maternal genes

Nature and Nurture: A Complex and Delicate Dance

The Role of Maternal Genes in Embryonic Development

The link between genes and human behavior has been a subject of scientific research since before the discovery of DNA in 1953. There is still much that is unknown about how human genes interact with biological and chemical processes and the extent to which those processes are affected by the environment. Epigenetics is the study of how the expression of genes is modified by factors such as social experiences, diet and nutrition and exposure to toxins. Behavioral epigenetics examines the role of epigenetics in shaping behavior.

Children share half of their alleles with each parent. The maternal genes contribute the maternal gamete which develops as an egg that becomes an embryo when fertilized. Maternal genes containing RNA and protein are present before the development of zygotic genes that takes place after fertilization. The development of the embryo relies exclusively on maternal genes for its early development processes until the embryonic genome is activated. In humans, the embryonic genome is activated within 4 cleavage cycles.

How Maternal and Paternal Genes Affect Parenting Style

Parenting styles can be affected by both maternal and paternal genes in combination with the environment. Michael Meaney provided the first documented example of epigenetics affecting behavior in 2004, when his research team found that how a rat responds to stress later in life is affected by the amount of nurturing a mother rat provides during infancy. Nurturing behaviors stimulate activation of pathways that remove methyl groups from DNA, allowing the glucocorticoid gene, which lowers stress response, to be activated.

Epigenetics provides evidence that the nature versus nurture controversy has been resolved and that each is shaped by the other through a series of complex chemical, biological and environmental interactions. One article about how parenting styles are affected by behavioral epigenetics points out that environmental stress can cause methyl groups to become attached to genes. This causes epigenetic changes that can be passed down from generation to generation through affected maternal genes.

How Environment Can Affect Paternal and Maternal Genes

One study compared brain samples of 36 victims of suicide. The one third of those who were known to have suffered childhood abuse showed distinct epigenetic methylation marks or characteristics in their DNA that were not present in the control group or the group with no known childhood abuse. Those marks specifically influenced the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function of the brain. Another study revealed that poverty can also change the way in which DNA is expressed. Blood samples of 40 men all born in 1958 from differing economic backgrounds revealed genetic changes based on family income during childhood.
However, not only economic poverty, but a poverty of physical affection can also affect gene expression. Researchers compared blood samples of 14 children being raised in Russian orphanages with blood samples of 14 children being raised by their biological parents. The children in the orphanage were found to have a greater degree of methylation in the genes affecting neural communication and brain development than the children receiving more individual attention from parents.

These discoveries about how maternal and paternal genes are affected by environmental factors have raised the question of whether some mothers parenting skills may be adversely affected by their DNA. According to a recent paper, RS3, an allele of one of the potential maternal genes, the AVPR1A gene, was linked in a study to lower levels of maternal behavior in women and in more aggressive behaviors in children. Not everyone carries this allele, but it is fairly common in humans and has also been associated with some forms of autism.

The most exciting aspect of these scientific discoveries about the interaction genes with the environment is that one day all prospective parents will have the necessary information to help them make healthy parenting choices. They provide scientific evidence of what most parents already knew—that parenting choices have the power to affect generations to come. Hopefully, this knowledge will be used to create social programs that will educate parents and provide whatever degree of assistance necessary to enable them to use that power wisely.

maternal genes
Maternal Affection Edward Hodges Baily (1788-1861) Signed and dated 1837

May 18,2016  |

maternal societies

Where Women Rule: Fact or Fiction?

“I do think that women could make politics irrelevant; by a kind of spontaneous cooperative action the like of which we have never seen; which is so far from people’s ideas of state structure or viable social structure that it seems to them like total anarchy — when what it really is, is very subtle forms of interrelation that do not follow some heirarchal pattern which is fundamentally patriarchal. The opposite to patriarchy is not matriarchy, but fraternity, yet I think it’s women who are going to have to break this spiral of power and find the trick of cooperation.”

Germaine Greer

For many years, scientists hypothesized that matriarchal, or maternal, societies in which women rather than men enjoyed greater political power existed before the current patriarchal structure of most modern societies. Since history is written by the winners, evidence of such societies was not easy to find. Although many second wave feminists believed it to be true, the hypotheses was criticized by others including Camille Paglia and Cynthia Eller. The question of how many maternal societies have existed throughout history remains unanswered.

Types of Maternal Societies

Scientists and academics make a distinction between matrilineal societies, matrifocal societies, and matriarchal, or maternal, societies.

  • In a matrilineal society, property and the family name are passed down through the mother’s family. In Spain and many other Hispanic countries, when a woman marries, it is common for her to have two surnames, the first her father’s, or “family” name, and the second, her mother’s.
  • “Matrifocal” is not used to describe a society, but rather, is used to describe a single family structure or the structure of a group of families within a larger society. While that group may be large, such as the current number of single mothers within many societies, mothers belonging to these matrilocal groups may or may not enjoy any greater political power within the society as a result of membership.
  • “Matrilocal” is used to describe new families being established near the bride’s family or origin, rather than the groom’s.

Political Power in Maternal Societies

Political power is one of the elements that differentiates matriarchal societies from other types of maternal societies. In a matriarchal society women are the primary decision-makers and make political policy. Great Britain, despite being a monarchy in which women have held considerable political power, is not considered a matriarchal society. Women have only ascended the throne in the absence of a male royal heir.

Some modern examples of matriarchal or maternal societies include the 40,000 member Mosuo society in Southwest China. Their language doesn’t even contain a word for “husband” or “father” because the women never marry. In addition to women controlling the finances, property is passed down through maternal lineage.

Some anthropologists have argued for the redefinition of matriarchal or maternal societies to include those that contain a mixture of matriarchal and matrilineal characteristics. One example of this is the Minangkabau society in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Their matrilineal society is based on maternal clans. While the religion is Islam and men govern political affairs, they do so according to the rules of “adat”, a local system of cultural traditions that had been in place for generations before the arrival of the Islamic religion.

As the world’s largest matrilineal society with over four million members living in West Sumatra as well as three million more, they continue to be influential in the region. One reason for their influence is a traditional custom in which boys, beginning as young as seven years of age, leave their homes to be culturally educated at a community center. As teens, they travel to other regions to continue their educations and gain life experience before returning to become members of a council of “uncles” which helps administer community resources.

Another example of a surviving matrilineal society in which women share religious and political power is that of the Bribri, an indigenous people of Costa Rica. In their society, only women are permitted to inherit land. Additionally, men are also not permitted to prepare the sacred cacao drink that is used in their religious rituals. However, power is shared, in that only men are permitted to perform certain rituals as well, such as that preparing the bodies of the dead for burial. Another example of power sharing is that only men from certain clans, which are matrilineal, can become shamans. Additionally, male shamans, who receive training in herbal medicine and healing for ten years, are not permitted to teach their own sons, but only the sons of their female relatives.

There have been maternal societies of some type on nearly every continent in the world at some time throughout history. Perhaps one day men and women will learn to share power to the extent that historians of the future will have as much difficulty locating evidence of patriarchal societies of the past as current historians have locating evidence of matriarchal ones.

maternal societies
Bribri girl holding a sugared cacao fruit

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baboon animal mother

Matrilineal Baboons: Maternal Lessons from Distant Cousins

“He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”

—Charles Darwin, 1838

Scientists have long recognized the value of studying some our closest genetic cousins, the baboon animal mother, in gaining information to better understand human behavior. However, few have valued it highly enough to live among them, as scientist and author Robert Sapolsky did every summer for twenty years from the 1970s through the 1990s. The resulting book, A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons contains as much about human behavior in the wild as it does of the behavior of baboons.

According to a review in the New York Times, his observations led him to challenge the view that social dominance was achieved through a combination of high testosterone levels and aggressive behavior. Instead, he discovered that the lowest ranking males were those with the highest levels of testosterone as well as stress. Just as in humans, stress results in a higher likelihood of disease. The males with the lowest stress hormone levels, including the most dominant ones, rather than engaging in frequent aggression, instead engaged more often in cooperative social behaviors such as grooming and other positive interactions.

The Role of the Baboon Animal Mother in Social Hierarchy

The baboon animal mother plays an important role in the social structure of baboon troops, which usually consist of up to 150 members. Baboon families are matrilineal, most troops having approximately nine families. It is the females who create a stable linear hierarchy that can remain in place for generations, while the dominance hierarchy of the males changes frequently. The changes in male hierarchy depend on a large degree to alliances and bonds formed with females.

Matrilineal families within a troop can become competitive, and both short-term and long-term male-female friendships between members of separate families helps reduce conflict. Such long-term friendships also often result in cooperative child rearing practices.

A review of the book points out that the author persevered with his long-term project despite a violent coup attempt in Kenya in 1982, a human attempt at changing the dominance structure of their own society. Sadly, most of the baboons in the troop in which he had come to be accepted as a low-ranking male died from an epidemic of bovine tuberculosis. His important field work and subsequent books about the effects of stress earned many awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship genius grant, the Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and the Klingenstein Fellowship in Neuroscience.

A Female Perspective on the Social Role of the Baboon Animal Mother

Biology professor Dorothy Cheney‘s book, Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of the Social Mind, contains a vast storehouse of information about baboon animal mother behaviors and perhaps the origins of those of human mothers. One of the most relevant areas of her research is that of competition versus cooperation. Her research revealed that natural selection favored those that were most capable of making decisions regarding when and with whom to compete and when to cooperate.

In an excerpt of the book, readers learn that baboons belong to the genus Papio, and that they are less closely related to humans than other primates, such as chimpanzees. However, the author believes that there are a number of reasons that studying their behavior is relevant to better understanding human behavior. One reason is that their social structures are much larger than those of chimpanzees. Individual baboons belonging to a troop of 100 or more members must learn to create and negotiate a relatively complex social network, much like humans. This requires them to develop a sophisticated set of social skills that includes non-relatives as well as relatives.

Like human society, many of their relationships are simultaneously competitive and cooperative. Cooperative efforts are required to evade predators and defend group resources. Competitive efforts are required to ensure that each group of allies receives an adequate share of group resources. Those resources are dependent upon knowledge of the ecological environment. Studying baboons in the wild, as opposed to those in captivity, provides the opportunity to observe learned behaviors in their natural evolutionary context, and how those behaviors affect reproductive opportunities and ultimately, survival.

One of the reasons that the role of the baboon animal mother is so important is that troops contain more females than males. This disparity in numbers also encourages baboons to form mating bonds and friendships based not just on individual need, but the needs of the group as a whole. Cheney’s research methods and experiments have been lauded as innovative. For example, her research revealed four distinct types of verbal communication or “barks” in response to various environmental stimuli.

While scientific research methods can seem clinically methodical, in the case of baboons, they revealed many very human similarities between the baboon animal mother and the human mother. Creating and maintaining meaningful social connections is vitally important for survival, dealing with the stresses and difficulties of everyday life, and making it enjoyable.

baboon animal mother
Female Monkey Holding Its Baby, Middle Kingdom, ca. 1981–1802bc, Egypt, Amethyst

May 16,2016  |

How Generosity Creates Life and Makes Life Worth Living

“If we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we fear guilt or retribution.”

J.M. Coetzee

A History of Generosity

Generosity is so important that it’s now considered a science, and maternal generosity is one of its most studied subjects. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame are working on several projects to learn more about generosity, perhaps the human trait most responsible for the continuation of our species.

In one article written for Mother’s Day, the author points out just how indebted we all are to maternal generosity by describing in detail the physical sacrifices mothers make for their children even before they are born. Attempting to answer the question of what makes humans generous, one author offers a number of possibilities.

The primordial origin of maternal generosity lies partly in the experience of caring for offspring. Neuroscience research conducted by Stephanie Brown and James Swain at Stony Brook University suggests that becoming a parent changes the way human brains are wired. These chemical and biological changes encourage parents to respond more generously to others’ needs. In the human evolution from hunter-gatherer societies in which danger and scarcity demanded sharing among family and tribal members, natural selection favored the characteristic of maternal generosity.

In the past, natural selection worked against those who were incapable of the potential self-sacrifice that was often necessary to guarantee collective survival. As modern technology continues to make the world ever smaller, humanity’s continued survival depends upon its ability to expand that generosity beyond family and tribe to include the entire family of man.

Generosity: Nature and Nurture

Scientific research has shown that much behavior is the result of a complex interaction between biology, chemistry, and environmental triggers. One example of a chemical and biological response to an environmental trigger is that of a mother’s breasts producing milk in response to the sound of the cry of her infant. Maternal generosity is a matter of both nature and nurture.

Some research with primates suggests that instances of sharing behavior between mothers is more frequent when androgen levels are higher. The vulnerability of new mothers and their infants also results in begging behaviors, a form of maternal generosity in times of need which serves as a societal trigger for sharing behaviors of the larger group. Human mothers and infants share that vulnerability, and the generosity of a society is often measured by the extent to which it shares its resources with its most vulnerable members. Children’s survival is largely dependent upon the level of generosity of the culture into which it is born.

The Role of Maternal Generosity in Society

The level of generosity can often be determined by observing social programs in place for women and children. According to one article, in the U.S., seven out of ten children of single mothers live in poverty, as compared to one out of ten in Finland. However, child poverty rates in the U.S., even among two parent families are higher than those of Nordic countries. In the U.K, it is estimated that approximately 25% of children live in poverty compared to approximately 17% in Australia. According to the Hunger Project, an estimated 805 million people in the world today live with chronic hunger.

In humans, the biological production of chemicals which encourage generous behavior has been shown to exist in both new mothers and fathers. Researchers theorize that cultivating generous behavior that resembles maternal generosity may require creating and activating other social triggers that act in much the same way as the cry of an infant. Developing societal triggers that promote generosity is contingent upon routinizing factors that promote and encourage generous behavior. Perhaps the single most important of these routinizing factors is that of parents modeling such behavior.

In the world of research, individual families are viewed as macro cultures which have the power to produce young people who are more generous than other macro cultures. Research regarding the details of what parenting behaviors contribute most to encouraging generosity is difficult because many complex psychological and social mechanisms at work in the parent/child relationship are not empirically observable. In short, observing psychologists are not able to understand or interpret the full psychological effect and significance that something as seemingly trivial as a raised parental eyebrow may have upon a particular child.

Sharing behaviors, however, are entirely observable in individual people as well as governments. Children who observe their parents sharing their resources with the wider community are more likely to adopt that behavior themselves. Despite our continued evolution, our survival as a species is still dependent upon our ability to share resources. Generosity is a one of the traits that most defines us as human. It also serves to help make our lives worth living and affords us all the opportunity to flourish rather than merely survive.

maternal generosity

May 11,2016  |

day of mother and child

On How the Carnation Does not Drop its Petals

The Origins of Mother’s Day

In the U.S., Mother’s Day, is celebrated on the second Sunday in May. According to an article about the origins of Mother’s Day in the U.S., Julia Ward Howe, an anti-war activist most well- known for writing the song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” first suggested a Mother’s Peace Day in 1872. However, it is Anna Jarvais who is credited for organizing the first Mother’s Day celebration in Grafton, West Virginia in 1908.

Largely due to her efforts, President Woodrow Wilson declared a national day of mother and child, or Mother’s Day, in 1914. In a book about her, Anna Jarvais is also credited for fighting to keep Mother’s Day from being either commercialized or politicized. That fight entailed using most of her own financial resources to file lawsuits against those she considered to be using the holiday for political purposes or economic gain, which ultimately resulted in her dying penniless.

Despite her best efforts to keep Mother’s Day, meant to be a sacred day of mother and child, from being commercialized, Americans spent an estimated collective $21 billion dollars to on Mother’s Day in 2015. Equally ironic, Anna Jarvais herself had no children of her own. The majority of those $21 billion dollars were spent on cards, flowers, and jewelry with which people expressed their appreciation for the many sacrifices their mothers have made on their behalf. Anna Jarvais’s own mother’s favorite flower, the white carnation, was originally the official flower of Mother’s Day. About the flower, Anna Jervais was quoted in a 1927 interview as saying

“The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying,”

Day of Mother and Child Celebrations Around the World

A special day of mother and child is celebrated in many countries. Australians celebrate Mother’s Day on the same day as the U.S. There is also the similarity of the symbolism of the carnation. As in the U.S., Australia utilizes the carnation as part of the observance of Mother’s Day. According to their tradition, carrying a colored carnation signifies that one’s mother is still living, while a white carnation honors a mother who is deceased.

Grandmothers and other women who provide nurturing for children are honored as well as mothers.

Another tradition is for children to serve their mothers breakfast in bed as a way of expressing gratitude for all their mothers do for them throughout the year. In France for example, the day of mother and child is celebrated on the last Sunday in May with a family dinner ending with a cake in the shape of a bouquet of flowers to honor the mother of the family. In India, the focus is on to take time to think about all the pains their mother took while they were sick, the hardships she went through in bringing them up and all the sacrifices she made so that they lead a better life.

Ireland has celebrated a day of mother and child, based partially in the Catholic religion, since medieval times. During a time in which poor children were often sent to work as domestic servants in the homes of the wealthy, children were given one day off a year to worship the Virgin Mary and visit their own mothers. On that day, the fourth Sunday of Lent, the children would often pick wildflowers on their way home which they gave to their mothers, which began the modern tradition of giving flowers for Mother’s Day.

In Mexico the day of mother and child has been celebrated on May 10th since 1922, the holiday being credited to journalist Rafael Alducín, who wrote an article advocating a national celebration of mothers.

In Spain, Mother’s Day is celebrated on December 8th, and honors the Virgin Mary in addition to earthly mothers.

In Russia, before 1998, the day of mother and child was always celebrated on March 8th, which is International Women’s Day, partly in remembrance of the goal of global gender equality. Since 1998, Mother’s Day has been celebrated with light blue forget-me-nots on the last Sunday of November.

In Japan, the day of mother and child, called haha-no-hi, began to be celebrated on March 6th, to coincide with the birthday of Empress Kojun. The holiday was established by the Imperial Women’s Union in 1931. The celebration includes giving flowers, primarily carnations, as well as gifts and serving a special meal.

Mothers, and all they do to ensure the safety and happiness of not just their own children, but ultimately, their communities and the wider world, are well worth celebrating.

day of mother and child
Carnations. Dianthus caryophyllus. Coloured aquatint, c1839 CC4.0

May 9,2016  |

maternal kit

Maternal Kit: The Continuing Gift of Life

According to data gathered by the World Health Organization, approximately 830 women die each and every day due to completely preventable causes surrounding pregnancy and childbirth. Those days add up to over 300,000 women’s lives lost in a single year. 99% of those women live in developing countries. Political division and war are causing that number to skyrocket, and with so many refugees worldwide, accurate statistics that reflect just how great an increase are often impossible to obtain.

Doctors With out Borders is one organization that attempts to provide crucial medical services to refugee populations. Marjie Middleton, a midwife working with the organization on a reproductive health project for Syrian refugees, says that in addition to other factors such as inadequate nutrition and lack of access to health care

“…the combination of psychological and physical stress is very dangerous for their pregnancy.”

The psychological stress experienced by these women, many of whose husbands and other family members have been killed in war, is extreme. High blood pressure during pregnancy is among the most common reasons that women die in childbirth. Severe bleeding with no access to medical care is another.

Another danger to pregnant refugee women is the necessity of giving birth in unsterile conditions, which often results in deadly infections. This danger extends to their newborn infants as well. The World Health Organization reports that 4.5 million innocent children under the age of one year died in 2015 alone.

The Maternal Kit

Most mothers in developed countries prepare for the delivery of their children by creating a maternal kit. A maternal kit contains all the items expectant mothers will need to care for herself and her infant during the first days of life.

Many times, these items are received as gifts from family members and friends, and include such essentials as diapers and blankets. In countries in which hospital births are the norm, some of these items are also provided by the hospital. Hospitals also provide other things equally important for any maternal kit like sanitary conditions and medical assistance during delivery.

Many women in developing countries do not have access to regular prenatal care or the benefit of medical assistance during delivery for economic reasons. Those fleeing political oppression and war often lack a sanitary environment in which to give birth as well as even the most basic items necessary to care for her newborn infant after the delivery.

One charitable organization is dedicated to reducing the number of preventable deaths of mothers and their children caused by the lack of these basic necessities. To reduce the possibility of infection and severe bleeding during delivery, their maternal kit includes a plastic undersheet and an absorbent underpad, sterile gloves and a scalpel. For after the delivery, the maternal kit includes soap and a washcloth to clean the newborn infant, and a tunic, hat, and blanket for warmth. Each donation of $25 dollars can provide a maternal kit for an expectant mother in dire circumstances.

Many charitable organizations have come under fire in recent years due to allegations of corruption. Unfortunately, this has resulted in many people being reluctant to donate, suspecting that their money may be used to cover bureaucratic administrative expenses or fund lavish fundraising parties. Scandals such as the $500 million in missing donations to the Red Cross after the earthquake in Haiti have resulted in watchdog organizations that monitor charities. For example, the Charity Navigator is an organization dedicated to increasing the financial transparency of charitable organizations. To help people donate wisely, they make public the financial details of charitable organizations, including information regarding how much is spent on administrative salaries.

According to their data, IMA World Health, spends 95.7% of donations on programs such as the one that creates and distributes the potentially life-saving maternal kit for expectant mothers. CARE is another organization devoted to reproductive health and decreasing maternal and infant mortality around the world. What greater gift is there than to bring to an expectant mother than the gift of life itself?

maternal kit

May 4,2016  |

parental situation

Keys to Parental Gatekeeping: Why The Motive Matters Most

The Potential Positive Power of Gatekeeping in Parenting

Gatekeeping can be defined as a power dynamic in which a parent assumes and exercises the power to decide how much and what type of contact they will permit the other parent to have with a child. Child custody cases are often called “gatekeeping disputes”. Parents engage in gatekeeping behavior for a number of reasons, some of which are positive, and others which can be destructive.

According to an article written by a psychologist who specializes in providing psychological assessments for child custody cases, there are three kinds of gatekeeping. Gatekeeping can be positive or negative, depending upon the parental situation surrounding the gatekeeping behavior.

One example of positive gatekeeping occurs in a parental situation in which a primary reason for a separation or divorce is abusive behavior towards the child by a parent. In such cases, a parent participates in restrictive gatekeeping behavior with the primary purpose of protecting the child from abuse. This type of gatekeeping may entail demanding supervised visitation. Gatekeeping can also extend to other family members, such as grandparents, and friends.

Another parental situation in which gatekeeping can be positive is one in which a parent displays behaviors that demonstrate negative role modeling. For example, if a parent has substance abuse issues that cause impaired judgement and lessen impulse control, the other parent may choose to limit the amount of time the child spends with that parent in an attempt to lessen their potential negative influence on the child.

Gatekeeping can also be a useful tool in facilitating the development of a positive relationship with a parent who has been absent from the child’s life for a period of time. Brief supervised visits on a consistent basis over time can help the child feel secure while developing trust.

In a parental situation in which one parent has very little parenting knowledge or experience, gatekeeping can also be a valuable tool in helping that parent acquire parenting skills and confidence in their new parental role. Based on the parent’s behavior and the child’s reaction, the visits can then become longer until gatekeeping is no longer necessary.

The Potential Destructive Power of Gatekeeping in Parenting

Unfortunately, gatekeeping behaviors can also be punitive in nature when employed with a negative motive, which usually produces negative results for everyone involved, especially the child. In a parental situation in which there has been an emotional betrayal of some kind, parenting decisions can be affected by personal anger or resentment. If this kind of negative gatekeeping behavior occurs for a prolonged period of time, children can become emotional pawns in an adult game of emotional retribution.

Despite the importance of the continued presence of both parents in the life of the child after a divorce, many divorcing parents have difficulty controlling their negative feelings towards one another in the best interests of the child. Research shows that continued involvement by both parents results in children being able to adjust to the changes that accompany divorce more successfully. One study of divorced parents and their children concluded that children having a say in custody arrangements was an important factor in whether they viewed joint custody as a positive or negative experience.

Negative gatekeeping is not limited to restricting physical visitation, but can include anything that actively hinders the other parent’s active participation in the child’s life. A parental situation in which telephone contact is limited or information regarding important events or activities in the child’s life are withheld would also would be considered negative gatekeeping. Other examples might include deliberately scheduling other activities for the child during the parent’s regular visitation times or even speaking negatively about the parent in the child’s presence.

The Value of Effective Co-Parenting

The benefits to children of effective co-parenting are almost too numerous to count. Increasing their sense of security and sense of self-worth are among the most important. However, parents too benefit by increasing their ability to communicate calmly and effectively. Clear communication results in fewer conflicts, which means less stress for both parents and children.
Research has provided ample evidence of true value and lasting importance of every caring adult that a child is fortunate enough to have in their lives. Child development experts believe it’s so important that there are even online classes designed to help parents struggling with the difficult process of learning to effectively co-parent after a difficult emotional adjustment. Other resources include personal parenting coaches, co-parenting communication guides, and support groups.

The best gatekeeping practices create a parental situation in which all family members feel valued and appreciated for their important and lasting contributions to one another.

parental situation

May 2,2016  |

alloparenting style

Alloparenting and How It Really Does Take a Village to Raise a Child

“Alloparental care and provisioning set the stage for children to grow up slowly and remain dependent on others for many years, paving the way for the evolution of anatomically modern people with even bigger brains”

–Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

There has been a great deal of research on the topic of alloparenting. An alloparent is defined as

“an individual other than the biological parent of an offspring that performs the functions of a parent”.

One study found that 88% of 63 species live in family groups that utilize alloparental care. According to one article, alloparenting evolves in a species whenever it benefits, when multiplied by genetic relatedness, outweigh the costs.

Benefits of an Alloparenting Style in the Animal World

Studies conducted with vervet monkeys, tamarins, and various species of rodents have concluded that there is a definite link between alloparenting experience and reproductive success. Researchers hypothesize that this success could be the result of several factors. One hypothesis posits that alloparenting decreases the workload of breeders, allowing them to produce another litter more quickly. Studies have also shown that the greater the number of helpers, the greater the likelihood of survival.

In the case of older siblings caring for younger ones, helpers increase their own fitness as eventual parents through practice, while simultaneously increasing the likelihood that the young will survive. In an experiment with oldfield mice, those that remained in the mother’s nest longer and helped care for younger siblings displayed better nest-building skills and had a greater number of surviving offspring than those without that previous experience.

Adult mammals without offspring of their own have often been observed seeking opportunities to groom and care for the young. This behavior is viewed as preparatory educational play and an alloparenting style. In addition to increasing the likelihood for survival of the group as a whole, alloparenting style behavior also creates advantageous social bonds between the members of the group. In the animal world, this is believed to have a genetic component, since siblings, cousins, and other closely related young share many of the same genes. In one experiment it was found that alloparenting behavior improved competitive ability in social interactions as well as spatial memory in negotiating a maze.

The Alloparenting Style in the Human World

Global statistics show in many countries in Asia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and South America, more than 40% of children lived in households with other adults in addition to their parents. In the U.S. and other developed nations, the number is much lower. According to U.S. government statistics, in 2014, 4% of children lived with neither parent, the majority of them living with grandparents. However, this statistic doesn’t takin into account the number of children who live with a grandparent in addition to one or both parents. According to the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau, 10% of all grandparents lived in the same household as at least one grandchild.

However, there has been an alarming increase in the number of single mothers in many parts of the world who do not receive parenting assistance from either extended family members or their children’s fathers. These women and children are often relegated to extreme poverty.

Erin Deihl, author of “Cross-Cultural Perspective on Adolescent Parenting: Efe and Korea” believes that an alloparenting style can result in reducing the rate of teenage pregnancy as well as contribute to making teenagers better parents later in life. On a physiological level, the possibility that, like in the animal world, alloparenting behavior alters levels of gonadotropin-releasing hormones, it may even contribute to teens choosing to delay having children. Providing maternal care has been shown to alter endocrine and brain functions of rodents, which is linked to a change in behavior.

Benefits of an Alloparenting Style in the Human World

Just as in the animal world, alloparents make it possible for human parents to travel further to earn a living, gather needed parenting supplies, and participate in beneficial social activities. It also provides children with more opportunities for crucial social education by exposing them to a greater number of people, all with different skills and talents. They also have the advantage of learning social norms from a variety of individual perspectives, thereby increasing their cultural sensitivity.

One researcher offers an alloparenting hypothesis that sexual fluidity in women may be an adaptation that historically, increased women’s ability to form pair bonds with female alloparents to help them raise their children without the assistance of a male partner. This theory suggests that like bonobos, which frequently engage in same-sex sexual behavior that results in more alloparent bonding, the same may be true for humans. In the ancestral human community, rape, abandonment, and higher male mortality often left women without male support for their offspring. This may account for the fact that 84% of 853 societies studied permitted some form of polygyny, within which the alloparenting style is a common practice.

While more research is needed to determine whether this theory is correct, the research that has been conducted demonstrates that both children and parents benefit from having a greater number of caregivers actively involved in a child’s life.

alloparenting style
The Hatch Family, Eastman Johnson, 1870–71, Credit Line Gift of Frederic H. Hatch, 1926

April 27,2016  |

first months of family life

Humanity’s Happy Scientists: On Independent thought and Counterfactual thinking of Babies

“Successful creative adults seem to combine the wide-ranging exploration and openness we see in children with the focus and discipline we see in adults.”

–Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik, is a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. As an international pioneer in the study of child development and learning, she was the first to posit the theory that children’s minds could teach adult minds a thing or two. Her “theory of mind” focuses on how children understand the minds of others and is based on the premise that children learn in much the same way as scientists do, through a process of active experimentation.

Her 1999 book , “The Scientist in the Crib” (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl) received rave reviews by several prestigious magazines, including the New Yorker, and has been translated into 20 languages. She has also written over 100 articles for various publications, including New Scientist, Slate, and The Times Literary Supplement. Her 2009 book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life” offers some provocative theories about the first months of family life.

According to Gopnik, in modern times, the first months of family life have become far too socially isolated. Ideally, the first months of family life, rather than often being in the care of a single adult or couple, children should have the opportunity to observe and interact with a wide range of people with varying degrees of commitment to their well-being.

She attributes the development of life-long familial attachments that begin from the first months of family life, which doesn’t exist for other primates, to the relatively prolonged helplessness of the human infant. In a sense, it is that helplessness which created selfless love. That selfless love is essential in the first months of family life and to children reaching adulthood.

Childhood learning is one of Gopnik’s specialties, and she believes that adults can learn a lot from children as well. She posits that because adults, in order to earn a living, must perform so many repetitive actions, their minds can lose its natural curiosity and excitement for learning. This can make the first months of family life more difficult. She compares babies’ minds to scientific research and development departments. Babies approach life like travelers in a world in which everything is new.

Like scientists, babies draw conclusions from physical data, and even statistical analyses, such as when they experiment with what will prompt a smile or positive response from their caretakers. She also believes they are capable of what is termed “counterfactual thinking”, which is defined as the ability to imagine different past or future outcomes from those that have actually occurred.

According to a review in Scientific American, she was influenced by the work of psychologist John Hagen of the University of Michigan. His work includes developing alternative learning environments. For example, in one of his labs, the room has no front or rear, the chairs are on wheels and cameras are utilized for a variety of purposes. One of his research studies found that young children were better than older children at remembering playing cards that they had been instructed to forget, a fact which points to the capacity of babies for independent thought.

In addition to working as an educator, she is also a political activist for positive educational change for children. In her capacity as educational activist, she has given several keynote speeches to organizations such as the World Economic Forum as well as organizations that advocate specifically for children, such as Parents as Teachers. She has also lectured for science organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science as well as appearing on television shows such as Nova and NPR radio programs.

In a video interview, she advocates for experiential education, in which children are guided in developing skills by doing and receiving feedback on their performance. She recommends apprenticeships in which young people can observe and experience the activities of those who are already working in professions that they themselves hope to work in one day. This approach would also help them learn whether they are emotionally or psychologically well suited for the job, or what characteristics they would need to develop further to be successful at it.

She also revealed in the interview that none of her psychological training or professional expertise helped during her first months of family life or in parenting her own three children. Theories are just that, and real life has a way of being much more unpredictable, especially when human emotions are involved.

According to Gopnik, there are some things adults can do to reclaim their own natural curiosity and excitement about learning. She recommends travel, meditation, and spending time with and learning from children, as well as teaching them.

One of her personal and professional goals has been to cultivate more respect for children and their innate brilliance, rather than devaluing them and continuing to relegate them to social isolation with one another. She seems to be succeeding admirably.

first months of family life
Giant Baby Head in fiberglass, by Freezelight, Flickr CC2.0

April 25,2016  |

in vitro fertilization

Creating Life: How the True Genius of Technology Helps Conceive Life

In Vitro Fertilization—The Process

In vitro fertilization is a process by which a woman’s egg is fertilized in a laboratory rather than inside her body. The fertilized egg is cultured for 2 to 6 days and then implanted into a woman’s uterus to complete the process of conception that leads to a successful pregnancy.

The IVF process is used both as a treatment for infertility and in cases of gestational surrogacy. Gestational surrogacy can use the intended mother’s egg the intended father’s sperm, the surrogate’s egg, or both eggs and sperm from donors. Another method, called ovarian hyperstimulation, uses drugs called gonadotropins over a 10 day period to stimulate egg production.

The cost of in vitro fertilization can vary depending upon the number of procedures required to achieve a successful pregnancy from approximately $8000 to $17,000. The costs associated with gestational surrogacy can be over $150,000 because they include the costs associated with the pregnancy as well. Psychological screenings, counseling, legal fees, and medications are among the expenses covered by that fee.

The legal status of in vitro fertilization varies by country, with some countries placing more restrictions on the process than others. For example, some countries such as China and Turkey only allow the process for married couples, while others such as Spain permit it for single people and same-sex couples as well. Surrogacy is banned in many countries, but permitted in India and many others, with some restrictions.

The Rising Use of In Vitro Fertilization

The use of in vitro fertilization has increased in recent years for a number of reasons. According to a recent report, that trend is expected to continue, with an estimated increase of 7% from 2015 to 2021. According to one article, 61,740 babies, or 1.5% of all babies born in 2012 in the U.S. alone were the result of successful in vitro fertilization. In Australia in 2010, the 61,774 assisted reproductive treatments performed resulted in 12,056 live births.

Many people who are sure they want children in the future take the precautionary measure of having eggs and/or sperm frozen for future use. However, the success rate of the procedure is lower with the use of frozen eggs. The age of the woman is also a factor, with women over age 40 having lower success rates than those under the age of 35. However, until 2006, the record for the oldest woman to give birth using IVF and a donated egg was held by Adriana Iliescu, who gave birth at the age of 66.

Common Reasons for the Use of In Vitro Fertilization

Economic factors play a role in the decision of many women to postpone having children until their careers are firmly established and they are able to financially support a child. The average cost of raising a child in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years to $304,480 when adjusted for projected inflation. That figure is calculated on raising a child from birth to the age of 18 and does not include the cost of college or other forms of higher education that prepare young people to enter the workforce and become financially independent.

Fertility disorders are another common reason women choose to use in vitro fertilization. The most common cause of female infertility is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). In this condition, changes in the the hypothalamus, pituitary glands and ovaries create a hormone imbalance that affects ovulation. Another common causes include hypothalamic dysfunction caused by physical or emotional stress or a substantial weight gain or loss and pelvic tuberculosis.

Premature ovarian insufficiency disorder is caused by an autoimmune response in which the body attacks ovarian tissues. It can occur as the result of genetic factors or environmental factors such as exposure to chemotherapy and causes a decrease in estrogen and a loss of ability for the ovaries to produce eggs.

Hyperprolactinemia is a condition in which the pituitary gland produces too much prolactin, which reduces estrogen production. It can either be genetic or caused by medications taken for other conditions. Polyps or tumors can block fallopian tubes, and endometriosis can cause scarring that prevents successful implantation of the embryo. Endometriosis, cervical stenosis, pelvic inflammatory disease and genetic uterine abnormalities are also common reasons for women to utilize IVF.

The Future of IVF

Since the successful birth of Loise Brown resulting from IVF in 1978, it is estimated that 5 million babies had been born by 2014 using IVF. In 2011, 588,629 treatments were reported from 33 European countries. 151,923 were reported from the U.S. and 66,347 from New Zealand and Australia. The approximately 1.5 million treatments performed each year result in the birth of an estimated 350,000 babies.

This remarkable process, which has continued to grow at a rate of 5 to 10% each year, has allowed many people who might otherwise have remained childless to experience the joys of parenthood. Techniques continue to be refined, which is predicted to increase the success rate even further.

in vitro fertilization

April 20,2016  |