Lessons from the Past: Why Parents Need Helpers Who Care

Parents have always depended on helpers. But nowadays, many families are cut off from the social networks that our ancestors took for granted. What have we lost, and why has it become so difficult for parents to find good social support? Cross-cultural observations — and recent experimental studies — may offer some answers.

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Living in a World of Helpers

Parents of the past faced many hardships, but they didn’t do it alone. In fact, research suggests that children wouldn’t have survived without extra help.

For instance, consider the evidence of contemporary hunter-gatherers — the people whose life-ways most closely resemble those of our distant ancestors. Anthropological studies show that parents with young children can’t produce enough food to feed their families. Burdened by the demands of childcare, they simply don’t have the time.

So other people — relatives, friends, and neighbors — donate their resources. And parents reap another crucial benefit, too: Free, cooperative “day care.”

It was a feature shared by virtually all close-knit communities of the past, from Old World agricultural villages to the small towns of 20th century America. Kids played together on what anthropologist David Lancy calls “the mother ground,” an open space that bordered on areas where adults worked at their trades or did chores.

The oldest children were expected to look after the youngest, and, if any serious danger arose, the nearby adults were available to step in. But nobody was being paid to babysit, and parents didn’t have to feel they were imposing on others. Just as foragers accept the necessity of subsidizing families with young children, people in small-scale communities understood that everybody looks out for each other’s kids.

Far-reaching effects

It’s easy to see how these ancient social networks helped families meet their immediate economic needs. They kept food on the table. But they must have had other effects as well.

For example, experiments on animals suggest that social support can have crucial consequences for a parent’s long-term physical health: Parents-to-be paired up with unsupportive mates die younger, even when they are well-supplied with food and a safe place to raise their families.

In addition, human studies confirm that that social support is linked with mental health and parenting quality. On the one hand, low levels of social support may put parents at greater risk for depression and other psychological problems — problems that can spill over and affect the development of kids. On the other hand, high levels of social support may buffer parents against stress, and help them respond to their children in ways that are positive, nurturing, and intellectually stimulating.

The Modern Upheaval

With consequences like these, we might conclude that social support is indispensable. But most parents today are disconnected from the traditional social networks, and many parents are reluctant to ask for help. Moreover, studies suggest that social support has relatively little impact on the parenting of people living in high-stress environments. Why?

Recent brain research may offer some insights. When people are reminded of loving, secure social relationships, they undergo a change of mood. In one study, volunteers who saw images of strangers receiving affectionate social support experienced a temporary deactivation of the threat-response system in the brain. Other studies suggest that stories of family care — and even subliminal presentations of words like “hug” and “love” — make people feel less distressed, more empathic, and more compassionate.

Perhaps, then, this is the key to understanding the power of social support. Being plugged into a truly caring, supportive network makes parents feel more relaxed, more attuned, and more sympathetic to their children’s needs. But if parents don’t anticipate a warm, caring response from their potential helpers — if they don’t feel their social partners are particularly dependable, willing, or trustworthy — they may not reap psychological benefits from their social connections.

Help Isn’t Helpful if it Stresses You Out

So we should be careful about preaching the virtues of social support for parents. It’s important, but it’s probably the quality of support that matters most, and some people lack high-quality options. If we want to improve the situation, we need to think of ways to re-establish the mutually supportive social networks of times past.

Meanwhile, struggling parents should reassure themselves on several points. First, feeling overtaxed isn’t a sign of failure — it’s normal and natural for parents to need help. Second, parents are justified in demanding social partners who actually make them feel better — not incompetent, threatened, or stigmatized. And finally, parents lacking good social support may help themselves by seeking out warm, positive social messages. As the research suggests, even friendly strangers can have beneficial effects on a parent’s mood and behavior.

Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.

Gwen Dewar received her Ph.D. in biological anthropology from University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she studied evolution, social learning, parenting, primatology, and psychology. A science writer, she founded the website, Parenting Science in 2006, and popularizes research of interest to parents, educators, and students of human nature.