I learn a lot from animals every single day – this mostly on account of how I live with three of them, a parrot, a turtle and a tortoise and am auntie to a fourth, a dachshund puppy.
For instance, animals have helped me better understand my instincts and habits and where they might have originated from, especially the ancient fight-or-flight survival instinct all beings seem to share in common.
I have also learned that homo sapiens is pretty much the only animal that is shy to go to the bathroom or make babies in public.
But one area of my life I didn’t expect that animals could teach me about is my own childhood and growing up years. (Of course, this is probably just because I temporarily forgot that animals are way wiser than I am about pretty much everything.)
Speaking of which, I just finished reading “Raised by Animals: The Surprising New Science of Animal Family Dynamics” by Jennifer Verdolin, PhD.
Divorce, step-families, discipline, adoption, pregnancy, feeding, sibling rivalry, parents who play favorites, abuse…..each of these difficult topics is tackled in turn, and always with an eye towards learning how animal parents cope with the same challenges to see if they have something new to teach us.
Not surprisingly, they often do. What I liked most, however, is how very practical animal parenting seems to be. Once the basics are taught, the offspring is out the door.
Those that stay close to home typically take on other duties, such as helping to care for their parents’ new nest of eggs or pups or kits, and in exchange these older offspring get to delay making their own way in the world for just a bit longer.
Essentially, practical parenting asks the new parents to answer just one question (and here I quote Dr. Verdolin):
What kind of people do we want to raise?
Do we want cooperative, helpful, giving, and sharing people who respect the autonomy of others to make up the majority of our society?
Deciding what we want our children to be like and what we want our society to look like is the first step towards making it a reality. The next step is encouraging the behaviors that bring it about.
Answering this question determines absolutely everything about how parenting will be accomplished as well as when it will be concluded.
Here are some examples of the types of goals a practical parent might want to teach their offspring:
- How to work and play well with others.
- How to forage for safe foods.
- How to hunt for different types of prey.
- How to ask for, accept and offer help.
- How to fit in with and/or lead a group.
- How to fly, or tunnel, or climb.
But there is also a catch.
Just like with people parents, some species of animal parents are keen to raise helpful, giving, well-balanced and fair-minded kids, while other animal parents raise kids that are just like themselves – aggressive, dominant, patriarchal (or matriarchal!), selfish and/or intolerant.
In other words, some species are more gregarious and social all their lives, while others are real loners in adulthood for a reason.
Looking back at my own experiences of being parented, I don’t have to dig too deeply to find the thin threads connecting animal parents’ goals with human parents’ goals.
It’s just that homo sapiens complicate things so much! We just have so many more options and choices to contend with! For example, for many parents, it is not enough just to raise a child who knows how to and can afford to fix a sandwich every time he gets hungry.
Nope, the parents want to be sure that child can afford to put caviar and gold dust on the sandwich, or that he doesn’t even have to eat sandwiches at all if he prefers something different or pricier.
The parents don’t just want their child to be able to get along with others and work a job. They want that job to be a certain kind of job at a certain level and they often want this for their child regardless of whether the child wants it for themselves.
And let’s not even get started on the issue of gender orientation and choosing suitable mates and family members. Oddly, in the wild, no one really raises an eyebrow when two males or two females team up to hunt or raise young. It is only amongst the human species that this is often met with resistance, to say the least.
To be fair, I have heard young homo sapiens parents in particular say wonderful things like, “I can’t wait to meet her and learn more about who she is!” (in reference to their as-yet-unborn daughter).
I think this is very cool. I also think it is kind of brand new for our species, and in past generations (probably for a variety of very practical reasons) the sentiment often sounded more like, “I can’t wait to mold her into mini-me because clearly that is what will be best and safest for her…and for our family.”
As for animal parents, they just want to raise offspring that have the best chance of surviving and reproducing in turn. What the baby goat or koala bear or lion does with all that imparted knowledge…well, that is entirely up to each of them!
Today’s Takeaway: What are some of the things you think human parents might be able to learn from watching the examples of animal parents? Do you think there are some animal species that do a better – or worse – job of parenting than people do?