“Healthy emotional development does not move us from dependence to independence; instead, we move from dependence and care receiving to interdependence and the capacity to be both a care receiver and a caregiver.” – Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind (2012)

We don’t often think of caregiving relationships as a skill. Phrases like “maternal instinct” in particular engrain the expectation that not being naturally good at caregiving relationships is rare and pathological.

In her book Mothers and Others (2009), primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explains why the opposite is true. Human mothers are very unlike the exclusive caretakers that our cousins the other great apes are

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We are cooperative breeders, which means that we frequently entrust others (‘alloparents’) with the care of our infants.

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This behavior had two fundamental effects on humanity:

  1. It makes us vulnerable. Parents are strategic, not devoted caregivers: mothers have more children than they alone can afford to raise, which often entails neglect of the least fortunate. The only other primates where parental abuse and neglect of infants has been observed are marmosets and tamarins – also cooperative breeders.
  2. It makes us brilliant. Babies become good at establishing and maintaining contact with caregivers whose commitment is all but guaranteed, and caregivers become discerning at reading the needs of others. Hrdy proposes that it was precisely this reinforcing dynamic that ignited the impressive development of human intelligence.

So when we say that human brains are social organs, we must emphasize just how social they are. They’re not just capable of being social. They are shaped by other brains.

[Note: the focus here is on what we can control once a child is born, hence the focus is not on the important role of genetics]

Babies’ developing brains are shaped by their primary caregivers’ mature brains. In all mammals there is a caregiving relationship and in the smartest one the emotional bonds can last a lifetime. However, what no other species needs is the tremendous emotional richness of attuned human relationships that a baby brain demands in order to reach its optimal functioning potential.

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This was demonstrated progressively during the twentieth century. In the 50s and 60s, American psychologist Harry Harlow broke down into components the essential elements of relationship that rhesus monkey infants needed. Meanwhile, his British colleague John Bowlby was defining attachment. In the late 70s, Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues defined what behaviors create secure (and non-secure) attachments. It was a gigantic breakthrough, and has been iterated upon by several attachment researchers since.

In the language of that time, they called it ‘attuned response.’ In modern language, we would call it ‘mindfulness.‘ It means being reliably present, discerning of the needs of the child, being positive and cooperative in responding, synchronous, stimulating, and emotionally supportive. The Harvard Center for the Developing Child has summarizes this dynamic ‘serve and return.’

Safe + Seen + Soothed = Secure (Dan Siegel)

Unfortunately, this scientifically established understanding of the voracity of human brain needs came at a time that compromised their dissemination. As Deborah Blum explains in her book Love at Goon Park (2002), women’s rights movements encouraged mothers to pursue careers before US society was ready with the infrastructure to meet its children’s needs.

The result is concerning. Relationships have become fewer and thinner. There are fewer relationships available for each child to buffer or repair any eventual lack or dysfunction.

  • Childhood is not happy, by and large, in the US:
    • Only about half the children have secure attachments with their caregivers. [Estimates vary – for example this meta-study of finds a little over 40% young adults to have secure patterns of attachment, this NCBI study lists 55% of infants as securely attached. We don’t yet have long series of data on this critical dimension. It is useful to keep in mind that chances are only a little better than 50-50 that a child will have what Bowlby called ‘a secure base’ with one of its parents.]
    • ⅓ of American kids are investigated by protective services before adulthood. 80% are neglect cases
    • A quarter live in poverty
    • A quarter endure 3+ Adverse Childhood Experiences (maltreatment and/or chaotic homes, correlating with adult mental illness, disease)
  • Adults with secure attachment styles has dropped by 10% in thirty years, while those with avoidant attachment style (who dismiss the importance of relationships) has doubled. Meanwhile, empathy and positive views of others have both plummeted

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  • Relational isolation is rising by all measures: household members, close friendships, time spent on personal devices

In summary, we need to inform prospective parents and school-age children about the critical importance of developing the foundational skill of being an attuned – or mindful – caregiver.