Objectives and Need

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*In recent decades, nurturing children has become a greater challenge in the USA as single parent households grow more widespread, both parents work outside the home, extended families are scattered, and neighborhoods are less stable. With decreased cultural support for family caregiving, children may be at risk for not experiencing the individualized nurturing that fosters thriving. In order to understand how the nurturing environment has shifted to the minimalistic form predominant today, we must look at the history and prehistory of human development.

In humanity’s prehistory (99% of human genus existence), matrilineal societies were predominant (Gimbutas, 1991), with a focus on earth-centric lifestyles. Among small-band hunter-gatherers studied in modern times, who represent the lifestyle of 99% of human genus history, bilateral systems of descent (matrilineal and patrilineal) are typical (Fry & Souillac, 2017). Matrilineal societies are egalitarian and peaceful, lacking the pressures against nurturing children and avoiding the use of force to maintain hierarchies that are characteristic of patriarchal societies (Eisler, 1988). Patriarchal societies became dominant in humanity’s historical period, reflecting the move to hierarchical, usually settled, societies. The Neolithic shift to settled, mono-agricultural societies was accompanied by decreased health (e.g., height decreased significantly; infectious disease became common; Cohen & Armelagos, 1984) due to more limited diets and close quarters with one another and with domesticated animals. What also shifted was the nature of childhood.

Humanity, like all animals, evolved a nest for its young to optimize development. Most characteristics are over 30 million years old, indicating how important they are for proper development. Recurring characteristics have been documented by anthropologists studying extant small-band hunter-gatherer bands (aka, hunter-gatherer childhood model, Konner, 2005; or, basal human childrearing pattern, Endicott & Endicott, 2014).

What does the evolved human nest look like? Here is the set of characteristics identified by anthropological studies around the world (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Konner, 2005):
• Affection and constant touch or physical presence (according to child’s needs)
• Responsiveness to needs to keep baby from becoming distressed
• Breastfeeding on request for 2-5 years (average age of weaning is four years)
• Multiple adult responsive caregivers
• Positive social support for mother and baby
• Self-directed play throughout childhood in nature with multi-age playmates
An additional component could be added: soothing perinatal experiences. Initial research into these components suggests that they influence health and wellbeing and sociality on the neurobiological as well as psychosocial level (for a brief review, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013).

The evolved nest is provisioned by a community, not just the mother. Fathers are intimate caregivers in many nomadic communities (e.g., Hewlett, 1991) and grandmothers or other postmenopausal women are also key providers (Hrdy, 2009). In prehistory and in societies that remain nomadic foragers in the historical period, childhood is one of companionship with the community, where social play and banter are common, with options to assist in the gathering activities. The majority of work (gathering, hunting) is performed by those 20-40 years old (Sahlins, 1968). Nevertheless, all ages of the band (25-50 members on average) spend a great deal of time in leisure—in banter, play or music making.

Mothering is built into traditional cultures as the center of society. Mothering is communal (cooperative breeding; Hrdy, 2009). Although children are a communal affair, raised by the village of support, the mother is the initial conveyer of attention and support from the community (Hrdy, 2009). A supported mother (from her own childhood and after) will convey love, kindness, and compassion, giving these unilaterally to the child until the child is able to reciprocate (Vaughan, 2015). In some groups, after the first 18 months or so, young children spend as much time with other responsive caregivers as with mothers (e.g., Endicott & Endicott, 2014). In fact, researchers in recent years have started to focus on the importance of fathers for child wellbeing (e.g., Hewlett, 1992). For example, children who develop a secure attachment with both mothers and fathers are rated higher in social competence and exhibit fewer behavior problems in kindergarten than children who are have a secure attachment with neither or one parent (Verschueren & Marcoen, 1999).

This conference discusses the science and art of mothering or nurturing in light of the needs of children. We discuss vital information about child development and the science of mothering, with its varied biological and social ecologies from different settings. Mothering is also an art, which takes honed, flexibly-attuned skills. Both the art and the science of mothering will be addressed in this ground-breaking conference.*