Instinctive Parenting

Instinctive Parenting: The Attempt To Re-Unite Nature And Nurture

“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.”

Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt

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.

Instinctive Parenting

October 16,2015  |

instinctive behavior

On What the Founding Father of Ethology, Konrad Lorenz Has To Say On Human Instinctive Behavior

“One asks, which is more damaging to modern humanity: the thirst for money or consuming haste… in either case, fear plays a very important role: the fear of being overtaken by one’s competitors, the fear of becoming poor, the fear of making wrong decisions or the fear of not being up to snuff.”

Every mother knows this fear of which Konrad Lorenz, one of the founding fathers of ethology, speaks. In a highly competitive world, mothers everywhere want to know that they are doing everything possible to insure their child’s ability not just to survive, but to thrive. Unfortunately, this fear is often expressed by mothers competing rather than co-operating with one another to achieve maximum benefits for themselves and their children. Conflicting guidelines offered by “experts” often result in more stress as parents struggle to differentiate instinctive behavior from learned behavior.

Too often, this stressful competition takes the form of using general developmental guidelines established by experts to compare themselves with others. For example, if the guidelines say that the average child learns to walk at a year old, mothers whose children learn to walk at ten months may imagine that their children are extraordinarily gifted, while those who don’t learn to walk until 15 months of age are considered developmentally delayed. Mothers often suffer unwarranted shame as well as pride in comparing their child’s development to both the guidelines and the development of their friends’ children.

Konrad Lorenz is best known for his study of instinctive behavior in Greylag geese and his elaborate description of the principle of attachment, called imprinting. Born into a family of physicians, after completing his M.D. degree at the University of Vienna in 1928, he earned a Ph.D. in zoology in 1933. He observed that certain behaviors of ducklings and goslings were triggered by visual and auditory stimuli from the parent object. Further, he observed that the following response elicited by either the parent or a foster parent continued to affect their adult behavior.

His observation of the interbreeding of species of birds and the resulting hybrids led to his belief that similarly, human racial interbreeding could cause dysgenic effects. These scientific beliefs helped justify Nazi eugenics policies against “race mixing”. Of his writings during that time, he later said

“I regret those writings not so much for the undeniable discredit they reflect on my person as for their effect of hampering the future recognition of the dangers of domestication”.

After the founding of the German Society for Animal Psychology in 1936, Lorenz became the editor of the ethology journal “Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie”. From 1937 to 1940, he lectured in animal psychology and comparative anatomy at the University of Vienna. He was head of the psychology department at Albertus University in Königsberg, Germany from 1940 to 1942. His lectures on instinctive behavior included his theories on the function of positive and negative social feedback mechanisms that serve to help override impulses.

Lorenz is equally well known for his extensive research on the roots of aggression and wrote the book “On Aggression”. He had the opportunity to personally experience the effects of aggression when he was drafted into Hitler’s army. While there, he served as a psychologist in the Office of Racial Policy from 1942-1944 before being captured by the Soviet army and being held as a prisoner of war until 1948. Upon his return to Austria, he served as director of the Institute of Comparative Ethology in Altenburg until 1951. He became a co-director at the Max Planck Institute for Behavior Physiology in 1954, and remained there as director from 1961 to 1973.

In 1973, along with his colleagues Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch, he was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “for discoveries in individual and social behavior patterns”. Today, the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, relocated in 2013 from the family mansion in Altenberg to Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, still plays an important role in the university research community. A second institute named for Lorenz is located in Grünau.

In addition to his gift for detailed recording of the instinctive behavior of animals, he also rigorously avoided any form of animal cruelty during his research. He was also one of the first to warn of the ecological dangers of market economics. His thoughts upon receiving the Nobel Prize reveal that perhaps because of the role that his research played during the Nazi regime, he recognized the moral and ethical problems associated with the misuse of scientific research.

He concluded that

“The competition between human beings destroys with cold and diabolic brutality…. Under the pressure of this competitive fury we have not only forgotten what is useful to humanity as a whole, but even that which is good and advantageous to the individual….”

Perhaps that’s why he advocated choosing mates based not on looks or wealth, but the quality of kindness, as the best hope for the future of mankind. His research proved that while we, like animals, possess instinctive behavior, as humans we also have the capacity to override our instinctive behavior and choose cooperation.

If you are intrigued by Konrad Lorenz, like I am, you can find here another article posted earlier on Konrad Lorenz and how he proved the “biological mother” can be utterly ignored.

instinctive behavior
Lorenz and Tinbergen. Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

September 23,2015  |

maternal bonding

On maternal bonding : how the real mother can be utterly ignored

Maternal bonding…

Whenever you do some reading of maternal bonding, motherhood and attachment you will come across the name Konrad Lorenz, a world famous ethologist, this is a zoologist who studies the behavior of animals in their natural habitats. He is also a Nobel Prize winner.

maternal bondingWhen he discovered that newly hatched birds would follow him rather than their own mother if they first lay eyes on him. The real mother would be utterly ignored. Being a mother would not be relevant. He called it ‘pragung’ (German), which became ‘imprinting’, in English and later on bonding.

Now I repeat that the research done on maternal bonding by Konrad Lorenz was only done on birds because in some literature the insinuation towards men is sometimes shamefully clear.

More research on Maternal Bonding

Other men (and no women here) have imprinted before Lorenz. In ancient Greece Pliny the Elder wrote in A.D. 27 of a goose that followed his friend Lacydes faithfully (Naturalis Historia, x). In the 7th century, St. Cuthbert, the protector of birds and other wildlife must have left numerous imprints on winged friends. One of the biographers of Cuthbert, the monk Reginald, wrote that his bird friends were submitted ‘as if they were his slaves’. But again bird research. In the 16th century, Sir Thomas More described the same phenomena in his Utopia.

And after Lorenz came many more researchers on maternal bonding who became passionate at imprinting geese, ducks, chicks, pheasants, partridges, plovers, moorhens, terns, doves, pigeons, eagle owls, and corncrakes.

Modern Bonding Science by Whitman and Spalding

C. O. Whitman (Craig 1908) turned the imprinting to another use with nonprecocial (precocial species hatch with eyes open and are more quickly independant), or altricial (hatch with eyes closed) species. He first crossed two species of pigeons, he would then rear the young of one species with foster parents of the other species. He proved that when fully grown, pigeons with foster parents of a different species preferred to mate with that species rather than of their own species.

Now, it is important to take the matter of bonding not too leisurely. It is a precise event that does not occur haphazardly. Because you need to get at it early. In 1873, a gentleman called Douglas Spalding would be the first to say that the imprinting needs to occur within a certain time frame. He came to that conclusion when he hooded chickens for 3 days. If he unveiled the hood within 3 days they would follow him, after 3 days they would be extremely fearful (and here the comparisons with humans was luckily for some, never made). Being a mother was also a question of timing.

Eckhard Hess of the University of Chicago -although his research te can take this bonding information or imprinting as a fact. This is for birds at least the case. However, it has gone beyond the bird research. People generalized quickly. People see it now as a well known fact that early life experiences play a decisive role in the formation of an animal’s or a person’s affectional system (e.g., se studies by Dr Bowlby in  1951; Dr. Harlow in 1958; Dr Harlow in 1962 again).  Techniques in bird research were more advanced and were uninterrupted for 25 years- came to a similar conclusion.

So we can take this bonding information or imprinting as a fact. This is for birds at least the case. But bonding and maternal bonding is not the same. We generally believe maternal bonding exists because scientists have proven bonding with birds. However, it has gone beyond the bird research. People generalized quickly. People see it now as a well known fact that early life experiences play a decisive role in the formation of an animal’s or a person’s affectional system (e.g.,  studies by Dr Bowlby in  1951; Dr. Harlow in 1958; Dr Harlow in 1962 again).

And… the bird research shows that the bonding was not maternal bonding at all. In most cases a man (often the gender of the researcher at the time) was ‘mother’.

Konrad Lorenz wrote in 1997 another book “King Solomon’s Rig: New Light on Animal’s Ways”, and it is a real gem of a book. The father of ethology knows off course a thing or two about the study of animal behavior, but it is not a ‘scientific book’ and still provides a surprising amount of fascinating information in a small, short book, with wonderful drawings and cute stories.

maternal bonding

August 8,2014  |

Ethology and Parenting: Can Instinct be Learned?

Ethology is the study of non-human animal behavior under natural conditions with the goal of learning about more about how species develop adaptive traits in response to changing social and environmental conditions. Charles Darwin’s work was instrumental in the development of the field of ethology. His theory of evolution enabled scientists to begin viewing mankind as a part of the natural world rather than a uniquely separate species. The knowledge obtained from studying animals and their behavior has contributed a great deal to understanding human behavior. Separating the myths surrounding the concept of mother’s natural instinct from fact has been an important aspect of this research.

The concept of imprinting was first studied by Nobel prize-winning ethologists Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinburgen, and Karl Von Frisch. By studying the behavior of birds, it was concluded that baby birds emerged with the ability to bond with their mothers within a matter of hours. In the 1960’s researchers began to apply ethology to research on child development. One of the most interesting questions ethologists have attempted to answer is whether a human mother’s natural instinct is a biological reality or a social construct.

Mother’s Natural Instinct and Biology

Research methods used in ethology were used to learn more about the human mother’s natural instinct and whether the same imprinting process took place in human infants. According to ethological theory, which focuses on genetics and biology, babies are biologically prepared to behave in ways that establishes a bond with their caregivers. Ethologists believe that these behaviors are evolutionary adaptations that improve the chances for survival. The ethological school of motherhood is one that subscribes to attachment theory.

Rather than imprinting like birds, human bonding has been termed “attachment”, a term used by John Bowlby to describe the process. He agreed with the ethological view that human babies are biologically programmed to form attachments that will ensure their survival. He stressed the importance of successful bonding with the mother above all others and theorized that the quality of the mother-child bond would serve as the model for all future relationships.

While Bowlby’s research and theories proved invaluable, later research revealed that biology may play a larger role in what is considered mother’s natural instinct than he realized when forming his attachment theory. Developmental psychobiologist Myron Hofer conducted experiments that challenged Bowlby’s theory of the internal working model of attachment. When rat pups were separated from their mother, they exhibited both physiological and behavioral changes. Changes were found in heart rate and body temperature, as well as exploratory behaviors. Hofer concluded that mother-infant interactions can actually control vital regulatory functions apart from cognitive factors.

Rat pups that received high levels of maternal licking and grooming had milder responses to threat and increased exploratory behavior – effects that lasted into adulthood, and more importantly, resulted in genetic changes that were passed on to the next generation. Individual differences in maternal behavior contributed to differences in the gene expression of their offspring. These findings proved important in changing the scientific view of mother’s natural instinct.

Mother’s Natural Instinct Versus Maternal Behavior

What has historically been viewed as the human mother’s natural instinct is actually a complex set of interactions between a number of biological and environmental elements. Bowlby’s original concept of attachment security has been expanded upon to show that attachment security is influenced by both biology and maternal temperament. Studies in which children have developed emotional attachments to various objects such as a blanket or a cuddly toy with which they comfort themselves when a parent is not available have provided further evidence of the human instinct to form attachments to that which represents safety as a means of survival.

The concept of mother’s natural instinct has resulted in a belief that all women are biologically equipped to provide adequate nurturing to their offspring. Effective parenting, rather than being the result of natural instinct, is in fact a complex set of learned behaviors. Future parenting behaviors are influenced by the type of parenting an individual has received in the past. Research that identifies the types nurturing behaviors that are most beneficial to children provides women with the opportunity to learn and practice those behaviors. Positive genetic changes result from those behaviors and can then be passed to the next generation. Providing information with the potential to improve the quality of life for future generations is perhaps the most important contribution science has made to mankind.

mothers natural instinct

January 6,2014  |