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).

9 Responses to “Parenting and the tyranny of the natural”

  1. StephanieA
    December 9, 2016 at 11:44 pm #

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My kids are very young, and I agonize over pretty much everything. I worry that I’m not reading enough with them, that they’re watching too much tv, that I’m too stern or too lax, the list goes on. But then I stop and think about how many good people have come from ‘bad’ upbringings, and vice versa. It kind of terrifies me that once they are in school, I will have much less of an impact on them as I would like. I remember being a teenager, and while I loved my parents, my social life was definitely front and center.

  2. Emilie Bishop
    December 9, 2016 at 4:13 pm #

    This sounds like an interesting read. OT but slightly related–has anyone read “Brain Rules for Baby” by John Medina? He’s a brain researcher at the University of Washington (near me) and wrote this book about how his own research and the research of others shows about infant and young child brain development. I read it while pregnant about two years ago and thought what he said made a lot of sense at the time. But he was adamant about breastfeeding benefits for intelligence, along with long-term affects of a mom’s stress level and nutrition during pregnancy. So I’m now questioning a lot of what he has said as it now feels like a guilt trip straight out of natural parenting propaganda. Anyone have anything to contribute? Thanks.

  3. Kerlyssa
    December 8, 2016 at 10:40 pm #

    This reminds me of the experiments that ancient leaders occasionally got up to, trying to find the ‘first’, pre babel human language by depriving infants of human interaction and interpreting their babbling. Assuming there is some innate status we can return to if we just go through the proper rituals. >.<

  4. December 8, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

    Although I haven’t been a parent long (my eldest is now 6 – but I’ve been a step parent for nearly a decade)…the thing that strikes me most, is not how much influence parents have but really how little. Their school and friends have large influences as does what the read, watch and hear. Further, there is little more “human” than the use of technology – we make tools, and find unnatural ways almost as a matter of “being” – we learn, not so much to “live with” the state of affairs but rather to figure out ways to circumvent or improve upon them. Indeed – when I think of the word “humane” I think not of “nature” – but the ways in which we seek to make life more comfortable and to alleviate suffering. Which is why natural parenting strikes me as the anti-thesis of what is natural for humans – as inherently “inhumane” as it seems intent on glorifying suffering and pain, glorifying sacrifice in ways that exact an unacceptable toll on women.

    • December 9, 2016 at 10:12 am #

      Having been a parent for 36 years, I can tell you that you do have a great influence — but not necessarily the influence you expect to have, and it can be decades after the event. From time to time, one of my children refers to something had made a big impression that I don’t even remember as beig a big deal at the time — or that I don’t remember at all. Just the other day my son told me he remembered the aroma of my father’s pipe tobacco — and my father died when my son was six — and wondered whether I’d mind if he took up smoking a pipe.
      To this day I can’t annotate books or dogear pages because my father taught me when I was tiny not to do it.

  5. Dr Kitty
    December 8, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    If you haven’t read it yet, thoroughly recommend Sapiens by Noah Yuval Harari.

    He makes many very interesting points.

  6. CSN0116
    December 8, 2016 at 12:53 pm #

    Is she advocating these things in her book, or criticizing them? As a sociologist, I would expect her to criticise such ideas being applied to parenting, especially as they enter the gender sphere, but I don’t even know anymore…

    • Valerie
      December 8, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

      She is critical. The subtitle is “The Expert Invasion of Family Life,” and the final chapter is called “The problem with neuroparenting.”

      • Heidi_storage
        December 8, 2016 at 1:18 pm #

        Good. I’m tired of people with advanced degrees spouting nonsense when they really should know better. What could be more absurd than a “cultureless” method of childrearing? That’s practically an oxymoron.

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