We’ve heard it time and time again – being a parent has to be the most natural thing in the world…so how come we have made parenting so damn hard as modern day humans? If we parented more like primates would things be easier? Would the outcomes be better? Today, to discuss the virtues that animals teach us about raising children if we stop to reflect on them, I have Dr Jerry Cammarata – who made history by becoming the first father in the United States to fight for and win paternity leave from the New York City Board of Education.
As a result of the national attention he received, Dr. Cammarata was appointed to the White House Conference on Families by President Carter and later served as Commissioner of the Department of Youth and Community Development under New York City Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.
The newly revised edition of his classic book, The Fun Book of Fatherhood: A Paternity Leave Dad – Tale of a Pioneer is a charming resource and terrific teaching tool for parents, the central theme is that humans should emulate their counterparts in the animal kingdom by looking at how the animal kingdom raises its young,
So what can we learn about raising children from the animal kingdom?
Children have their best experiences when they can emulate their parents, dolls and, yes, animals. Take the child to the zoo or watch National Geographic regularly. It will provide opportunities to see the new born giraffe trying to get on her feet, not succeeding, and getting a nudge from the mother. To see baby alligators swim in the mouth of the mother for protection, the otter bringing the young into the water and providing a lesson on swimming. Even the older child can see the Manakin bird dance to find a girlfriend. Take the video clips and marry them to conversation, and you are reinforcing the behaviours you want your child to reject as well as behaviours you want your child to engage in.
What can animals teach us about being better parents?
Animals can teach us how to speak, how to solve problems, how to be cooperative, how to be compassionate (The lion who adopts an abandoned calf), how to express emotions, how to be a leader, how to follow commands, the importance of going to school and learning, how to win, how to succeed, how to lose gracefully, and how to learn from our mistakes.
Can you share five specific parenting lessons we could learn from animals?
- Grooming – How important it is for the family to get dressed in the morning, and to experience compliments, and even that family touch of assistance – combing hair, tying shoe laces, etc – (monkeys)
- Just because you are big, you are not, and should not, be a bully (fiddler Crabs). The male fiddler crab has one large claw that looks so powerful that other fish stay away, thinking it is all-powerful. It doesn’t fight.
- Eating – The use of manners at the table, how we sit, and the way we eat. (giraffe – regal heads held up tall – or, the raccoon in negative contrast who slops its face with food)
- Parenting – Mums and dads taking care of their babies (male seahorses raise the young – Penguins take equal time to feed and care for the young).
- Safety – Mum and dad will always keep their young safe, just like the alligator will put its young in its mouth, just as the geophagus Scymnophilus fish will have its young fly into its mouth for safety.
Do animals discipline their children more effectively than parents? If so – how should we follow suit?
Discipline is varied among animals and parents should find what works for them. Discipline is for the moment and not for long term application, as an example, punishment. For example, we may discipline and then punish, while animals generally discipline. In the monkey community, a baby chimp could have a temper tantrum but the mom will just go about her work of eating or relaxing. It is important to note that negative reinforcement is alive and well in the animal kingdom. Lions, Monkeys, bears, among others will give their version of the back of the hand. This often comes when the baby is annoying.
The human condition allows for verbal negotiations, and role modelling. Some chimps will act like humans on occasions and punish the young or even another adult for a bad action taken. Through role modelling with our children, we try to reduce negative experiences and have children recall ways of doing things which seem to work, acceptable by the parents, and enjoyable.
Animals are great at being playful – do you think we need to be more playful as parents? And, if so, could you share some examples of how?
If we spent more time playing with our children – baby play, growup play – really being involved, learning would come through example rather than a classroom type of house. All the points of interaction, sharing, cooperating, building strategy and knowledge, prepare a youngster for the next day of activity. Play is also valuable when a child, like animals, perform adult activities in play.
A young herring gull will do what its parents do and try to drop a seashell on to a rock so it cracks open and food can be secured. Play is part of the progression of work. Also, with play, everyone involved is playing and LEARNING. When children see parents learning alongside of them, this is powerful and imprinting.
In the animal kingdom, parents are the primary caregivers…what are your views in relation to paid leave given that?
Paid Family Leave is the tip of the iceberg of what needs to be accomplished today. We need to have gender equality throughout our human practices, including households and work, child’s play, etc. to support paid family leave. We need to have paid family leave help more than the 7% of the work force, which is the current number. In the US, we have 40% of family households with mums as the primary sole breadwinner, and 50% of households having two parents working, raising children with little quality of time and attention, particularly during the formative years of their lives, is an impossibility which should not be tolerated by our society.
In the U.S., Family Fast Forward Legislation must be passed with congress addressing ways to pay for paid family leave, including government, private sector and parents contributing to funding streams which exist and which need to be established. Paid Family Leave access for all parents in the US could be the most important legislation, as a product of a WHCF national family policy, which could have a dramatic impact on the reduction of bullying, and poor infant mortality, to name just two. The US is one of four countries which does not have a national family leave policy. The U.S. MUST think family first and not corporations first.
How would the animal kingdom deal with the current challenges in parenting we currently face?
The animal kingdom has creatively figured out how to maintain family, while at the same time engage in those tasks of life which must be fulfilled (work). This means that you will have lots of examples in the wild kingdom which shows what males do, what females do, what children do, and it may appear to be what we currently do.
Our mission is to see the diversity of parenting among the animals and decide what animals do we want to be? And if we want to be different, why?
The animal community is our studio of learning. As we watch national geographic or other animal shows, what do we take away and feel we would like to emulate? Would I want to be a seahorse, and keep the babies in my pouch until they are born, or a not so good cookoo bird, who puts her egg in another bird’s nest so that bird can raise her young and she has no responsibility, or always prim and proper as a Giraffe when eating?
The wild kingdom is wild and sometimes unpredictable. Look at the animals as ways in which we can find good and bad in ourselves and perhaps have a better understanding of what we should do to change – to be a better human being.
The animal kingdom is that useful resource a parent can use to make a point which otherwise would not really be understood or be that impactful to a child.
I don’t know about you but that has really helped to shift my perspective on parenting! Imagine if we all parents more like animals….and as mother nature intended….