Children “Experiences” in Childhood Crucial to Well-being as Adults
A parent’s touch, interaction (play time), and overall support during childhood were found to be crucial to having well-being and moral proclivities in adulthood, according to a new study.
The study, published in Applied Developmental Science, strongly suggests that the experiences we have in childhood, especially those that match evolved needs, are likely lead to better outcomes in adulthood. The lead researchers, Darcia Narvaez, Lijuan Wang and Ying Cheng believe that the reason why U.S. kids’ wellbeing lags behind that of kids in other countries is because of the de-emphasis of some critical parent-child interactions.
Evolved Developmental Niche (EDN)
The researchers identify six components of parent to child behaviors that evolved from early human time, when the care of a child matched up to the maturation schedule of a child. These behaviors have modified during evolution into very specific care routines: soothing a baby, responding to an infant’s needs including picking up on signals of a fussy child before the child actually cries, constant presence of a parent with many affectionate touching experiences, committed breastfeeding, playing with the child (includes parents, caregivers and friends), and a community that supports the child with affection.
In the study, the researchers asked adult subjects to look back on their childhood experiences and report on how many of the six EDN components they could recall. Did they receive outside affection? How much? Did they have a lot of playtime indoors and outdoors? Was that playtime with and without adults? Was there a lot of adult support and supervision during their formative years? Did they actually feel supported and nurtured while growing up?
Findings from the study
The adults, who reported receiving more of the EDN components in childhood, exhibited less depression and anxiety as well as greater capacity to take in the perspective of others and show compassion. Adults who reported less of the EDN components showed signs of poorer mental health, more distress and anxiety in social situations, and less of an ability to take in someone else’s perspective or point of view.
In this study the results seem to indicate that when parents and society don’t value and provide kids with what they need, literally from an evolutionary perspective, these children risk growing up with limited or decreased social and moral abilities. Toxic stress in childhood, in particular, can easily stunt emotional and moral growth, making you “stress-reactive” as an adult. It can also make you more egocentric, which means you will likely be less compassionate. Prior studies by these researchers showed that children who did receive more of the six EDN components showed more empathy, conscience and self-reliance as adults.
What can we learn from the research?
Parenting skills may not come naturally to many adults, especially if they did not experience the benefit of healthy parenting skills while growing up. Studies like these reinforce how crucial touch, attentiveness, involvement and basic parenting skills are to the healthy development of a child. The research also indicates the important role of community interactions around the child. The ability to take time off from work as a new parent should be a valued element in the working world, given the important payoff to the newborn infant. Classes and other education opportunities to support new parents should be a priority. An obstetrician can also play a key role in identifying parents who may need more guidance in the early period of raising the newborn, helping new parents to connect with their baby in meaningful and supportive ways.
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