State of USA Today. Child mental and physical well being have been on the decline for over 50 years in the USA, the wealthiest nation on earth. People under the age of 65 (today) score at or near the bottom on multiple health indicators compared to citizens in 16 other advanced nations (National Research Council, 2013). The USA has heightening epidemics of depression, anxiety, psychosocial and health problems at all ages (UNICEF, 2007; OECD, 2009). Because humans are holistic creatures, attachment, sociality and moral capacities have also been declining (e.g., empathy, moral reasoning) (Konrath et al. 2011, 2014). Avoidant attachment has been increasing along with narcissism, both of which undermine social and citizenship capacities (Twenge & Campbell, 2009). Sociopathy has become a cultural phenomenon (Derber, 2013).
Early Life Stress. Although there are likely multiple causes, we can surely point to one basic cause with converging evidence from across the human sciences. Early life toxic stress (Shonkoff et al., 2012; Lanius et al., 2010; van der Kolk, 2014). Recent research is tempering views that deficits from poor early care can be easily outgrown (Karr-Morse & Wiley, 2012; Lupien et al., 2009; Schore, 2019; van der Kolk, 2014). In fact, an increasing amount of converging evidence across animal, human psychological, neurobiological and anthropological research demonstrates the later vulnerability of brain and body systems among those with poor early care (Felitti & Anda, 2005).
Human Flourishing. We don’t have to guess or conduct extensive studies of what leads to human flourishing. Evolution, in effect, has ‘done the experiments’ over millions of years, providing the baselines for child raising and human flourishing. Evolution has provided a wellness-informed pathway (Narvaez, 2014). See Figure 1. In contrast, we can conclude that the USA follows a trauma-inducing pathway. See Figure 2.
Evidence for Wellness in Our Ancestral Context. The genus homo has spent 99% of its existence—around six million years—in foraging bands (Fry, 2006). This indicates that our bodies and brains evolved and adapted to this ancestral context, called the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (Bowlby, 1969). Some human societies have been in existence for over 150,000 years, such as the San Bushmen (Suzman, 2017), whose germ line is shared with all existing humans (Henn et al., 2011). Like the Bushmen, most people who ever existed lived in hunter-gatherer communities. Anthropological studies often focus on societies that still live with many of the principles of nomadic foragers, providing insight into the 200,000 years of our existence as a species, homo sapiens sapiens (Lee & Daly, 2005).
Basic Needs. Comparative socioecology and ethology, through the tools of neuroscience, give us insights into millions of years of our genus’ existence as part of the mammalian line in existence for tens of millions of years (e.g., (McDonald, 1998; Suzuki & Hirata, 2012). We are animals, specifically social mammals, a line that emerged 20-40 million years ago, retaining many brain characteristics and basic needs of social mammals generally (Franklin & Mansuy, 2010; Panksepp, 1998; Spinka, Newberry & Bekoff, 2001). Our animal needs include nourishment and warmth but our social mammalian needs also include affectionate touch, play, extensive bonding, and community support (Carter & Porges, 2013; Champagne, 2014; Narvaez, Panksepp et al., 2013). Anthropological studies show us that humans grow best when we share intersubjectivity (“limbic resonance;” Lewis Amini & Lannon, 2001) with multiple adults, are immersed in communal rituals and stories, and when children apprentice in adult activities (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Hrdy, 2009; Sorenson, 1998; Weissner, 2014).
Basic needs are particularly important to meet in early life when the brain and body are under construction, including a fuller set of needs than those Maslow (1970) identified. Moreover, self-actualization is the primary foundation for growth, guiding the ongoing self-organization of each child as basic needs are or are not met (Tarsha & Narvaez, in press).
Healthy Child Development. Humans evolved to have the most helpless newborns and the longest maturational schedule of any animal. Although all social mammals are vulnerable to poor outcomes from poor nurturing, human children are particularly vulnerable. Children at full-term birth are born with only 25% of adult brain volume; the brain triples its size in the first couple of years with nurturing care, whereas brain size and function does not grow in size or complexity with neglect (Perry et al., 1995). Children resemble fetuses of other animals till around 18 months of postnatal age, meaning that they have much to grow and self-organize based on physio-social experience (Montagu, 1968).
Converging research demonstrates that we are biosocial: healthy bodies, brains and sociality are formed from early social experience provided by family and community (Garner et al., 2021; Sandi & Haller, 2015). Brain systems are influenced by early experience with caregivers, so the effects of early experience have longterm neurobiological consequences (Schore, 2019). For example, the right brain hemisphere is scheduled to develop rapidly in the first years of life with nurturing care. Undercare underdevelops the right hemisphere potentially causing later mental health problems.
Human child raising practices, rooted in social mammalian parenting over 30 million years old, evolved to accommodate the immaturity and lengthy maturational schedule of the young, community practices characteristic of over 99% of human genus existence and still apparent in Indigenous cultures resistant to globalization (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005).
The Evolved Nest. Every animal has an evolved nest for its young that forms part of an extra-genetic inheritance corresponding to the needs and maturational pace of offspring (Gottlieb, 1991; Oyama, Griffiths & Gray, 2001). Humanity’s evolved nest (aka, evolved developmental niche; EDN) in early life includes soothing perinatal experiences, extensive breastfeeding and positive touch, free play with multi-aged peers, nature immersion and connection, and routine healing practices. Human variations observed among hunter-gatherer societies also include positive social support for the mother-child dyad and multiple responsive adult caregivers (Hrdy, 2009). All these caregiving practices are correlated with health outcomes, but also with social and moral development (Narvaez, 2013, 2014, 2016; Narvaez, Gleason et al., 2013; Narvaez, Wang & Cheng, 2016; Narvaez, Wang et al., 2013; Narvaez, Wang et al., 2019; Narvaez, Woodbury et al., 2019).
Justice for Children, Societal Wellbeing. Our concern for young children and their caregivers is rooted in our concern for justice. To not receive the EDN in early life can be perceived as an injustice to a child, with serious ramifications for the child’s future. If brain and body system thresholds are established suboptimally in early years—not by trauma, but simply by not providing care that children evolved to need, then children may not reach their full potential but remain cognitively and socially underdeveloped. For example, children who do not receive supportive parenting early are less likely to behave prosocially (Kochanska, 2002). They are more likely to be self-centered and troublesome (Sroufe et al., 2005). While such children may sometimes function well enough as adults, holding down jobs and raising families, we are interested in caregiving environments that foster optimal development, our full human nature. This includes development of proactive concern for others—an orientation that includes a sense of social responsibility, global citizenship and prioritizing care for others, including the natural world.
Conclusion. Although being trauma-informed is helpful and we are appreciative of the increasing attention to ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and their prevention, it’s not enough in an era of massive ecological destruction. In view of our species history, trauma prevention is not enough to raise a flourishing human being. We need the supportive structures of the EDN, our species developmental system, to grow children’s full capacities and to build thriving societies.
See the full reference list here.
What is our Evolved Nest?
Children are biosocial creatures such that their biology is constructed by their social experience. The evolved nest or evolved developmental niche (EDN) is the ecological system of care provided by families, teachers and communities that aligns with the maturational schedule of the child, satiating the evolved needs of infants and children, allowing them to flourish and develop compassionate spiritualities. The EDN consists of soothing gestation and birth, on-request extensive breastfeeding and positive moving touch (no negative touch), a welcoming social climate, self-directed play with multiple aged mates, warmly responsive nurturing from mother and others, nature immersion and connection, and healing practices to repair miscommunication or hurts. Well-nested children and adults demonstrate social and moral flexibility, adapting to situations and others with emotional and spiritual intelligence
Below you will find links to each of the nine components of humanity's Evolved Nest.
Click on the links to go to each of the component's page to find articles, podcasts, and more, supporting that component.
You will also find below the checklists for nested early childhood, childhood, and adulthood. This self-directed, virtual learning center is still growing, so be sure to subscribe to the Evolved Nest's monthly newsletter to keep up with our additions!
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Connection and Respectful Attention.
On Request Breastfeeding Occurs for Several Years.
Carrying and Rocking Promote Neurobiological Health.
A Welcoming Community of Support.
Frequent Play With Multi-aged Mates.
A Village of Stable Care Promotes Health.
Responsiveness To Needs And Cues.
Nature Nurtures Us. When We Care For It, We Heal.
Individual or Group Practices Mend a Wounded Self, or Imbalanced Relationships.
Find checklists for Evolved Nest Living below...
The nest is a lifelong need. Although we don’t need to be carried past childhood, we still need things like affection and positive social support---feeling like we belong—as well as community membership and involvement.
Check List for Early Childhood
BABIES have special needs for thriving.
Caregiver positive touch(holding, carrying) keeps DNA synthesis and growth hormone going. Separation from a caregiver's body, shuts both down (Schanberg, 1995). (Have you noticed how distressed a baby gets when isolated? Separation hurts.) Intelligence later in childhood is related to head size growth in the first year of life (Gale et al., 2006).
Caregiver responsiveness to needs.
Babies don't have any capabilities for self-care at birth. They need caregivers to teach their bodies and brains to stay calm so they can grow well. When young babies nonverbally gesture discomfort, it means they feel pain and should be attended to right away. Babies should not have to cry to get needs met because crying releases cortisol, killing brain cells.
Until around age 5, children need protection from stressful situations. Their brains are not yet capable of dealing with loud noises or sudden visual transformations. They need the caregiver's compassionate physical presence to get calm from sudden distress. Later on the child will learn to comfort self when the caregiver is unavailable, based on this early sense of security and systems that were coached to calm themselves.
When a baby starts to gesture discomfort indicating some kind of imbalance, the caregiver can provide touch (carrying, rocking) or the breast for non-nutritive suckling or breastmilk. Meeting a baby's needs quickly when a baby communicates a need builds the child's confidencein the self's ability to get needs met. This confidence stays with the child thereafter.
When babies are left to cry, they build a more stress-reactive brain (for the longterm) that will have a harder time calming itself. Later on, depression and aggression are more likely. They learn not to trust the world or people, thereby becoming more focused on themselves. In contrast, caregiver responsiveness to the needs of the baby fosters a pleasant personality. In cultures where babies do not cry (because they are not separated from a caregiver, left unfed or untouched), there are no "terrible twos" (see here).
Provided the mother is not malnourished, breastmilkprovides all the nutrition needed to build a well-functioning brain and body. Neurotransmitters like serotonin are fostered by alpha-lactalbumin, rich in tryptophan, in breastmilk. All immunoglobulins are provided by mother's milk plus antibodies for any viruses and bacteria in the vicinity. Exclusive breastfeeding for six months if not longer ensures these benefits will be unimpeded by the pathogens and imbalances that formula encourages (see here).
Frequent, on demand breastmilk feeding.
Breastmilk is mostly amino acids which are fundamental to building a good brain. The baby feeds frequently to flood the brain with these needed building blocks. If the baby is put on an adult-centered schedule or an infant formula that makes babies sleep deeply (which is unnatural), opportunities to provide brain-building nutrients will be missed, not to mention the distress it will cause in the baby. This again leads to a stressed brain, less optimal growth, less flexible self-comforting.
It's important for adults to remember what children are designed to be doing during childhood--challenging social play outdoors in the rhythms of nature. During the school-age years, children build their sense of belonging, competence, autonomy, purpose, as well as trust and understanding of the world. This is best done through self-directed play.
But children these days must be in school during these key years. How can parents in the modern world help children thrive despite needing to be in school all day? Here is a general needs checklist to think about for every school aged child.
Does your child get extensive exercise each day? This prevents ADHD. See this bookfor a school program that increased academic performance.
Does your child have self-directed free play time (no electronics or structures) outside in nature? A child's work is his or her play. Children build confidence as they learn to guide themselves outdoors. Full-body play is how the brain grows and builds knowledge for use throughout life. Lots of ideas here.
Does your child get enough sleep? (10 hours on average) See guidelines here. If not, cut out computers and television 90 minutes before bedtime. Establish a quiet routine to look forward to together (e.g., reading a book). Not getting enough sleep can lead to symptoms that look like ADHD. See more on sleeping from this PT blogger.
Does your child avoid highly processed food with its disturbing additives?See more here. Processed food typically has "excitotoxins," flavor enhancers that addict the tongue but kill brain cells.Try to wean your child off these foods with natural foods. Even manufactured breads can lead to gluten allergies. Bread that you quickly fry in a pan (fry bread) and dip into a homemade sauce is better. Try barley flour for high fiber and great nutrition.
Does your child eat wholesome foods? Try ways to make vegetables tasty with sauces and cheeses.
Does your child get held, hugged and cuddled everyday? This fosters calmness and happiness (through oxytocin). See more here.
Does your child feel like he or she is an important member of the family? Are his or her ideas listened to and respected? This will foster a sense of belonging which is linked to wellbeing.
Is your child called on to contribute to family well being in some fashion (e.g., taking out the garbage, setting the table)?
Does your child have a skill under development, a skill that can be shared with the community (e.g., lawnmowing, babysitting, playing a musical instrument, being a volunteer)? This is a protective factor against risky behavior in adolescence.
Does your child have autonomy to make choices and take risks on his or her own? Don't over guard your child from activities you, your parents or grandparents were able to do at the same age. See specific ideas here.
Do you read together? Build an interest and capacities for reading by sharing interesting stories.
Does your child have at least one friend to spontaneously call on to play with and hang out?
Does your family share in happy routines that build a positive family identityand cohesion?
Does your family participate in a larger community (e.g., church/synagogue/temple, neighborhood) where you all feel welcomed and supported?
All these things contribute to developmental assets, skills and supports that help children thrive.
Here are proven practices that facilitate mental and physical health.
GOALS AND MOTIVATION
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