In Favor of Sheltering

The standard American parenting advice is directed toward one specific end: get your kids as independent as possible, as fast as possible. Let them cry it out, schedule their feedings, put them in preschool as soon as possible. Once in school, the rush begins to inundate them with as much “knowledge” as we possibly can, with emphasis put on making good grades and conforming to a specific mode of “acceptable behaviour”. The question which begs to be asked is whether all of this is actually creating the desired end result: healthy, happy, competent adults who can interact with society in a useful (or at least, not harmful) way?

We all live in society, of course, and interact with the products of this system on a regular basis. Most of us, in fact, are products of it ourselves. We should be able to answer this question from our subjective experience, but as we have allowed ourselves to become a culture reliant on “official results”, let us take a moment and examine what the statistics say about how our society is shaping up.

Approximately 14.8 million adults in America suffer from Major Depressive Disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Over a million preschoolers are clinically depressed, with the rate of increase in depression among children at 23%. Bear in mind that we are only talking about “clinical depression”, here, not the the kind that most of us have come to consider “normal” depression.

The FBI estimates that 14,094,186 arrests occurred in the United States in 2005 (not including traffic offenses), of which 603,503 were for violent crimes, and 1,609,327 for property crimes. 13.1% of the total arrests were for drugs, the highest percentage for any category of crimes. In 2005, 2,193,798 prisoners were held in prisons of one sort or another, giving us the highest incarceration rate in the entire world.

It certainly looks like something isn’t working.

It would be simple-minded to assume that all issues in our society stem from our parenting methods, and of course not all parents follow the standard advice. But, given the data in front of us, it certainly seems that perhaps we would benefit from reviewing some of our most fundamental assumptions, and considering whether they are attaining the desired results.

Is there a better model?

Humans are social animals, and as such their development relies heavily on the social interactions they experience as children. Allow me to do the unthinkable, here, and compare us to another animal species which shares many of our characteristics, the chimpanzee. While we like to think of ourselves as terribly superior and different, some studies seem to indicate that we are not so deeply different as we like to believe. They use tools, mate year-round, and are social animals, living in groups much as we do. The young, in a chimpanzee society, are cared for (or at least tolerated) by the entire group. They are played with, groomed, and comforted, much as we do with our own infants. Some differences become apparent, however, as we look deeper into the day to day life of a chimpanzee infant. A baby chimp is in nearly constant contact with its mother, and those less that five months of age are typically sheltered from all contact with other chimps, with the exception of their mother and siblings. For the first six to ten months, a baby chimp is transported by clinging to his mother’s belly. By the time he is two, he mainly gets around by clinging to her back. By three, he is finally loco-motoring on his own. Think about that: three years of constant, reassuring contact.

Compare this with the standard American method of child rearing. Most babies are born in the hospital, where they are provided a plastic bin for sleeping (we have, at least, progressed so far as to allow the infants to occupy the same room as the mother in most cases). After coming home, they are provided a cage (crib) to contain them for their resting periods, strollers for movement, and bottles for feeding. We, effectively, try to enforce Independence on them from their first days in our world. Many children are put into daycare from the age of ten weeks old, and most enter preschool by the age of four. Consider that chimpanzees, for all their many similarities to man, do differ in that they mature much faster. Therefore, a chimp striking out to move about on his own at three would seem to indicate that the natural age for a human infant to take such a leap would be…about five years old.

Why do we raise our children in this manner? We like to think that we do these things for the development of the child. To cry it out in the crib at night is good for them, it teaches them they must be independent, must learn to adapt. This is not a necessary situation, however, it is a false emergency scenario we have created in order to teach them the ways of the world. And, ultimately, we create it for our own convenience. We, the adults, want a good night’s sleep, to be able to feed them when it is convenient to us, and to be able to drop them off somewhere when we need a break. We have been told this is acceptable so many times, that we even mostly believe it. Ask any mother, however, on her first evening of letting the baby “cry it out” what her gut instinct tells her to do…and she will tell you she wants to run in and pick up the baby and comfort it. In spite of all our “civilizing” influences, at heart we are still animals who know what we need to do.

As our children grow older and enter school, we find ourselves faced with a new (and yet familiar) series of problems. Our child hates her teacher, hates the schoolwork, gets taunted by the other kids. The solution, of course, is more of what we have been taught. Toughen up, stick it out, they must learn to deal with these unpleasantries some day. We convince ourselves that if we let them change teachers, or place them in a different school, they will feel they can have their way over every minor detail of their lives and will become “spoiled”. We say to ourselves that they must do the work whether they like it or not, because they “have to learn”, on the hidden assumption that if they don’t learn it now, they never will. We tell them to go in and ignore/face/attack those kids, because people are like that, and our children had better learn now how to cope. What we are actually doing is perpetuating the society that has driven so many of us to antidepressants and illegal drug use.

Perhaps we should rethink our ideas about childrearing from its most basic level. Consider what we are trying to create, and what our needs as animals are. Stop listening to “experts” who want to distance us from our most fundamental needs and instincts, and start paying a little more attention to what our actual needs and instincts are.

What does all this have to do with sheltering?

When we begin to question the accepted constructs for rearing children, we are hit by the final hurdle:

Well, you can’t shelter them from the world forever.

The implication here is two-fold. First, that in sheltering them now from “the way life works”, you intend to always shelter them. Secondly, that in sheltering them from the “real world” you are leaving them naked and unprepared for that inevitable day when they must venture out into it.

Sheltering is necessary for our children, just as it is for baby chimpanzees. They do not come out of the womb prepared for all the travails of the world we have created. They need to be introduced slowly, so that they are given the time to establish their own resources before they are thrust into situations which test them. Just like learning to walk, it must come in stages. If children walk without first learning to crawl, there can be developmental consequences. If we thrust them, unprepared, into situations of emotional import, we can expect them to have some developmental consequences on an emotional level.

Sheltering is not a bad thing, inherently. Sheltering is a natural part of child development, and an instinct most mothers have. It can, of course, be taken too far, to the point that it is more for the sake of placating the mother’s fears than it is for the sake of gradually introducing the child to the world in which he must come to live. But when done with respect for the child, in a gradually decreasing manner, it allows children to come to terms with the world as they experience it, which in turn allows them the capacity for choosing how they will interact with it and what their role in it will be.

Humans have been raising children for as long as we have existed, and only in the relatively recent past have we become dependant on outside “expert advice” to tell us how to do it. Given the space and encouragement to do so, each woman has within herself the knowledge to raise her child in the way which will benefit the child the most. Perhaps, if we want this society to become healthier, we need to give them the space to do just that.