A vast amount of advice about parenting is available today. Some of
it is contradictory because it arises from differing ideas about the
nature of the child, the objectives of childrearing and the best ways to
achieve them. As a doctor, a child and family psychiatrist, a parent and
a grandparent, I have for many years been interested in preventive
mental health. It is important for parents and society to ask:
"What understandings and what social conditions can help to make
mothering and fathering rewarding, and how can we make good parenting
easier, so that parents' and children's built-in potentials can blossom
I have outlined a brief framework of understandings that may help
parents towards mutually satisfying, healthy outcomes for themselves and
their children, preparing them for citizenship in a contemporary
Some "givens" of being human - your pedigree for success
From your baby's birth you are building a love relationship with a
unique new person. You have a chance to be creative, and to cooperate
with Nature in nurturing this relationship, which, in some form, will
last for the rest of your joint lives. One day this baby may love and
care for you in your old age! An essential quality of healthy love is
that it promotes the wellbeing of both people in the
As a mother, you may find it helpful to realise that, whatever your
personal experiences of being mothered, you are likely, genetically, to
be well-equipped to mother your baby. We can be sure of this because, so
far as genes influence mothering, all women (like all female mammals)
have a very long pedigree in which each woman was selected
specifically for success in mothering.
If you bring to mind your mother and your grandmother, and now
imagine each woman before them in the line of your maternal ancestors
(whether as a woman or as a baby girl), you know that over thousands of
years each of them, without fail, was successful in bearing a healthy
baby girl, and that each little girl grew up and did likewise. In this,
every one of your maternal ancestors succeeded! Sometimes the going was
hard, and if a little girl's mother died, there must have been another
caring woman to adopt her.
Throughout earlier ages, with rare exceptions, mothers traditionally
carried their babies, slept, worked and played with them, breastfeeding
them frequently, and usually well beyond the first year of life – a
"nursing couple". By the same long process, breast milk has
been exquisitely and specifically matched to the varying needs of human
babies. Infant feeding with milk from other mammals is very recent in
our species and significantly less healthy. Your maternal ancestors did
all this under conditions that were in some ways less favorable than
those we have today. Yet they all succeeded, mostly within a supportive
family or tribal group, and in a natural environment such as continued
in many pre-industrial societies well into the 20th Century.
This long process of selection (with a different emphasis for males)
refined every detail of our basic biology to best fit the kind of
environment in which they lived. It follows that unless they have some
disorder, women today are all generally equipped by Nature to give
healthy nurture to their infants, given a facilitating environment
that includes the support and companionship of others.
If we follow the same logic, we can see that babies, too, are
descended from an unbroken line of ancestors who, as babies and young
children, all survived because each one of them was successful in
appealing to their mothers to meet their needs. As infants they did
this by "rewarding" them with pleasure, joy and many
satisfactions to compensate them and their fathers for the burdens of
caring for them. The genes of all infants who were not successful in
doing this dropped out of the human race (and the human genome). This
doesn't mean that our behavior is just determined by our genes, but it
does imply that healthy babies are generally well-equipped to encourage
good mothering, and that this can normally be natural and satisfying, if
the mother's health and her environmental conditions are supportive.
A note on maladjustment. The downside of this is that humans,
like all living things, have been selected for healthy survival within a
certain range of environmental conditions. If the environment changes in
any way beyond what an organism can adapt to, then a mismatch
results. The organism becomes stressed, or maladjusted or unhealthy. If
the mismatch is too great in areas of biological importance then the
organism can become extinct. Humans vary in their resilience, but this
process accounts for many physical, emotional and psychological
disorders. Parenting can be adversely affected by the same process,
contributing to much "maladjustment" in children and young
people. For babies, the outcome depends on how much the environmental
changes cut across the basic biological maternal-infant mechanisms.
Five P's for balance in life as a parent. Raising children today
involves both mother and father in balancing five roles: partner,
playmate, parent, protector, and provider – five P's. The pressure
today is all on providing, because in materialist societies this is the
one from which others make the most profit. This imbalance puts the
other roles under strain.
Two conflicting drives
In its essentials, parenting may be seen as helping your infant and
young child to manage two basic drives which are often in conflict as
the infant develops. These drives are there because they have been
selected by your pedigree as valuable for success in human survival.
They are the drive for self-preservation and the social drive for
acceptance and love - or at least approval and cooperation - from the
people in the environment. Reproductive drives come later!
First, the drive for self-preservation. This lasts throughout
life. For a baby and very young child it means powerful urges saying:
"my needs must come first". This is not naughtiness in an
infant - it's a survival imperative. A baby's wants are much the same
as its needs.
For about the first nine or ten months after birth, human babies may
be seen as being in a kind of "exterior gestation", as if they
are continuing their gestation outside their mothers' bodies,
like kangaroos and other marsupials. But as there is no pouch, they need
holding in their mothers' arms; and it has been called the
"in-arms" stage of human development. This happens because
their enlarging brains require them to be born at an early stage when
other primates, such as chimpanzees, continue to mature safely inside
the womb. As the human birth canal could not deliver a bigger brain
without other design problems, Nature settled on the best compromise. So
babies are very vulnerable, and depend on someone else to tend every
need and discomfort.
Built-in rewards. To encourage mothers to provide the tender
loving care they need, and reward them when they do, babies signal their
needs and feelings from the time they are born. A mother's feelings and
intuitions are Nature's guide to help her understand her baby's needs
and respond appropriately. If the "nursing couple" have this
responsive, playful love relationship, babies and young children can, in
return, give great joy and pleasure.
Nature's rewards can grow as the child grows. Attunement, developing
from birth, means detailed responsive communication, and a playful
"dance" which normally develops between a mother and her baby
as they fit in together. The first 9 to 12 months involve providing for
basic needs through breastfeeding, holding, cuddling, carrying, and
talking, playing and tuning-in responsively to the baby's signals and
feelings. These interactions make important contributions to babies'
rapid brain growth and overall healthy development.
How the mother and father respond to the baby affects how an infant
"rewards" his or her parents, now and as their relationships
develop in the future. These interactions, and sleeping close to each
other at night, strengthen bonding and attachment and help the infant to
feel really loved, building the foundations of later love relationships.
So preparation for marriage begins at birth. Separations of an infant
from mother at an early age for long enough to seriously distress the
infant may set in train powerful feelings, as it threatens the basic
survival attachment and can lead to emotional disturbance (see
Second, the drive for social acceptance and approval. Often in
conflict with the self-centered "me-first" drives is the fact
that human infants are innately social creatures. Since they have needs
that they cannot meet, babies are dependent on the goodwill of their
mothers and other people. Development involves the gradual lesson:
"I can't get my needs met without the acceptance, cooperation
and love of my mother, my family and other people. Therefore I must
behave in ways that people who are important to me will accept".
This is a slow lesson, developing with maturation. There can be many
stumbles – as with learning to walk. It cannot be rushed without
disrupting the built-in potentials for it to blossom. Consider the
wisdom of the father who rejected suggestions that he should smack his
child for misbehavior on a social visit, by saying: "Look, she's a
two-year-old! If you can't behave like a two-year-old when you're two -
when can you?" Childhood is not just a means of getting adults,
but an integral period of life, which is of value in its own right.
There's no need to rush it!
Emotional needs. Some emotional needs of children may be
summarized under five A's: affection, acceptance, attachment,
appreciation and approval. From the time speech develops, I like to add
a sixth - the child's need sometimes for an apology. This can help to
restore a relationship when you have made a mistake. Remember - a child
needs not only to be loved, but also to feel loved.
Essential parenting tasks and roles. It follows that the
essential parenting roles are:
- Create a safe, caring and healthy environment, having some
contact with nature, and free from emotional or physical abuse, in
which the needs of mother and infant, as described above, can be met
and where both can comfortably flourish, as the child's maturation
occurs of its own accord. You don't have to make it happen.
This requirement includes attending to the chemical environment, both
externally - as in the air, home chemicals etc - and also the child's
internal environment in a healthy diet – avoiding, for example,
excess salt, sugar, refined carbohydrate, fat, and food additives.
- Help your child gradually balance his or her conflicting drives
- the self-centered survival drives and the drives for social
acceptance by the family and larger group. The essence of successful
"socialization" lies in developing the child's inborn
potentials for empathy and sensitivity to the needs and feelings of
others, so as to develop a willingness to be considerate of the needs
and feelings of others, through experiencing this within family love
If a child achieves just this, then the rest of
"socialization" can fall smoothly into place. Without it, any
imposed socialization may be brittle. This development is something that
parents and teachers can gradually guide - but there need be no more
hurry than is required for the present situation to be comfortable.
A child is not a little adult!
A further part of parenting
comes later. To live a satisfactory life as they grow up, children
need to be "civilized" in the sense of being civil, and
learning age-appropriate social customs and courtesies. These derive
from what is considerate of other people and make for social harmony.
They vary with cultures, but the basics are becoming
Today, being "civilized" needs to include awareness of, and
consideration for, the needs of our planet and its biosphere, for its
sustainable integrity and biodiversity. This may involve a whole new
layer of sacrificing selfish demands, for the sake of the needs of our
"mother earth", and also her other creatures for whom this
planet was home before we arrived. This is the sine qua non for
our own survival (Latin: without which - nothing).
The essential role and privilege
of parents is to ensure that you survive happily and more or less
satisfied, while gently supporting, loving and guiding the child in
learning to balance these conflicting aspects of human life. Emotional
maturity eventually requires this balance.
- Survive happily yourselves.
Mothering and fathering an infant and child is a unique creative
opportunity, but this doesn't mean that you have to sacrifice yourself
or give way to your children every time. It's a matter of balance,
judgement, fairness and experience. As they become able to understand
speech and talk, children gradually become more resilient as they grow
older. There is every reason why you should make your own needs known to
your children from the time they are old enough to restrain themselves
and want to be helpful - because they love you.
The fruits of good mothering and early nurture are among the greatest
blessings a person can have in life. In offering these to their infants,
mothers and fathers are setting patterns of relationships which can be
creative, mutually rewarding and last for the rest of their lives.