What Does Paleo Parenting Look Like?

A new book that examines the strange protractedness of human childhood also argues against basing modern parenting practices on our distant ancestors.

Baby with a big bone
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

From a Darwinian perspective, human reproduction is pretty idiotic. “We are terrible at getting pregnant,” writes the American-born British archaeologist Brenna Hassett, “then when we do we undercook the baby and end up with a ridiculously helpless infant.” That doesn’t even account for the nightmare of human childbirth, the biological equivalent of the old sofa-in-the-stairwell dilemma. Then there’s the absurdly long time it takes us to reach maturity. Many chimpanzees breastfeed from their mother until about age 4, then shoot up into adults who are fecund by 10 and reproducing by 13. By contrast, many human babies in developed countries wean by age 1, but then reproduction doesn’t happen for two or three decades after that.

Hassett’s project looks anew at what we’ve largely taken for granted. Her latest book, Growing Up Human: The Evolution of Childhood, helps explain that last strangeness: why human childhood is so long. But she is also interested in entering a conversation about just how much we should apply our prehistoric ancestors’ ways of dealing with these oddities to contemporary child-rearing. Hassett is not pleased with what has essentially become a sort of paleo-parenting style—including trendy practices such as “attachment parenting”—that is supposedly drawn from how we nurtured humans in their early years before modern life took over.

To solve the mystery of our protracted childhood, she turns to her academic expertise in analyzing human remains, offering the few glimpses we have of prehistoric childhood from the archaeological record. A few conclusions emerge. For one, human youth lasts a long time because evolution shifted most of our growth to outside the womb. (Deer can begin walking just minutes after being born; human babies cannot even hold their head up at this stage.) Second, our brain needs time to develop, and we have a hell of a lot to learn in order to navigate complex human societies.

If these deductions seem obvious, Hassett’s other purpose—her vendetta against studying human evolutionary history for insights into raising children—offers more material to argue with. She wants to make the case that the research, however fascinating for her as a scientist, shouldn’t be forced on contemporary parents as a guide for the most natural way to tend to a growing human.

Hassett considers it an “insidious” pursuit to draw on this past in order to establish “one true strategy for parenting.” “Palaeo”—using the British spelling—is an insult to her: “Is there in fact an Ur-childhood, a palaeo-parenting scenario that is optimally adaptive, perfectly responsive to our evolutionary needs?”

Hassett’s main objection to gazing backward seems to be political, and she has a lot of insightful things to say about how the (largely male) disciplines of primatology and anthropology developed flawed theories that continue to skew our view of humans today—especially in the bastardized forms that reach most laypeople as, say, dating advice. Take, for instance, theories that (over)emphasize the role of “alpha” males and their sexual dominance, and obliterate any notion that females might have a choice in reproduction.

She also rails against the burdens that certain paleo-parenting advice places on women. Think of what’s become known as attachment theory, the idea that babies “are hardwired to cling as hard as possible to their mothers … an evolutionarily adaptive trait, offering security and protection.” This has led some proponents—and especially hucksters selling baby merchandise—to claim that babies need to be in physical contact with their mother at all times day and night, via a cloth sling or other carrier. “In its most extreme forms,” Hassett notes, attachment theory “demands total subjugation of the mother to the emotional needs of the infant.” In truth, babies do need tactile affection, but fathers, siblings, grandparents, nannies, and other caregivers can supply it just as well. The baby’s needs in this realm, she notes, “can be met in an absolutely dizzying variety of ways.”

Still, however right Hassett is to expose certain canards, there is something entirely too sweeping about her argument. Even if we can’t find one “optimally adaptive, perfectly responsive” strategy for raising children, surely we can look to the past for guidance on whether there are better or worse ways.

One of her other objections, for example, is to “the strange way we view infant feeding, that in the past we must have done it properly.” Is there really nothing to that idea? She herself notes that many American and European mothers struggle to breastfeed and feel guilty about this. Meanwhile, among the Himba people of Namibia—who live seminomadic lifestyles that likely resemble those of our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors—women have far fewer problems breastfeeding, according to one study, probably because there’s far less shame about doing so in public. Himba women aren’t forced to duck into closets or apologize for feedings, which reduces stress and therefore stress hormones that can interfere with milk production. If our ancestors reared babies like the Himba, would it really be “insidious” to look around today and wonder whether we in the West have screwed up?

Similarly, consider the grandmother hypothesis, first proposed by Kristen Hawkes in 1997. Human women are rare in the animal kingdom for living far beyond their reproductive years; most female fauna can produce babies right up until they die. According to this theory, humans evolved this way so that elderly caregivers could devote time and resources to raising grandchildren and ensuring their success. It’s a stirring idea—and might have been good fodder to defend Hillary Clinton’s much-maligned evocation of the proverb “It takes a village.” Conservatives pilloried her for suggesting that child care could extend beyond strict mother-father families. But there’s a strong chance that humans did, in fact, evolve to raise kids this way.

I don’t doubt Hassett’s sincerity in combating paleo nonsense (of which there’s plenty), but although the past isn’t a perfect guide to the present, it can provide some clarity on the ways that modern society warps us and makes parents and children alike miserable. Our current obesity epidemic, for instance, makes a lot more sense when you realize that archaic humans didn’t evolve to eat cheesecake. Natural isn’t always better, but sometimes it is.

The real problem, as Hassett notes, is that “the concept of an evolutionarily superior way to raise kids places a crushing weight on the shoulders of parents to do things ‘the right way.’” True enough. But Hassett doesn’t spend time on a more fundamental question: Why privilege science at all when it comes to parenting advice?

Most people in history didn’t, relying instead on religious customs and local storehouses of wisdom—or at least on practical tips from relatives. But as the Western world became more secular, more fractured, more mobile, such community ties got severed. Only then was science—which is, deep down, merely a way of testing assumptions about the world—forced to slip on the mantle of guru: Dr. Spock meets Dr. Spock. Compounding the problem are the increasingly winner-take-all dynamics of life among the anxious classes—the fear that one parenting flub will bar little Sally from Harvard, never mind whether she’d be happier elsewhere.

But despite the pressures, parenting doesn’t need to be perfect. Good enough is, well, good enough. As the psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris documented, parents don’t influence children nearly as much as we assume. Aside from gross abuse or neglect, it’s pretty hard to screw kids up permanently. And if people, however well-meaning, begin to ply you with unwanted guidance and instruction, it’s probably okay to disregard it. As Hassett herself writes, “One can only assume that humanity persists because the vast majority of mothers in the past did not always take the advice they were given.”