around the world show that the emotional bonds between people and their offspring have traditionally been weak and have gotten stronger only progressively, quite recently, and not everywhere.

Historian Lloyd deMause [pronounced “deMoss”] describes humanity’s psychological evolution in his unconventional books (surprising yet full of brilliant insights): The History of Childhood (1974) and The Emotional Life of Nations (2002). This evolution works a bit like a game of Snakes and Ladders.

IMG_4624In this classic childhood boardgame (which was originally an ancient Indian allegory of life’s journey), players start with their piece on one of the bottom corners of the board, roll the dice, advance, and aim to be the first to reach the finish. If we imagine humanity playing the game, every piece is a family line, every roll of the dice propelling the new generation forward according to the luck of the roll.


On the board there are ladders, which allow pieces to climb straight to higher levels (“virtues”). For humanity ladders would be things like education, which usually elevate us to better ways of treating each other.

IMG_4627There are also snakes (“vices”) that slide pieces down to lower levels. For humanity these would be traumas which can decimate generations, or make them stagnate.

IMG_4630According to Lloyd deMause’s theory, the board on which humanity has navigated its pieces between Prehistoric times and today has six levels. Just as occurs in the game, all the pieces started at the same point and have advanced at different speeds. So although we can assume that there were not likely any “Helping” parents among Prehistoric hunters-gatherers, we can also assume that even today there are family lines stuck in “Infanticidal” modes.

IMG_46311. “Infanticidal” parents consider children like animals or possessions. They use them and routinely kill or expose some of them, usually as a form of late abortion or gender selection to regulate population size. This mode appeared a couple of million years ago, when our ancestors’ reproductive strategy evolved towards collaborative breeding, which made us more fertile but far less dedicated parents than our Great Ape sisters. The situation became worse after agriculture brought further increases in fertility and decreases in parenting investment (and health). Infanticidal families live in societies characterized by fear and brutality, where human sacrifices are common and slavery ubiquitous. Examples from Antiquity include laws pertaining to children in the Code of Hammurabi, Carthage’s child sacrifices, and Sparta’s eugenics. Modern examples include tribes that have maintained hunter-gatherer lifestyles, communities that practice ritual sacrifices, honor killings, and newborn girl ‘late abortions’.


2. “Abandoning” parents remain detached from their children. The improvement is that they no longer kill them, just abandon them emotionally and often physically. Historically, in the West this new mode of childrearing emerged around 370AD when laws began considering infanticide to be murder, newborns were routinely given away to suckle wet-nurses, surviving children put out to become servants in other homes, or closed up in monasteries. “Abandoning” families create societies that are obsessed with sin and pardon.


3. A significant improvement occurs when parents finally accept to keep and care for their children. “Ambivalent” parents still completely dominate them, viewing them as clay to be molded. This mode of parenting emerged in the West towards the XIIth century. Societies with enough such parents become more complex politically and economically. Outright slavery is replaced by feudal servitude.


4. A still more empathetic way of seeing little ones is that of “Intrusive” parents, who begin to consider children as beings with their own needs. They discipline them, using threats and guilt to break their will. This mode appeared in the West during the centuries of the French Revolution and American Independence. Societies experience political and scientific advances, as people question traditional authorities.

IMG_46355. Forceful discipline eventually evolves into manipulative instruction. “Socializing” parents train children to conform to society. They consider children as replicas of themselves, and teach them to internalize norms, rules and habits in order to fit in. This mode of child rearing appeared in the 1900s and it is still where most of the industrialized world is today. Societies that have reached this level begin to value romantic love, and fathers begin to play a role in child-rearing.


6. The “Helping” mode is the latest one observed. These parents trust, empathize and serve children. They value connection, and the child’s fulfillment of its own potential. “Helping” parents became noticeable in the twentieth century in the West, though a few communities may have operated in this mode earlier. It is still rare on a worldwide scale, requiring tremendous emotional maturity and resources, as well as a significant time investment. Communities in this mode become less authoritarian.

IMG_4656The journey of family lines through these levels is also affected by Snakes and Ladders. Interestingly, it isn’t easy to tell ahead of time whether a significant event (e.g. natural disaster, World War, public policy measure, technology innovation) will be one or the other for future generations. Things may not even take the shape of an ‘event’ one can point to, though we may notice the effects: certain societies which were very advanced relative to others seemed to freeze in time for centuries (e.g. China), others accelerated and surpassed their neighbors (e.g. Scandinavia.) We can also imagine that something that may have served as a Ladder at one level may have become a Snake at another level (e.g. religion.)

IMG_4637Where are humanity’s pieces now? How are populations of specific countries or religious communities spread out across the board? Are some more concentrated around two or three levels, while others are spread out across all six? In what ways do we help or hinder parents in treating their children better around the world today: are we letting Snakes fester in communities with enduring violence? Are we creating new ones with modern ways of life? Are we building enough Ladders via family planning, girl education initiatives, awareness campaigns against child abuse and neglect?

The hope is that humanity keeps moving forward, each family sending its descendants further along their journey, each at its own speed, slipping down fewer Snakes and climbing up more Ladders they will encounter on their paths. Accelerating everyone’s rise is a worthwhile and ambitious goal.




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