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Parenting, an Evolutionary Idea


 By Holly VanScoy


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                                                 Don't ever take parenting lightly. It may be one of the most important things you'll do for the human race.

At least that's the controversial conclusion two professors at the University of Missouri-Columbia reached after a careful study of the importance of social competition to human survival.


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"Parenting not only provides for children's basic needs, it also provides a protective context for them to practice and refine the social and intellectual skills they'll need to compete successfully as adults," says David C. Geary, the Middlebush Professor of Psychological Sciences at UMC. "Children who are not provided such opportunities by their parents or other kin are typically at a big disadvantage in today's world."

Geary and his colleague, Mark Flinn, associate professor of anthropology at the school, published their findings in the current issue of Parenting: Science and Practice.

The two professors hypothesize that parenting and family formation are distinctive human characteristics that evolved to help humans form coalitions that can successfully compete against other humans for control of resources such as food, mates and territory.

Geary says, "If humans had to deal with just lions and tigers and bears, they wouldn't have to be very smart or sophisticated. But because they have to compete with other humans to survive, there is an advantage to being smarter and better socially prepared."

According to the professors, that's precisely what the lengthy period of childhood and adolescence in human beings is for, and why parents play such an important role in the survival of the human species.

"When parents promote their children's participation in athletics, music lessons or social events, they are, in effect, helping them develop the intellectual and social skills they will need to succeed in a society based on competition," Geary says.

Which means the priorities of soccer moms and Little League dads are right on target as far as preparing their children for the future, the professors add.

But Wendy S. Grolnick, associate professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., issues a caution to parents tempted to view every activity their child participates in as a competitive event in which winning is the most important outcome.

In fact, she says, pushing a child to always be the best student in class, the best athlete on the field, or the most popular and well-liked in their peer group is almost always counterproductive.

"There's a fine line between being involved in your child's life, which is good, and controlling your child's life, which is not," says Grolnick, author of a new book, "The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires."

"Unfortunately, almost all of us who are parents get invested in how well our children are doing in every single one of their activities," she adds. "We push them to be the best at everything and act as if their ability to win determines their future survival, which is definitely not the case."

After studying parental involvement and control for almost two decades, Grolnick has found that high levels of parental control actually get in the way of children's success.

"Too much interference by parents in their children's social, academic or athletic lives ends up handicapping the children," she says. "It prevents them from developing the skills they'll most need later in life."

Children are better served by parents who provide resources for them and facilitate their participation in a wide range of activities, Grolnick adds.

"The child-rearing styles humans evolved over millions of years are adaptive to circumstances that no longer exist," she says. "Today's parenting requires giving children many opportunities, but not becoming overly concerned about particular outcomes, such as the highest grades, the best test scores, or always winning in sports or other contests. There's more long-term value to children learning self-control and problem-solving than in their besting peers in childhood competitions."

What to Do: To find out more about how to parent in ways that promote a child's self-control, read this article from New York University School of Medicine. If you're interested in reading the complete text of Geary and Flinn's article, it's available online by clicking here.