Parenting and the tyranny of the natural

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Sociologist Jan MacVarish’s latest book is entitled Neuroparenting. Neuroparenting:

… relies on the authority of nature as providing an eternal, universal, cultureless blueprint for child-rearing but also on the authority of science, as nature’s modern interpreter.

That’s also an excellent description of natural parenting. Both rely on assumptions about human beings, nature, culture and science that are rarely examined, let alone challenged.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Natural parenting is a cultural conceit.[/pullquote]

Let’s see if we can tease out some of these assumptions so that we can critique them, starting with the assumptions that MacVarish notes.

1. “Nature” in natural parenting is assumed to be eternal, universal and cultureless.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While the physical laws of nature — those of physics, chemistry and biology — are indeed eternal, universal and cultureless, the nature of human behavior is none of those things.

For example, for most of the millions of years of hominin existence, human beings didn’t yet have the power of speech yet for contemporary human beings speech is entirely natural. That’s just one example of the way in which the “nature” of humanity has changed over the years.

Moreover, what we know about human existence in nature is necessarily limited to what we learn from fossils, yet fossils are so limited that they may not be representative of what actually happened at the time those individuals were alive.

Human culture has existed for a very long time. The oldest known cave paintings were created more than 35,000 years ago. The idea that there is a human natural essence, independent of culture, that has persisted unchanged for more than 35,000 years is ludicrous. The only thing more ludicrous is the idea that human culture is universal through time and space.

Therefore, looking to nature as the authority on the best way to raise children is foolish in the extreme since nature is neither universal nor static.

2. Science is assumed to be the modern interpreter of nature.

Yes, science is an excellent interpreter of static natural principles, but human beings are far more than their physics, chemistry and biology. Parenting is not merely a biological concept, but also a cultural one.

Consider that less than 100 years ago, parenting culture was radically different from what it is today. In indigenous cultures, parenting is radically different from what it is in industrialized countries. Moreover, indigenous cultures are no more likely to represent what occurred in nature 100,000 years ago than contemporary elephants are likely to represent wooly mammoth existence.

3. Natural is assumed, without any justification, to be best.

Yet this only applies to parenting. Natural parenting advocates will smugly inform you that unmedicated vaginal birth, breastfeeding and co-sleeping are best because they are natural.

But rape is natural in all human cultures; that doesn’t make it best.

Murder and war are natural in all human cultures; that doesn’t make either of them best.

Both heterosexuality and homosexuality are both natural; the former is better for reproducing the species than the latter but that doesn’t make heterosexuality better than homosexuality.

Nature is rarely the arbiter of what is best in general, so why would we imagine that it is the arbiter of what is best in parenting?

4. Human beings are assumed, without any justification, to be no different than animals.

Most of the research on the important of “bonding” has been done in lower order animals. There is no scientific evidence that it has any applicability to human beings, yet natural parenting advocate invoke it routinely.

5. Anything less that perfect intellectual, social and economic success is problematized.

We live in arguably the healthiest, wealthiest culture that has ever existed yet we fret endlessly about problems, particularly social problems.

Some people are poor? We treat it as a problem despite the fact that in every culture some individuals are more successful than others.

Some people have lower intellectual achievement than others? We treat that as a problem despite the fact that it is the inevitable result of the fact that all human beings are not alike.

Some people are criminals? We treat that as a problem despite the fact that there has never been a human society without members who flout the rules.

We don’t merely treat these entirely natural phenomena as problems, we treat them as parenting problems. If only they had been breastfed; if only their parents had spent more time during infancy engaging verbally with them; if only their parents had been more “nurturing.” Yet there is no scientific evidence that parenting has much if anything to do with many of these problems.

6. Parenting is deterministic.

Children are assumed to be blank slates on which parents write. Therefore, the right inputs will create the right outputs. Moreover, what parents write on the blank slates of infancy is assumed to be determinative of the adults those infants will become.

This is an especially irresponsible assumption since we have no accurate theory of human causation. Two children can be raised in the same home, by the same parents, in the same way yet develop into very different adults. Regardless of the fact that the unsuccessful child may have a wildly successful sibling, many will still blame the parents, particularly the mother, for a child or adult who struggles.


These erroneous assumptions have created the cultural conceit among natural parenting advocates that nature provides the blueprint for parenting and that science is to be invoked when it finds the natural to be beneficial (e.g. breastfeeding) and easily ignored when it find technology to be superior (e.g. vaccination).