Biology, Primatology

Back to the Future: What Primates Can Teach Us about Parenting

tamarin animal mother

“I’m certainly not advocating that we should behave like monkeys and apes. I’m saying that understanding the basic primate way will help us make more informed choices about the kinds of parents we want to be.”

–Harriet J. Smith

A practicing clinical psychologist and former fellow at the National Institute of Child Health and Development, Harriet J. Smith she has published many journal articles over the years. In her book, Parenting for Primates, she offers parents valuable knowledge gleaned from the four months she spent in the Peruvian rain forest observing primates as well as the 30 years that she managed a colony of tamarin monkeys in her own home. She became interested in primate parenting and realized that human mothers could benefit in many ways from her study of the tamarin animal mother. Some of the topics in the book include the roles of mothers and fathers, single parenting, weaning babies, baby-sitters, independence and dealing with an empty nest.

Maternal Instinct and the Tamarin Animal Mother

Her experience with the tamarin animal mother began with two orphaned monkeys, which were bottle-fed and hand-raised. When these monkeys became parents, they displayed very little interest in caring for their young. In fact, their reactions to them were often hostile, and included sticking out their tongues and making threatening gestures.

In an article, Smith describes how the infants were fostered and cared for by a tamarin animal mother named Rachel, who had been captured as an adult after having been raised in a primate family group in the wild. This experience led her to conclude that rather than being the product of maternal instinct, parenting consists of a complex set of learned behaviors. After Rachel taught them those behaviors through example, the natural parents were able to develop those skills.
One of her goals for writing the book was to alleviate the sense of guilt experienced by mothers who question their own maternal instinct. Guilt is often experienced by women suffering post-partum depression. It can also be the result of an overwhelming sense of inadequacy by new mothers who question the value of skills learned from their own mothers. Evidence that parenting skills can be learned is a potent antidote.

The Social Support System of the Tamarin Animal Mother

In tamarin primate families, the males care for the babies from an early age, providing as much, and sometimes more, care than the females. Just as the females were able to learn parenting behaviors, the males were also able to learn adequate parenting skills. Tamarin animal mothers without a mate often rely on other adult males as well as female relatives for assistance. Smith points out that in the primate realm, parenting does not take place in social isolation. The degree of social isolation that parents in industrialized societies experience is one of the most difficult challenges they face.

Tamarin animal mothers also utilize baby-sitters for their young. Those who provide care are usually related to the mother or socially subordinate to the extent that they recognize her ultimate parental authority. The mother never goes so far out of range that she cannot return and immediately take charge upon hearing a cry of distress. Babysitting in the simian world is carried out on an individual basis, rather than a single adult supervising a group of young tamarins.

Applying Lessons Learned from the Tamarin Animal Mother

According to one article, “Parenting for Primates” has generated some controversy. The book received critical acclaim from several sources such as Publisher’s Weekly and favorable reviews from colleagues like psychologist Jay Belsky, London University’s director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues. However, others such as Georgia State University’s Dr. Emily D. Klein, believe that it may add to the guilt of mothers in industrialized societies who, due to economic realities beyond their control, are unable to implement many of the suggestions.

In response to her critics, Smith offered the reassurance that “My message is not that mothers shouldn’t work, but that they should be thoughtful about how much time they spend away from their children and about who will care for them in their absence.” Rather than working mothers feeling guilty about the need to rely on professional day care, she counsels parents to develop good relationships with their child care providers. Another way to enhance the child’s experience of being cared for by others is for the parent to remain in the area for a period of time during the transition. An example of this would be to invite the child care provider into the home to develop a relationship with the child while the parents are present.

Many educators also believe that parents in industrialized societies can benefit from the parenting lessons provided by the tamarin animal mother. For that reason, a 7 credit continuing education course designed for parents has been developed based on the book. Perhaps some ancient history, in the form of successful parenting tips provided by our distant tamarin cousins, may be worth repeating to create a better future for our own children.

tamarin animal mother
Vase in the Shape of a Mother Monkey with Her Young, Old Kingdom, Dynasty 6, Reign of Pepi I, 2289 2255bc, Egypt
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