“Marxists base all their efforts on the assumption that there is no such thing as human nature, in the sense of innate dispositions, and that man is shaped by his social environment alone. Now there is no doubt that the social environment shapes man to a significant extent – it is in man’s malleability that our hope lies – but innate dispositions are equally demonstrable. If only these can be taken into consideration then society might be spared a number of fruitless experiments.”
A colleague of Nobel prize winner Konrad Lorenz, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, one of the things he concerned himself with was refuting the “blank slate” theory. He also addressed the issue of human aggression and mankind’s frequent desire to transcend the limitations of their own humanity in order to reduce its influence on society. That desire has resulted in both many astounding achievements and some unfortunate consequences. Instinctive parenting, he argued, is a combination of nature and nurture. His insistence that we are indeed a part of the animal kingdom is evident in the title of his highly regarded yet relatively unknown book, Human Ethology.
Breastfeeding is one of the best examples of how nature is designed to elicit nurture. Through the body’s milk production, a win-win situation is created in that nursing relieves the pressure of overfull breasts while simultaneously relieving the pain of the baby’s empty stomach. Much of what is referred to as instinctive parenting is rooted in human physiology, so it’s appropriate that a baby searching for a nipple is referred to as “rooting”.
However, while instinctive parenting behaviors may be hard-wired, they are also dependent upon stimuli from the environment, such as the sound of a hungry baby’s cry, to be triggered. Modern mothers were discouraged from breastfeeding, and given the impression bottle feeding represented the next stage in human evolution in which they would no longer be controlled by biology. However, this view has too often resulted in parents being controlled not by nature, but by corporations selling manufactured baby formula instead.
Animal behaviors that are referred to as “instinctual” are not just the result of innate genetic programming, but are in fact a combination of physical imperatives combined with complex interactions with the environment. Among those interactions are observations of the parenting behavior of other animals within a species. Contrary to popular belief, animal mothers that do not have the opportunity to observe parenting behavior often have difficulty carrying out their maternal duties. Despite the powerful imperative of instinct, the same is true for humans.
Unfortunately, many social constructs, such as the division of labor and the nuclear family, reduce opportunities for active observation and physical emulation of parenting skills. This reduces the number of environmental stimuli that trigger instinctual parenting responses. Compared to “primitive” pre-industrial societies, today’s parents experience a much higher degree of social isolation.
The importance of physical hands-on experience is has been demonstrated through numerous studies. One long-term study based on John Bowlby’s attachment theories demonstrated that babies receiving physical contact with their parents within the first hour after birth displayed long-lasting positive effects. Hospitals have since made changes that recognize the results of these findings, such as postponing routine tests and treatments until after the parents and child have had some bonding time.
Baby talk is another example of instinctual parenting. Babies are able to distinguish high-pitched sounds more easily. Consequently, without any conscious reasoning, both mothers and fathers naturally speak to babies in a higher octave than their normal conversational voices. The shift in tone also helps the baby identify when they are hearing sounds meant specifically for them, which gives them a pleasurable sense of being included. In the 1930’s and 40’s baby talk was discouraged on the theory that it impeded children’s language learning ability. In fact, even innate language-learning ability is dependent on environmental stimuli, which includes emotional bonding that results in a desire to communicate more intimately. That’s one reason that even adults who are dating indulge in baby-talk.
Other environmental stimuli that trigger instinctive parenting responses are smiling, crying, and touching. Parents worldwide experience the same joyful bonding response to the first time their baby grasps their finger with its tiny ones. Pheromones also play a role in stimulating social responses. Largely due to overcrowding in cities as well as corporate advertising, it has become common to mask our natural odors with manufactured products. The sweet-smelling scent of her baby is one of the environmental triggers for releasing a mother’s breast milk.
Oxytocin and prolactin, both found in high concentrations in new mothers, have been shown to trigger instinctive parenting behaviors. These powerful hormones have a calming effect, which prepares the mother for lactation, breastfeeding and cuddling with her baby. Negative environmental stimuli that causes emotional disturbance can disrupt the production of these hormones. This could be one reason why children of mothers living in poverty exhibit more behaviors indicative of attachment disorders.
Instinctive parenting may be considered “primitive” but what is referred to as instinctive parenting needs to be very closely tied to the early hours, days and weeks of a newborn with the adult or parent.