“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.