Thinking about children, as I do for a living, and worrying go hand in hand. There is nothing in human life so important and urgent as raising the next generation, and yet it also feels as if we have very little control over the outcome. The British prime minister Stanley Baldwin once accused the press of having "power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." Perhaps it's appropriate that the prerogative of the mother is just the opposite of the harlot's, we moms have responsibility without power—a recipe for worry if ever there was one. But, as a scientist as well as a mother, I worry that much of our current worry about children is misdirected. We worry a lot about the wrong things and we don't worry nearly enough about the right ones.
Much modern middle-class worry stems from a fundamentally misguided picture of how children develop. It's the picture implicit in the peculiar but now ubiquitous concept of "parenting." As long as there have been homo sapiens there have been parents—human mothers and fathers, and, others as well, have taken special care of children. But the word "parenting" first emerged in America in the twentieth century, and only became common in the 1970s.
This particular word comes with a picture, a vision of how we should understand the relations between grown-ups and children. "To parent" is a goal-directed verb. It describes a job, a kind of work. The goal is to shape your child into a particular kind of adult—smarter or happier or more successful than others. And the idea is that there is some set of strategies or techniques that will accomplish this. So contemporary parents worry endlessly about whether they are using the right techniques and spend millions of dollars on books or programs that are supposed to provide them.
This picture is empirically misguided. "Parenting" worries focus on relatively small variations in what parents and children do —co-sleeping or crying it out, playing with one kind of toy rather than another, more homework or less. There is very little evidence that any of this make much difference to the way that children turn out in the long run. There is even less evidence that there is any magic formula for making one well-loved and financially supported child any smarter or happier or more successful as an adult than another.
The picture is even more profoundly misguided from an evolutionary perspective. Childhood itself is one of the most distinctive evolutionary features of human beings—we have a much longer childhood than any other primate. This extended childhood seems, at least in part, to be an adaptation to the radically increased variability and unpredictability of human environments. The period of protected immaturity we call childhood gives humans a chance to learn, explore, and innovate without having to plan, act and take care of themselves at the same time. And empirically, we've discovered that even the youngest children have truly extraordinary abilities to learn and imagine, quite independent of any conscious parental shaping. Our long protected childhood, arguably, allows our distinctive human cognitive achievements.
The evolutionary emergence of our extended childhood went hand in hand with changes in the depth and breadth of human care for children. Humans developed a "triple threat" when it comes to care. Unlike our closest primate relatives, human fathers began to invest substantially in their children's care, women lived on past menopause to take care of their grand-children, and unrelated adults—"alloparents"—kicked in care, too. In turn, children could learn a variety of skills, attitudes, knowledge and cultural traditions from all those caregivers. This seems to have given human children a varied and multifaceted cognitive tool-kit that they could combine, revise, and refine to face the variable and unpredictable challenges of the next generation.
So the evolutionary picture is that a community of caregivers provide children with two essential ingredients that allow them to thrive. First, adults provide an unconditionally nurturing and stable context, a guarantee that children will be safe and cared for as children. That secure base allows children to venture out to play, explore, and learn, and to shape their own futures. Second, adults provide children with a wide range of models of acting in the world, even mutually contradictory models of acting. Children can exploit this repertoire to create effective ways of acting in often unpredictable and variable environments, and eventually to create new environments. This is very different from the "parenting" picture, where particular parental actions are supposed to shape children's adult characteristics.
This leads me to the stuff that we don't worry about enough. While upper middle-class parents are worrying about whether to put their children in forward or backward facing strollers, more than 1 in 5 children in the United States are growing up below the poverty line, and nearly half the children in America grow up in low-income households. Children, and especially young children, are more likely to live in poverty than any other age group. This number has actually increased substantially during the past decade. More significantly, these children not only face poverty but a more crippling isolation and instability. It's not just that many children grow up without fathers, they grow up without grandparents or alloparents either, and with parents who are forced to spend long hours at unreliable jobs that don't pay enough in the first place. Institutions haven't stepped in to fill the gap—we still provide almost no public support for childcare, we pay parents nothing, and child-care workers next to nothing.
Of course, we've felt the moral intuition that neglecting children is wrong for a long time. But, more recently research into epigenetics has helped demonstrate just how the mechanisms of care and neglect work. Research in sociology and economics has shown empirically just how significant the consequences of early experience actually can be. The small variations in middle-class "parenting" make very little difference. But providing high-quality early childhood care to children who would otherwise not receive it makes an enormous and continuing difference up through adulthood. In fact, the evidence suggests that this isn't just a matter of teaching children particular skills or kinds of knowledge—a sort of broader institutional version of "parenting." Instead, children who have a stable, nurturing, varied early environment thrive in a wide range of ways, from better health to less crime to more successful marriages. That's just what we'd expect from the evolutionary story. I worry more and more about what will happen to the generations of children who don't have the uniquely human gift of a long, protected, stable childhood.