Thursday, February 11, 2021

Does Parenting Style Shape Our Moral Culture?

A moral culture is the set of beliefs and practices in a society that specifies the values and norms that (people believe) ought to be adopted by the people living in that society. There are many different moral cultures. Psychologists and sociologists frequently talk, for example, about honour-based moral cultures. These are cultures in which the moral worth of each individual is not equal. It depends on the honour of each individual. Consequently, gaining and protecting one’s honour is the focal point of the moral beliefs and practices in such a culture. Honour-based cultures are sometimes contrasted with dignity-based moral cultures, which essentially hold that all people are of equal moral worth and this equality must be respected by the society’s moral beliefs and practices.

These are just illustrative examples. The concept of a moral culture is broader than that. Since a moral culture is, in essence, just a particular constellation of moral beliefs and practices, usually held together by some common underlying moral theory or paradigm, we could also talk about individualist, communitarian, and egalitarian moral cultures.

As you may know, I’ve recently been writing quite a bit about the idea of moral change and moral revolution. It is an obvious historical fact that people’s moral beliefs and practices change over time. The more dramatic moral changes — the revolutions — often involve changes in the underlying moral culture. For instance, the shift from honour-based morality to dignity-based morality is often thought to be a significant one. But here’s an interesting question: does parenting style make a difference to moral culture? And can shifts in parenting style precipitate or cause moral revolutions?

I recently came across a paper that addresses these questions. It was by Markus Christen, Darcia Narvaez and Eveline Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger (hereafter ‘Christen et al’) and it was called ‘Comparing and Integrating Biological and Cultural Moral Progress’. The paper looks at a number of different issues in the philosophy, psychology and history of morality. I’m not going to consider them all. But the comments it made about parenting style struck me as being quite important, particularly in light of my own recent reflections on the appropriate ethical style of parenting. So I want to review and critically analyse what they have to say.

I’ll do this in three parts. First, I’ll explain why parenting style might be an important shaper of moral culture. Second, I’ll consider a contrast between ancient and modern parenting styles and how this might be impacting on our moral culture. Third, I’ll consider some problems with the claim that modern parenting style is having a negative impact on our moral culture.

1. Why Does Parenting Style Matter to Moral Culture?

In an earlier article, I set out to explain the ‘mechanics’ of moral change. In that article, I made a few observations about evolution and brain development that seem to bear repeating here.

Very roughly, we would expect evolution to play some significant role in shaping the kinds of rules that we adopt in our lives. After all, it does this for other animals. For example, sea-dwelling Salmon follow reasonably strict rules when it comes to their own reproduction: swimming back to the rivers in which they were spawned to continue the cycle of life.

But one of the interesting things about human evolution is how relatively flexible our behavioural rules actually are. Although there are some things that humans have to do in order to survive and thrive, they are surprisingly few in number. They certainly can’t account for all the things humans think they have to do. Indeed, the rules and norms humans follow in their lives — including oddities such as not eating pork and remaining voluntarily celibate for the purposes of religious devotion — are diverse, culturally contingent, and not always obviously linked backed to evolutionary pressures. How did this diversity arise?

Part of the answer lies in the evolution of the human brain. Instead of coming into the world with a complete set of pre-programmed behavioural rules and fixed action patterns, humans come with a flexible learning machine — the brain — that allows them to create and learn behavioural rules in response to cultural, geographical and other contingent historical factors. Evolving that brain came at a cost. Given the constraints of the human birth canal, human babies cannot be born in a mature and capable state. They have to be born in a helpless and immature state. This makes them highly dependent on their parents, particularly their mothers, as well as their wider families and caregiving networks for nurturance and guidance in their early years.

This results in something of a tension when it comes to human moral development. On the one hand we have a flexible capacity to learn lots of different moral rules, but on the other hand we have evolved to attach to and be dependent on our parents and other caregivers in our early years. This means that the style of parenting to which we are exposed can have an important nudging effect on the kinds of moral rules we are inclined to follow later in life.

This is where the influence of parenting style on moral culture can be observed. Learning styles or behavioural rules are not necessarily equivalent to moral cultures, but they are a substantial part of them. Parents and caregivers provide opportunities for and place constraints on their children. These opportunities and constraints either explicitly or implicitly teach children what to value and what to do. This shapes their future moral beliefs and practices, predisposing them to favour certain forms of moral culture.

This can also have an effect on how susceptible people are to moral change later in life. Intuitively, it would seem that the stricter and more conservative one’s upbringing, the less open to moral change one is likely to be in the future. But this is just a rough guess. One’s disposition to moral change is going to be influenced by more than just parenting style. It will also be influenced by genetic factors as well as other wider social factors. For instance, the moral beliefs and practices that prevail in a time of war or famine might be very different from those that prevail in a time of peace and plenty. This is adaptation is not necessarily linked to parenting style.

2. Ancient versus Modern Parenting Styles

You will notice that in the previous section I equivocated somewhat between parents and wider caregiving communities in some of my comments. That equivocation was deliberate but it needs to be cleared up now before it leads to unnecessary confusion.

Nowadays we think of parents (one or two adult individuals) as the primary caregivers for children. But, of course, it is rare for one or two individuals to be solely responsible for the care of children. Children are raised in communities, which consist of extended family members (aunts, uncles, grandparents), peers (friends, neighbours) and social institutions (schools, churches etc). It is these wider caregiving communities, and not just biological or adoptive parents, that raise children.

This prompts a reformulation of the question I asked at the outset. Instead of asking: does parenting style make a difference to a moral culture? It is probably more correct to ask: does caregiving style (where this includes what parents and wider caregiving communities do) make a difference to a moral culture?

This reformulation is important when it comes to understanding the claims made by Christen et al in their paper. Although they make comments about parenting style and, specifically, the role of mothers, in shaping moral culture, it’s pretty clear that they are focused on caregiving as a whole, and not just on what mothers and fathers might do.

So what argument do they make about caregiving styles? They draw a contrast between our ancestral evolved form of caregiving and modern caregiving. Like many psychologists and anthropologists, they assume that humans evolved in small hunter-gatherer bands. Some such bands still exist today and there are ethnographic records of such bands dating back a few centuries. Looking at such hunter-gatherer bands, a particular style of caregiving can be observed. Christen et al argue that this caregiving style is the original, evolved form of caregiving for human beings.

What are the distinctive features of this ancient caregiving style? In her previous work, Darcia Narvaez (one of the co-authors on the Christen et al paper) has enumerated its main features. Four are particularly important:

Affectionate Touch - Children are kept in close (skin to skin) contact with their mothers and breastfeed regularly, often up to the age of four.
Responsivity - Parents are available to respond to their children when they are in distress and regularly do so.
Free Play - Children are given lots of time to play on their own and with other children in a relatively free and open form, often including rough-and-tumble play.
Alloparenting and Social Support - Children are not just cared for by the parents or mothers but by wider social networks within the hunter-gatherer band.


These features are found across most hunter-gatherer bands and, according to Narvaez, they characterise the evolved developmental niche (or EDN) for human beings. In other words, it is to this caregiving style that human development, particularly brain development, has been adapted. Narvaez’s work focuses a lot on the role of mothers and maternal touch within this EDN, but, as can be seen from the list of features just given, this style of caregiving is about more than just mothers. It’s also about the opportunities for free play and social interaction that are given to children.

This ancestral and evolved form of caregiving is contrasted with the modern style of caregiving, particularly the one that has emerged in the USA and that can also be found, to perhaps a lesser extent, in other developed countries. Having read through a few papers by Narvaez on caregiving styles, I’m still not entirely sure what the key features of the modern style of caregiving are, but it seems that they are best understood as the opposite of the evolved style. So, in other words, modern parenting seems to be characterised by less affectionate touch (less, close, physical bonding with mothers in particular), less parental responsivity (children left to cry or left in daycare), less free play and a more isolated parenting style (single or dual parents do the majority of caregiving with some, distant, institutional support). There is also a greater use of punishment and coercion in this form of parenting to ensure that children adopt certain behavioural norms. This seems to be absent from the evolved caregiving style.

What effect does all this have on moral culture? The argument from Christen et al (and supported by Narvaez’s empirical work) is that it is having a noticeable, and arguably negative effect on our moral culture. They claim that the ancestral caregiving style supports a prosocial, ‘engagement ethics’. Children are taught to share and care for other members of their groups. They are taught to have empathy for others; to see themselves as members of supportive communities and not as isolated individuals. They often then look on resources as shared communal property, not something that just belongs to certain people. Contrariwise, the modern caregiving style supports a more isolationist, ‘self-protection’ ethics. Children are taught to see the outside world, including others, as a source of potential threats to their existence. They are taught resources are subject to property rights (some stuff is ‘mine’ and other stuff is not) and not communal property.

There’s more, but that’s the gist of the thesis: the contrasts in caregiving style support very different moral cultures. And one of them, according to Christen et al, is ‘aberrant’ and contrary to human flourishing. No prizes for guessing which one.

Christen et al don’t get into this in their paper but it struck me that what they argue lends support to the thesis developed by Jason Manning and Bradley Campbell in their work on ‘Victimhood culture’. Very roughly, Manning and Campbell argue that we (in the West, specifically the USA) are undergoing a shift in our underlying moral culture. As noted above, we have previously shifted from an honour-based culture to a dignity-based culture. The key contrast between those cultures had to do with how we perceived the moral worth of the individual and the rights and responsibilities that flowed from this perception. In an honour-based culture, worth is something you must gain and maintain: if it is under threat, you have the right to protect your own honour. In a dignity-based culture, everyone has equal moral worth and the institutions of power respect and protect this. Individuals are then free to live their lives as they see fit, with some moral limits involving respect to others. In a victimhood culture, moral worth is, once more, under unstable and under threat (everyone is a potential or actual victim of such a threat). In this case, moral worth is linked to identity and authenticity. Unlike an honour-based culture, however, being a victim in this culture actually adds to your respect. Furthermore, you don’t protect yourself from threats; you look, instead, to authorities (parents, schools, states) to do so. Caregiving style, according to Manning and Campbell, has a role to play in shaping this culture, by setting a certain conception of self-worth and highlighting threats and risks. I think you can see how the protectionist style of parenting could support this.

3. Some Critical Reflections

A large portion of this argument rings true to me. I certainly think that there are aspects of modern parenting, particularly of the helicopter style, that support a self-protectionist ethics. As I have noted before, many parents in my extended peer group (middle-class, college-educated, living in economically developed countries) are highly protective, competitive and interventionist when it comes to their children. They shield them from threats, try to optimise their education and health, while also maintaining full time careers themselves (careers that often mean they are separated from their children for large portions of the day/week). My sense is that this style of parenting induces a lot of anxiety among both parents and children.

This is not to condemn those parents or to suggest that I am immune from these practices myself. I’m not. It’s just what I see in my peer group. This chimes with what Christen et al say about modern parenting. Furthermore, and more significantly, Darcia Narvaez has, in her empirical work, amassed a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest that we can trace the effects of this parenting style through a child’s cognitive and moral development. I recommend reading it and reviewing what she and her collaborators have to say.

Still, I have some worries about the thesis. First, I worry about the over-moralisation of caregiving styles. As noted, it’s very clear from the way they present it, that Christen et al think that modern caregiving style is morally defective or inferior when compared to evolved caregiving style. This argument has a stench of the naturalistic fallacy to me: because we evolved to develop in that caregiving niche that is the one that is optimal, morally speaking, for us. That may be true, and there are ways to make this claim more plausible and remove the whiff of naturalistic fallacy from it, but there are also reasons to think that modern parenting might be a morally appropriate response to changes in social and technological development (Christen et al allude to this themselves).

The modern world is, after all, orders of magnitude more socially and technically complex than what you find in small hunter-gatherer bands. This means that there more opportunities for people in the modern world (more things to do, people to interact with, experiences to have etc) but this comes with increased threats and risks to people’s welfare too (threats from other people, from the choices they might make, and from the technological world that we now inhabit). Being more protective in such a world might be appropriate. Furthermore, I think you could argue that modern parenting represents a reasonable tradeoff between different values and interests. Parents value having rewarding careers and families, children need to be provided for with respect to their education and future. Given these values and interests, more parental investment in work, more reliance on daycare and more separation from children, may be morally preferable. At the very least, if it is morally sub-optimal, it’s not something that parents themselves can easily correct without institutional and legal support (more paid parental leave, cheaper property and education costs and so on).

To be clear, it’s not that I am a huge fan of modern caregiving style. I’m not. I’ve written previously that I think parents can be too protective and too invested in trying to control their children’s development. But I don’t think we can morally condemn it all that easily.

This brings me to a second critical point. I am somewhat sceptical that we can easily delineate between modern and evolved caregiving styles. The presentation given above, and in Christen et al’s paper, draws a sharp contrast between the two styles. We adopt the modern style; others adopt the evolved style. But I imagine, in practice, that the lines are more blurry and the contrast less obvious. It varies from culture to culture, and locale to locale. Speaking from my own experience of parenting, I find that many of the features of the evolved style of caregiving are present, actively encouraged and supported (perhaps to an excessive degree). For example, breastfeeding and affectionate touch have been both advocated for and normalised for my daughter. Furthermore, we have lots of social support from wider family when it comes to caring for her. The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately impacted on this, but it has its advantages too — the main one being that both her parents have been far more involved in her day-to-day care than might otherwise have been the case.

I may just be lucky but the point here is not that my anecdotal experience represents the norm but that caregiving styles are probably not so black-and-white. If that’s true, the effects on moral culture may be more subtle and nuanced than we would expect.

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