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Home » The Real Reason Modern Parenting Is So Hard: Nichola Raihani (Transcript)

The Real Reason Modern Parenting Is So Hard: Nichola Raihani (Transcript)

Here is the full text and summary of Psychologist Nichola Raihani’s talk titled “The Real Reason Modern Parenting Is So Hard” at TEDxManchester conference. In this talk, Nichola discusses why modern parenting can be difficult and stressful despite the advancements in technology and resources. She argues that the traditional nuclear family model is a deviation from the historical and cross-cultural norm of extended family units. She suggests that the ideal of the Western nuclear family places unrealistic expectations on parents and overlooks the benefits of multiple caregivers.

Listen to the audio version here:

TRANSCRIPT:

The first members of our species emerged in Africa around 2 million years ago, and we’ve been parenting children ever since then. Since the 18th century, we’ve seen dramatic improvements in technology and health. And since the 1900s, rates of infant mortality have dramatically declined, from a historical global average of around 27% to 16% in 1950, and just 3% in more recent years. Today we enjoy more knowledge, more capability, and more resources than ever before to assist us on this noble journey of being a parent.

And yet, somehow, parenting has never felt so difficult or so stressful. For example, a recent NCT report found that around half of all new mothers suffer from emotional or mental health problems. Other research exploring the famous parental happiness gap has found that parents are more stressed and less happy than non-parents, and that this is especially true of parents who work.

So what’s going on here? With the greatest of respect to parents, and I am one myself, the reason modern parenting is so difficult is because, fundamentally, we’re doing it wrong. Let me explain.

What do you see when you look at this picture? If you’re like me, and you live in a modern, Western society, perhaps what you see is a picture of a perfectly normal human family. But I want to convince you that there is something a bit strange about the family in this picture. And I’m not only talking about their fashion choices.

The family you see here, mum, dad, and the kids, is a classic example of the nuclear family. Many of us grew up in families like this. Maybe some among us here today are raising our own children in similar units. This kind of family might strike us as very normal, but in reality, it’s a huge historical and cross-cultural outlier.

Whether we look back into our species’ history, or indeed look around the globe at other contemporary human societies, what we see is that the typical arrangement for our species is to live in much larger, extended family units, where mothers receive assistance in the production of young, not only from fathers, but from a whole variety of other family members, many of whom might be children themselves. In this respect, we’re really quite different to our closest living relatives on Earth, the other great apes.

So in the other great ape species, there’s no special notion of family. Infants are reared more or less exclusively by their mothers, and the mother receives very little input from any other family member, including the infant’s father. In fact, in some ways, we have more in common with the species here than we do with our closest living relatives.

All the species on this slide are what’s known as cooperative breeders. Cooperative breeding is when individuals live in extended family units, and they work together to raise young. So the meerkats, probably quite familiar to most people, live in large groups, and they work together to raise pups. Helpers will babysit pups at the burrow, they’ll allolactate for them, produce milk for pups that are not their own, and they’ll even teach them how to hunt.

In ant societies, we know that workers perform a variety of roles aimed at increasing the colony’s reproductive success. Things like foraging and tending to the brood, and repelling predators from the nest.

Cooperative breeding evolves in difficult, harsh environments, where it’s tough for a single individual, or even a breeding pair, to raise young on their own. So the meerkats and the babblers I showed you in the previous slide, both live in the Kalahari Desert, where food is dependent on sporadic rainfall, and it’s only occasionally available.

Many of the other cooperatively breeding species on this planet also inhabit some of the most inhospitable regions. By joining forces and forming these extended family units, cooperative breeders have the chance to become part of something bigger, something more robust, and something more resilient. Cooperation is a risk reduction strategy that evolved to deal with life in a turbulent world.

And that can help to explain why we are also cooperative breeders. Although many of us now live in modern, industrialized societies, where everything we need is at our fingertips, the reality is that this transition to modernity has happened in the blink of an evolutionary eye.

Our species has spent the vast majority of its time on Earth, eking out an existence in some of the planet’s most difficult regions, places where food was hard to come by, where it had to be searched for, scavenged, or killed, and where we also had to avoid being searched for, scavenged, or killed by all the predators that were roaming around.

To survive and to raise our offspring, we needed to work together. We needed to cooperate. And cooperation was a prerequisite for survival for us in a way that it just isn’t for the other great ape species.

When we look at the kinds of environments that the contemporary great apes live in, we see that they tend to be found in relatively benign, stable habitats, essentially giant salad bowls, where mothers can very easily find all the food they need to support themselves and any dependent infants. And we see no evidence of the great ape species in the fossil record in those difficult regions where early humans evolved, suggesting that perhaps great apes couldn’t survive in those more difficult environments. And maybe if we weren’t so cooperative, fossils would be all that was left of us. We might exist only as another data point on the ledger of species that tried and failed.

In some cooperatively breeding species, some individuals make the ultimate sacrifice for their family by developing into permanently sterile moths. This is most famously seen in societies of social insects, so ants and wasps and bees, where we know that an individual’s developmental trajectory depends on the food they receive at the larval stage.

So in honeybees, for example, we know that a larva who receives royal jelly will develop into a reproductive queen, whereas a larvae who’s fed a lower quality diet of bee bread will develop into a sterile worker. The existence of these non-reproductive individuals is an evolutionary puzzle, indeed one that was even acknowledged by Darwin himself as the one special difficulty to his theory of evolution by natural selection.

But we now know that we can reconcile the existence of these non-breeding individuals by appreciating that they confer benefits onto their relatives with whom they share genes. It might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that we also have sterile worker moths in our societies, although we don’t typically call them that. Instead, we call them grandmothers.

The existence of grandmothers and the fact that females undergo a stark physiological transition in midlife from fertility to infertility is a puzzle that only makes sense when we consider how that transition benefits her relatives.

Rather than breeding alongside her daughters and potentially competing for scarce resources, evolution has favored females undergoing this physiological transition and instead directing their investments towards helping the next generation.

Historical data from non-industrialized societies shows that the very rare presence of two females breeding concurrently is associated with reduced survival of all the children, whereas the presence of post-reproductive helpful grandmothers is associated with increased survival of their grandchildren and increased fertility of their daughters. This extreme reliance on one another, the fact that we’ve evolved to need and to expect help with raising our offspring, can help to explain why so many of us found pandemic parenting so difficult.

In traditional human societies, the support that mothers need in raising offspring comes from the extended family. In modern societies, where families are typically smaller, we have to some extent outsourced that support to other caregivers, to people like teachers and babysitters and nannies. When all of that support from family members, from schools, from nurseries, was cut off, many of us struggled. I struggled.

We saw worrying increases in the rates of postnatal depression among new mothers and many parents reported increasing symptoms of anxiety and stress and depression, particularly living in single-parent households or where they had children with special educational needs. Many of us felt guilty that we weren’t enjoying this newfound quality time with our children as much as we felt we ought to. But the reality is, we’re not designed to parent in this way. Evolution left us spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with parenting in isolation.

And in fact, even outside of pandemics, this ideal of the Western nuclear family places unrealistic expectations on parents. The ideal of the Western nuclear family is predicated on the assumption of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. And this idea came to prominence in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, when improvements in agricultural productivity and industrialization made it feasible for a single individual to provide for a family and for that family to become increasingly independent.

The idea was then culturally entrenched by the views of the middle classes, often white men, many of whom were academics, who even as recently as 1980 decried the existence of a house with a working mother and a house husband as a deviant division of labor.

This ideal of the nuclear family also spawned research into things like attachment theory and child development. Research which concludes that the primary and perhaps exclusive caregiver to children should be the mother and that by outsourcing that care to other individuals, you might be doing your children irrevocable psychological harm.

These assumptions are damaging not only to children, but to parents and especially to mothers. These assumptions tell us that we ought to feel happy and fulfilled, even when, as one recent report found, many mothers spend up to eight hours a day on their own with their children.

These assumptions tell us we should feel guilty if we send our children to daycare in order to go to work or pursue our own interests. And these assumptions also overlook the contributions of other family members, reducing grandparents to just one category of society’s dependents, rather than acknowledging the vital contribution they can and do make.

The idea of the Western nuclear family may be popular in our culture and our research, but it’s an evolutionary fiction. And the key to making modern parenting easier is therefore to realize that we are cooperative breeders and to seek and accept help with raising our offspring and to allow our children the benefit of being raised and cared for by multiple caregivers.

Admitting that we need help from others is not a sign of failure, but is the very thing that makes us human. Thank you.

SUMMARY OF THIS TALK:

Nichola Raihani’s talk, titled “The Real Reason Modern Parenting Is So Hard,” delves into the challenges of modern parenting and offers a perspective rooted in evolutionary biology. Here are the key points from her talk:

  1. Historical Improvements: Raihani highlights the significant improvements in technology and health since the 18th century. Infant mortality rates have declined from 27% historically to just 3% in recent years, providing parents with more knowledge, capabilities, and resources than ever before.
  2. Mental Health Issues: Despite these advancements, parenting has become increasingly stressful and challenging. Raihani points out that around half of new mothers suffer from emotional or mental health problems, and research indicates that parents, especially those who work, are less happy and more stressed than non-parents.
  3. The Nuclear Family: Raihani argues that the traditional nuclear family (mom, dad, and kids) is a modern Western construct and a historical and cross-cultural outlier. In contrast, most human societies historically lived in extended family units where mothers received support in raising children from various family members, including children themselves.
  4. Cooperative Breeding: The speaker introduces the concept of “cooperative breeding,” which involves extended family units working together to raise young. This behavior is observed in various species, such as meerkats and ants, and it evolves in harsh environments where it’s challenging for a single individual or breeding pair to raise offspring alone.
  5. Human Cooperation: Raihani explains that humans are also cooperative breeders. Early humans lived in difficult, resource-scarce regions, and cooperation was essential for survival. This cooperation distinguishes us from other great ape species, which live in more stable environments and do not rely on extended family support.
  6. Evolution of Sterile Workers: The talk discusses how some individuals in cooperative breeding species, such as ants and bees, become sterile workers to benefit their relatives. In human societies, this concept is paralleled by grandmothers, who undergo a physiological transition from fertility to infertility to help raise the next generation.
  7. Pandemic Parenting Challenges: The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the challenges of modern parenting, as traditional sources of support, like extended family and schools, were disrupted. This led to increased rates of postnatal depression, anxiety, and stress among parents, especially those in single-parent households.
  8. Unrealistic Expectations: Raihani criticizes the ideal of the Western nuclear family, which assumes a male breadwinner and a female homemaker, as unrealistic. She argues that this ideal has been culturally entrenched and has led to damaging assumptions about parenting roles and the psychological harm of outsourcing caregiving.
  9. Importance of Seeking Help: The key takeaway from the talk is that modern parenting can be made easier by recognizing that humans are cooperative breeders. Raihani urges parents to seek and accept help from various caregivers, including extended family members, daycare providers, and grandparents, and to abandon the unrealistic ideal of the nuclear family.
  10. Embracing Cooperation: In conclusion, Raihani emphasizes that admitting the need for help in parenting is not a sign of failure but a reflection of our cooperative nature as humans. By acknowledging this, parents can alleviate the stress and challenges of modern parenting and foster a more supportive and beneficial environment for raising children.

Nichola Raihani’s talk offers a thought-provoking perspective on the challenges of modern parenting and suggests that a return to cooperative parenting practices could lead to happier and healthier families.

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