Differences in Parent/Child Relationship: an evolutionary approach

In the past few decades the world evolved very rapidly and, logically, that affects children and their parents too.

If we look backward, children used to have to grow up way faster than they do now, becoming independent at a much younger age. However, even when we’re looking at older cultures, we can spot something very curious: even then, grandmothers had a major role in child care, leading us to think about how important they always have been throughout human evolution.

As a species, we have the longest childhood out of all beings we know, and lately, it seems to have become even longer. We are more and more dependent on our parents for more and more years. Why? Well, comparing ourselves with other animals, there are a few things to keep in mind. The average lifetime of a species seems to have a great impact on the length of their childhood, for example. Thinking of a species that have lots of children, with rapid growth, they’re usually species where most of the young do not reach the state of adulthood. In our case, it’s quite the opposite, and even more-so: we demand a great deal of investment.

Another important fact is the brain size. A bigger brain, that provides the animal with more skills is, in the great majority of times, equivalent to a bigger childhood, which is not that surprising since they need more time to learn all of the skills they can muster, so they end up needing their parents care and guidance for a longer period of time. Seems unfair perhaps, but, this learning will be fundamental for the evolution of the species.

Talking about our species, this is especially true. Our children need us and even after becoming independent adults, we still need our parents for so many things at times! Sometimes, it seems like we’re never truly independent, but in fact, we are independent way before we realize that, we just need some help from time to time, due the fact that there are so many skills to learn, that it’s impossible to know them all.

The human being is always changing and this change occurs really quickly because our world changes in the blink of an eye and each generation has new problems to face, new skills to learn and sometimes a completely different environment they’ll have to grow up in. So, as easily as we can learn what our parents can teach us, it’s even more easily that we try to find new solutions for emerging problems and new uses for tools. But these things require time and patience.

With all those changes, adaptation is the most valuable lesson a parent can give their child, and personally, I think that’s one of the reasons for the decrease of an authoritarian parenthood. Parents more and more, are aware that they don’t know everything, so instead of telling their children how to do it, they help them find their own way to a solution that works for them. This is the best way we have found to get our children to face the future without fear.

Attachment and Caregivers

Most of the studies about this are made with mothers, however, with women’s emancipation, many children have different caregivers during the day, sometimes not related to them or not even from the same culture.

A child will develop attachment for different people, with different personalities, points of view and reactions and that will have an important impact on the said child. They learn in different ways, from different people and that will have a reflection on them as human beings.

Also, nowadays, our children receive lots of information from so many different sources. Parents are no longer the only model. That will allow them to observe and realize how confident the adults are about something and compare different reactions in different people.

According to Gopnik “from a very early age, they make judgments about whether other people are credible and reliable” and that includes parents. This means that as parents we might have a harder situation educating them, forcing us to be more open and talk with our children instead of merely spouting “that’s it, because I said so”, as our parents or grandparents used to say to us.


Genetics versus Environment

There are plenty of studies about how much each of these two factors can influence our personality, our behavior and who we are in general. Genetics play a great deal, but the environment where we grow and develop ourselves has a lot of say in our self too. The complex interaction between these two aspects was the focus of many recent studies that concluded we face a great unpredictability regarding the way they influence each other (Gopnik, 2016).

We can extrapolate this to the parents-children relationship: children have a certain influence over their parents’ behavior, as well as do the parents have influence over their children’s behavior, but this doesn’t mean we can seemingly predict what one of the parts will do, just by observing the other one’s behavior.

The truth is that there is another point of great relevance that seems to make all the difference: resilience. A child with great resilience can endure and resist in any kind of environment, as well as, a child with low resilience might have problems even if he or she lives with the “perfect” family. That’s why we have children from complicated environments that become productive, independent and happy adults and children coming from good environments who end up becoming troublemakers.

We are models for the young ones, there is no doubt, but they will observe our behavior, our actions, try to understand how things work out and finally live their lives, formulate their behavior and act according to their own personality and will.

So… what is the parents function after all?


Protective Parents. Let’s mold him our way

Nowadays, it’s quite common what we call helicopter parents, which tends to mean the parent that overprotects their child. Let me tell you, as a mother, that it’s perfectly normal to have the temptation of protecting them from everything and raise them in a bubble where nothing can hurt them. It’s our instinct, but it’s the worst thing you could do…

Individually, they’ll become fearful and unadapted. We want our children to have the best they can, but the world will not be easy on them, so… the faster they learn to solve problems, the better.

Socially, we’ll be raising a big problem for our society. Yes, we can’t forget that our children are members of a society, even a species and they have their own part and stake in. The most difficult of it all is: we don’t know what part will that be.

Children, they are a fundamental piece of the evolutionary system. They take what we give them and transform it, make it evolve, in order to solve new problems they have to face. If we protect them from everything and don’t let them “expand”, they will not be able to do this. Gopnik (2016) says “We give children the resources, tools and, the infrastructure they need to solve problems we haven’t even thought of yet.”


Social Environment and Intergenerational Transmission

Social is a word that might define the human being. Each person has an important need for belonging… children are not different. The social environment and the models a child gets through his or her life are key pieces of how that child will survive and adapt later on. They learn from us, but also transform what they see according to their personality.

Learning is the way children evolve, but it’s also the way they adapt to the world. That learning process is especially received from other people. The adults have, this way, an important role to play and they have to adapt to it as well. This adaptation will provide them the tools to take care of and teach their children. According to Gopnik (2016), “many biologists think those facts played a major role in our evolutionary success.”

First psychologists believed that our brains developed abilities to solve specific problems, but that vision had long since changed over time. Nowadays, “more and more theorist point to the evolution of wide-ranging and broad-based kinds of learning and cultural transmission” (Gopnik, 2016). This will provide us with the ability to develop new cognitive skills to solve unexpected problems.

Children also have a great role in maintaining tradition. The truth is that the intergenerational transmission is also quite important for human development. How? Feedback loops. They will provide us the possibility to evaluate, improve and adapt, something impossible to have happened without the previous generations acquired knowledge.

We still don’t know for sure how this interaction, between the two forces of innovation and imitation, works. However, it is obvious that in each generation, both make an appearance and a contribution, thus getting our species to evolve and survive. Sometimes little things can make the difference, a slightly different way of doing something can turn out to later on, throughout generations, represent a massive change for all of us.

Childhood Is a Mess

‘Children are the future’! I’m sure you’ve heard that before, right? So, let me tell you that they are our present too… if we let them.

This post is not to talk about how it is to be a child, but rather, what it is about being a child that is so unique. Innovation and creativity are at their peak! Children solve problems every single day and their brain has way more activity on a daily basis than an adult’s brain. A year old baby makes approximately double the neural connections of an average adult!

Gopnik (2016) says that “The mind of a human child […] is the most flexible and powerful learning device in the known universe.” They are excellent at problem-solving, many times, better than any adult. We don’t always realize that since sometimes, they can’t make the most basic stuff, but for those who deal with children daily, they’ve probably faced situations where they’re asked themselves how did the child did or knew something. That happens because “younger learners are better than older ones at figuring out unlikely options.”

As adults, we must be the safe harbor for them to explore and experiment. A safe environment (not controlled) will help them to develop all those amazing abilities they have. How? Trough books, toys, walking on the beach, in the park… We should let them do and not tell them what to do.

Your worries can stop your children from being amazing

Yes, worrying is part of being a parent. In my country, people used to say that being a mom means having your heart outside of your body all the time. But, let’s face it, being worried all the time isn’t good for anyone… let alone the child.

Development studies suggest that worried parents create fearful children. You might think that you don’t let them know that you’re worried, however, I’m sorry to inform you, your children can detect your lack of confidence in them and your uncertainty about some activity or exploration that they want to do. They’re frighteningly insightful.

Besides that, letting your children explore the world around them will help them improve their abilities and evolve. Let’s not forget that this is the perfect time for exploring. In case something goes wrong they can always call for their mother or father, whereas later in life this will be much more difficult.


It’s a mess and that’s good!

Mess is the key word when talking about children, or if you want to be politically correct, you might say as Gopnik (2016), childhood is “variability, stochasticity, noise, entropy, randomness”. Of course, as a parent, this can drive you crazy, but for your child’s development, it can make a whole world of difference.

If you go back to the 19th Century, you’ll discover that it’s Romantics looked at children as representations of the virtues of chaos, since for them disorder appeared as the wellspring of freedom, innovation, and creativity, which means that this ‘mess’ will allow our children to adapt to the world and its new and crescent demands.

“Childhood is for learning – that’s what children are designed to do, and that’s why adults and children have such a special relationship. But children’s learning goes far beyond just listening to what their parents say or doing what their parents want.” Gopnik, 2016


Being different might save the day

All children are different, it’s almost a cliche saying such a thing, but biologically speaking, that difference is what provides us with the ability to survive as a group. It will allow us to adapt to very different situations and to help each other out, living better and longer, as a species.

The author gave an interesting example that I’ll try to reproduce here. Imagine two types of children: the risk-taking child and the timid one. The risk-taking children are fundamental in situations of abrupt and unpredictable changes (innovation) and the timid ones will be perfect in predictable situations (security). And, as a species, we need both, the ones who innovate and the ones who maintain tradition and security, this balance allows the evolution and survival of a species.


GOPNIK, Alison (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Parenting Culture: a Strange New Tendency

Over this past century, society has evolved quickly, with changes happening one after another and faster than ever before. This influenced everything, including the way we see and relate with our children. In the 1970s, a new way of care for our little ones emerged: parenting.

Parents were no longer the adults who take care of children and helped them grow… they had a harder job now. Parents had to shape their children into the human being they wanted them to be. Gopnik (2016) explains it with an interesting metaphor, calling the new parents, carpenters “(…)your job is to shape that material into a final product that will fit the scheme you had in mind, to begin with.”

Obviously, this scheme is not parent-friendly nor does it take into account each child’s particularities, quirks, desires, and wills.

“The parenting picture suggests that you can measure the value of caring for children by measuring the value of the adults those children become” (Gopnik, 2016), so parents want to transform their children into smart, happy and successful adults. Let’s not forget that those adjectives are, in truth, far too subjective for us to make them such a hard rule or goal to be guided by.

Besides, our world is always changing and, with it, so are we. Our children need to evolve with this changing world and what we now face as truths, can be quite a different story tomorrow. And it’s on this uncertain and mysterious tomorrow that they will live. Now, think about it: do we really want out children to turn out exactly like us?

Again, according to Gopnik (2016), we shouldn’t want to shape them into something that will fit perfectly in the world right now, but instead, we should create a generation which can be “robust, adaptable and resilient, better able to deal with the inevitable, unpredictable changes that face them in the future.”


Are we harming our children in our eagerness to make them better?

Over the last century, the concept of family itself suffered great changes, that might have boosted this phenomenon. It’s a fact that nowadays we have fewer children than before, but that’s not the only change. We do indeed have smaller families, but also families with more mobility which means the larger or broader family is sometimes far away from us.

The valuable experience of the past, passed down by mothers, grandmothers, and aunts is often enough no longer there and most of us never took care of a baby sibling or cousin. Generally speaking, women have careers and less time for the family, so we started to have children later than before and with almost zero notion of what it is to raise children.

In this context emerged the so-called helicopter parents. We can observe this phenomenon, mostly in some anxious middle-class parents, who want to control everything, avoiding a child’s self-evolution by managing each bit of their schedules and activities. Controlling the environment will not help children in the real (and uncontrolled) world, it’s important that parents ‘let’ children learn and not ‘make’ them learn.

I, personally, think that the modern life enables this behavior even more. Our worries are quite different than before, we want to study more, work more, have more and this creates a gap between the adults and their children, a gap that parents try to compensate, apparently, through the wrong means.

According to Gopnik, there isn’t any scientific evidence proving that following one or another parenting theory will really have some long-term effect. For example, co-sleeping or not, letting them cry or holding them to sleep are pointless discussions that, in fact, do not lead us anywhere, merely draining our energy.


So, in the end, is it all pointless? Is it useless?

We can’t answer this question with absolute certainty of what we’re saying, yet scientific facts seem to point to this being the case, yes.

Parenting does not make it better for anyone. Actually, on the contrary, it seems to make it worst for both parents and children. Parents have to deal on a daily basis with anxiety and guilt about pretty much everything, as well as, great doses of frustration since they put so much of their efforts into parenting and yet, it seems that no matter what they are doing, it’s never enough. For children, parenting brings them an “oppressive cloud of hovering expectations” (Gopnik, 2016).


So, what should we do?

Things change, it’s a fact. The world, ourselves, everything is a constant evolution and we can’t (nor should we) go back. Evolving and adapting is what has always helped mankind stay alive, so we have to find the best way of doing so, while looking forward. This is the most important lesson you can give to your kids.

Great generals and executives don’t take ages to think through every possible plan and pick the absolute best one (why should we do it with a baby?), they pick one that is good enough and execute it confidently and decisively.

We know that children learn from their parents and caregivers, but in the parenting model, parents believe that they can consciously control that learning. However, studies suggest that the most of what we learn didn’t even come from “conscious and deliberate teaching”. (Gopnik, 2016)

According to the mentioned author “the puzzle is how to provide children with rich, stable, secure context they need to grow up without expecting that we can or should be able to control how they turn out.” So, take confident decisions and know that you are doing the best you can with the best you have.



GOPNIK, Alison (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

New Parents, new children: raising children in the new century

Times have sure changed a lot over the past 50 years, and the way we see and deal with our children is often a reflection of these changes.

The children are now granted a certain status and have a very different role in our lives. They have more importance nowadays and we’re more and more concerned with them and about them. The way we raise them, and our investment in doing so, is an interesting example of how being a parent is so different nowadays.

Parenting has become some sort of work of its own. This is, in itself, an action that will make us either good or bad parents depending on the kind of parenting we’ll assume and it’s according to Gopnik (psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley), a really recent concept.

According to this concept we apply nowadays, there are right ways of being a parent, right actions to take, and “the right kind of parenting will produce the right kind of child, who in turn will become the right kind of adult” (Gopnik, 2016). So, parenting (what we now call good parenting) becomes a goal, defining us as adults and acts as a source of hard pressure for many of us.


The gardener and the carpenter

Gopnik (2016) choose an interesting metaphor to explain the differences between being a parent now and in the past, by using the image of a gardener (“creating a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish”, Gopnik 2016) and a carpenter (shaping his material into what he wants it to become).

This has great influence in the way we see children and their development and, consequently, in our society and our future as a species.

The idea of parenting becomes a general perspective of perfection, wherein we need to be perfect in order to be good parents, or at least better than the most. Nowadays, parenting is another point for us to evaluate one another (and not often kindly). We look at a child and if we see any hint of bad behavior, we’ll automatically think of bad parenting as a correlation. However, years of studies and even common sense show us that this isn’t exactly correct. How many times do we see two siblings raised exactly the same way who end up turning out so different from one another, especially when it comes to behavior?

Parenting no longer stands for the actions you take in order to take care of your children, but rather a crazy impossible list of things and rules you must do and abide by, or forever be labeled a bad parent. Gopnik (2016) considers that this new perspective “made life worse for children and parents, not better”. According to the author, being a parent is a special relationship and shouldn’t be evaluated as you being a good parent only if you “build” the right kind of kid (and what is that kind of kid, mind you?) and she completes it by saying “love doesn’t have goals […] but a purpose. The purpose is not to change the people we love, but to give them what they need to thrive.”


Which of these parents will these children become?

We don’t have a way of knowing exactly how this new vision of children and parenting will really affect all of us in the future. We can try, we can imagine, observing the immediate results, but, this isn’t enough to guess the overall impact this will have on society, in the long run.

“Caring for children is a political subject as well as scientific and personal one” (Gopnik, 2016) It’s not just us the parents or relatives who take care of our children, but plenty more people such as daycare employees, and there is also plenty more information (for both good and bad) and so many different factors that have their own impact in the adults that our children will eventually become.

So, I’ll leave you with some questions:

Is there a fair way to judge someone’s parenting?

Can we evaluate the parents’ abilities by the kind of adult a child become?

Can we predict what’s going to happen for some child, by the way he or she is being taken care of by his or her parents?

Read more about this in the article “Parenting: a strange new tendency”.



GOPNIK, Alison (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.