A curious thing happened to mothers and fathers and children in the late twentieth century. It was called parenting.
As long as there have been animals, there have been mothers and fathers and their young. And as long as they have been Homo sapiens, human mothers and human fathers, and others as well, have taken special care of children. "Mother" and "father" are as old as English itself, and "parent" has been around since at least the fourteenth century. But the word "parenting," now so ubiquitous, first emerged in America in 1958, and became common only in the 1970s.
Where did parenting come from? The parenting model has become particularly influential because of a series of distinctive social changes that took place in twentieth-century America, changes that made being — and especially becoming — a parent very different than it had ever been before. Smaller families, greater mobility, and older first-time parents radically altered the learning curve. For most of human history, people grew up in large extended families with many children. Most parents had extensive experience of taking care of children before they had children themselves. And they had extensive opportunities to watch other people, not just their own parents, but grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles and older cousins, take care of children. Those traditional sources of wisdom and competence — not quite the same as expertise — have largely disappeared. Parenting how-to books, websites, and speakers are appealing because they seem to fill that gap.
At the same time that families got smaller and more scattered, and people had children later, middle-class parents spent more and more time working and going to school. Most middle-class parents spend years taking classes and pursuing careers before they have children. It's not surprising, then, that going to school and working are today's parents' models for taking care of children — you go to school and work with a goal in mind, and you can be taught to do better at school and work.
So there's a reason the parenting model is popular. But it's a poor fit to the scientific reality. From an evolutionary perspective, the relations between human children and the adults who care for them are crucially and profoundly important; indeed, they are a large part of what defines us as human beings. Our most distinctive and important human abilities — our capacities for learning, invention, and innovation; and for tradition, culture, and morality — are rooted in relations between parents and children.
These relations are profoundly important for human evolution. But they are fundamentally unlike the picture that is invoked by the word "parenting." Parents are not designed to shape their children's lives. Instead, parents and other caregivers are designed to provide the next generation with a protected space in which they can produce new ways of thinking and acting that, for better or worse, are entirely unlike any that we would have anticipated beforehand. This is the picture that comes from evolutionary biology, and it is also the picture that comes from empirical studies of child development, like the ones we do in my lab.
This doesn't mean that parents and other caring adults have no influence on children. On the contrary, that influence is deep and necessary. Providing a safe, stable context that lets children thrive is important, not to mention hard. After all, being a parent, even a bad one, involves a greater investment of time, energy, and attention than any other human relationship, by a sizable margin. I say hello to my husband in the morning, leave him alone all day, cook him dinner, and spend an hour or two talking to him sympathetically in the evening. He does the same for me (and actually cleans up the kitchen, which is tougher than cooking). That makes me a pretty good wife, but it would be criminal child abuse if he were my literal, rather than metaphorical, baby. Caring adults don't just influence children's lives — without them, children wouldn't have lives at all.
But it is very difficult to find any reliable, empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do — the variations that are the focus of parenting — and the resulting adult traits of their children. There is very little evidence that conscious decisions about co-sleeping or not, letting your children "cry it out" or holding them till they fall asleep, or forcing them to do extra homework or letting them play have reliable and predictable long-term effects on who those children become. From an empirical perspective, parenting is a mug's game.
Those scientific facts might not matter, of course. Our human evolutionary inheritance crucially includes the ability to overthrow or revise that very inheritance. Even if parenting is a very recent cultural invention, it might be a good or useful one. Even if it is terribly difficult to do well, and only has marginal effects, we might still feel that the attempt is worthwhile. Democracy, another recent cultural invention, is, after all, the worst form of government, except for all the others, and the ubiquity of divorce doesn't make us doubt the value of marriage (well, not much, anyway). The criterion should be whether parenting has helped people thrive.
But, in fact, parenting is a terrible invention. It hasn't improved the lives of children and parents, and in some ways it's arguably made them worse. For middle-class parents, trying to shape their children into worthy adults becomes the source of endless anxiety and guilt coupled with frustration. And for their children, parenting leads to an oppressive cloud of hovering expectations.
Middle-class parents are consumed by the pressure to acquire parenting expertise. They spend literally billions of dollars on parenting advice and equipment. But at the same time, the social institutions of the United States, the great originator and epicenter of parenting, provide less support to children than those of any other developed country. The United States, where all those parenting books are sold, also has the highest rates of infant mortality and child poverty in the developed world.
The rise of parenting is a lot like what happened to food in America at about the same time, what Michael Pollan has called "the omnivore's dilemma." In the past we learned how to eat by participating in cooking traditions. We ate pie, pasta, or pot stickers because our mothers cooked them, and they cooked that way because their mothers did before them. Those many and varied traditions all led to reasonably healthy outcomes. In the twentieth century, especially the American middle-class twentieth century, the erosion of those traditions led to a culture of "nutrition" and "dieting" that has a lot in common with the culture of parenting.
In both cases traditions have been replaced by prescriptions. What was once a matter of experience has become a matter of expertise. What was once simply a way of being, what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a form of life, became a form of work. An act of spontaneous and loving care became, instead, a management plan.
Evolutionary scientists argue that cooking is as crucial to human survival as child-rearing. And yet, both evolutionary considerations and scientific research show that conscious decisions to "diet," to control what we cook or eat, have a marginal effect at best. In fact, the explosion of dieting and nutrition advice coincided with an explosion in obesity.
The fundamental paradox is similar. Cooking and caring for children are both essentially and distinctively human — we couldn't survive as a species without them. But the more we intentionally and deliberately cook and eat in order to become healthy, or raise children in order to make them happy and successful adults, the less healthy and happy we and our children seem to become.
The preponderance of parenting books, like the preponderance of diet books, should, just by itself, be a sign of their futility; if any of them actually worked, that success ought to put the rest of them out of business. And the gap between private goals and public policy, vivid enough in the case of food, is a yawning chasm in the case of caring for children. A society that is obsessed with dieting has the highest obesity rate — a society obsessed with parenting has the highest child poverty rate.
The problem is that we can't put the genie back in the bottle. Once the continuity of traditions has been broken, there is no way to simply restore it. We can't merely unself-consciously cook, or raise our children, as our parents and grandparents did. Nor should we. In fact, as a grandmother, I'm grateful that I can put electrically pumped frozen breast milk back in the bottle — it's a wonderful new child-care invention. Mobility, variety, and choice are unquestionable goods in their own right. I certainly wouldn't want to give up sushi or tortillas or frozen yogurt and return to my grandmother's overcooked brisket and bow ties — or our Pleistocene ancestor's roots and berries, for that matter. Nor would I give up breast pumps or my career as a scientist just because those possibilities didn't exist for previous generations.
In Praise of Mess
But if the details of caregiving don't actually determine how children turn out, why should we invest so much time, energy, and emotion — and just plain money — in raising our children? Why embark on such a demanding, difficult, and uncertain relationship at all?
This is both a personal and political question, and an evolutionary and scientific one. We might just say that evolution makes us care — our genes try to reproduce themselves. But then, why don't we simply become self-sufficient shortly after we are born, as many animals do? Why do children require so much intensive care? And why should adults provide that care if it doesn't make a predictable difference?
The central scientific idea of this book is that the answer lies in disorder. Children are incontrovertibly and undeniably messy. Whatever the rewards of being a parent may be, tidiness is not one of them. In fact, in the perpetual academic search for funding, I've wondered whether I could get the military to consider weaponizing toddler chaos. Unleash it on an opposing army, and they would hardly be able to get out of the house in the morning, let alone coordinate a battle.
Scientists have other words for mess: variability, stochasticity, noise, entropy, randomness. A long tradition, going back to the Greek rationalist philosophers, sees these forces of disorder as the enemies of knowledge, progress, and civilization. But another tradition, going back to the nineteenth-century Romantics, sees disorder as the wellspring of freedom, innovation, and creativity. The Romantics also celebrated childhood; for them, children were the quintessential example of the virtues of chaos.
New science provides some ammunition for the Romantic view. From brains to babies to robots to scientists, mess has merits. A system that shifts and varies, even randomly, can adapt to a changing world in a more intelligent and flexible way.
Evolution by natural selection is one of the best examples of the merits of mess, of course. Random biological variation leads to adaptation. But biologists are also increasingly interested in the idea of "evolvability," that some organisms may be better than others at generating new alternative forms, forms that can then be preserved or abandoned by natural selection. There is some evidence that evolvability can itself evolve; some species may actually have evolved to produce more varied individuals.
For example, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease are very good at producing new variants that can resist antibodies — that's why Lyme disease is hard to treat. If you expose the bacteria to a lot of new antibodies, they become even more variable. The new potential defenses aren't necessarily effective against the particular antibodies attacking the bacteria now, but they make it more likely that the bacteria will survive another attack from different antibodies in the future.
Human beings produce a particularly wide, variable, and unpredictable mix of children, each with unique temperament and abilities, strengths and weaknesses, types of knowledge and varieties of skill. This provides us with the same kind of advantage as the "evolvable" Lyme bacteria. It lets us adapt to an unpredictable changing culture and environment.
Think about risk-taking. We know that from the time they are very small, some children are timid while others are adventurous. Alexei, my oldest son, always got to the top of the jungle gym, but never went up a rung without checking that he had a way down again. Nicholas, my middle son, went hell-bent for the top without looking back. As for me, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere near those high rungs, in any circumstances.
The parents of a risk-taking child may live with their hearts in their mouths, with good reason. If risk-taking people really are more at risk, why wouldn't natural selection have eliminated those traits long ago? Alternatively, if the rewards outweighed the risks, why didn't the more timid children disappear?
When things are predictable, a more conservative, safety-first strategy will be more successful. When things change, risk-taking becomes important. The same strategies that once served you in the old environment will no longer do. And of course you can't tell in advance whether unpredictable change will happen — that's what makes it unpredictable.
So having a mix of people around, some timid and some adventurous, means that each individual person is more likely to survive. The conservative folk ensure that risk-takers get the advantage of security when things are predictable, and the bold allow the timid to get the advantages of innovation when things change.
Nicholas, the child who went straight for the top rung, ended up being very successful in a career where he has to make risky decisions involving millions of dollars — just thinking about it makes me anxious. My parenting certainly would never have had the goal of creating an adult with a life full of risk and uncertainty. But that turned out to be just the life for Nick.
Here's another example. Hunting was an important part of our evolutionary past. When you hunt, you need to pay attention to everything at once and remain constantly on the alert for even subtle changes in the environment. So you might think that back when hunting was crucial to our survival, everybody would have developed those traits. People who just paid attention to one thing at a time and screened out everything else might have provided some other benefits, but they would have been less valuable overall.
However, people with this sort of focused attention turned out to be very valuable when circumstances changed. Once schooling, rather than hunting, became the dominant way of life, focused attention became an advantage. Now it's the children with a wide focus who have trouble adapting.
The Ideas That Die in Our Stead
There is still controversy about how evolvability works, and there is still a lot of scientific work to do to discover just how evolution produces variable creatures in response to variable environments. But there is no question that human learning and culture produce a kind of evolvability that works at much faster time scales than biological evolution.
Instead of waiting for natural selection to turn us into more well-adapted creatures, we adapt on our own by trying out many different pictures of the world (different theories), keeping the ones that fit the data and eliminating the ones that don't. The philosopher Karl Popper said that science lets our theories die in our stead.
This also applies to cultural progress. We can try out different pictures of what the world is like, but we can also actually try to make different kinds of worlds. We can do this either through new tools and technology or through new political and social arrangements — new laws, customs, and institutions. Then we can see which technologies and institutions help us thrive.
So the strategy for human success has two parts. We begin by generating many different possibilities, at least partly at random. Then we preserve the ones that work. However, we don't entirely eliminate the alternatives. Instead, we keep generating alternative possibilities to keep in reserve to deal with a new environment or an unexpected set of problems.
Exploring vs. Exploiting
This strategy has a weakness, however. As all parents know, there is an intrinsic tension between messiness and effectiveness; that's why weaponized toddler chaos would be so devastating. There is a trade-off between generating many alternatives that might be useful in the future and having a lean, mean, fast, efficient system right now. Computer scientists and neuroscientists call it the tension between exploration and exploitation.