The most significant goal of early development may be preparation and social interaction and participation in close relationships (Narvaez and Gleason, in Narvaez ancestral). A focus on individuals or even groups of humans is an inadequate frame for understanding flourishing. Biodiversity and the natural environment must also be considered – the community extends beyond humanity.
Among hunter-gatherer groups child-rearing is intense and communal. Care-giving is conceptualised as the responsibility of the whole community. Parents receive a lot of social support and infants have many care-givers they can draw on as resources. ‘Good enough’ or adequate parenting approaches generally do not discuss touch, breast-feeding, alloparenting and play all of which are linked with important psychological and physiological outcomes. Breast-feeding protects against disease and lead to increased maternal focus on the infant. It also performs many regulatory functions like regulating the sleep-wake cycle, creating positive emotional tone, and improved brain functions like reduced depression. It is linked with self-regulation, in particular, inhibitory control and increased empathy and conscience. Breastfeeding is linked with prosociality at 18 months and less behaviour problems at 24 months.
Psychology, in seeking to embrace lifespan resiliency, has ‘soft-pedaled’ the lasting neurobiological influences of early childhood experiences (Narvaez et al, 2013). Resiliency literature has focused on ‘good enough’ development, so that as long as individuals do not drop out of school or go to prison, they are deemed a success in developmental terms. Parents and psychologists seek resilience as a goal for child development but recent trends, even in young children, of psychosocial problems indicate that universal resilience is incorrect. Mammals need ‘abundant’ nurturing care for optimal postnatal development. John Bowlby described that our deep human need for sociality is a result of our ancestral ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’. This is the “sum of environmental characteristics under which human brains and bodies evolved” (p.6).
When the human genus emerged from the great apes these needs took cultural form that have remained stable for 99% of human genus history. Most of these practices evolved with catarrhine mammals over 30 million years ago. In modern societies our cultural practices may be losing touch with our ancient mammalian needs. Young children in foraging societies around the world nursed frequently, were held, touched and kept close to others constantly; received care from people other than their parents but rarely older siblings; receive prompt responses to their fusses and cries and play in multi-age contexts. These rearing settings generally match the early environments of highly social mammals like apes. This is referred to as our ‘evolved, expected care’ which leads to optimal development. It is unclear to what extent a diminishment or absence of this care will lead to problems. These compromises may differ depending on timing, intensity, length and context. Certainly, problematic or less than optimal outcomes are likely.