Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 6 (final)

Last week, we discussed how it can be very difficult for parents to meet the needs of their children, especially when they have to deal with all kinds of influences from the social environment and are supposed to go along with different sociocultural practices and meet specific expectation patterns. Keeping a closer eye on the child’s interests and attuning to them requires a process of self-reflection that can be very confronting for adults. What makes it so difficult to connect with the child and its needs?


From a biological perspective, humans fall within the class of mammals. There is a distinction between cache mammals, nest mammals, follow mammals, and carry mammals. All these species have different ways to take care of their young and have different fat percentages for their milk. This, of course, is what connects all of them: the fact that they feed their young with milk from the milk glands of the mother. Humans, like all other primates, belong to the carry mammals. Their milk has a limited amount of fat and the mother, therefore, has to feed her baby at short intervals. That is why she carries her offspring, so that it has access to the breast and can nurse time and again. Of all primates, human babies are the least mature at birth, so that for a long period of time, they are dependent on the care of their mothers and other adults. Without that proximity, they are more or less sentenced to death: anytime, a sabre tooth tiger can appear around the corner and eat them. For this reason, human babies have evolved in such a way that all of their behaviours are aimed at keeping the caregiving adult close. If babies succeed in doing so, they will feel safe. If they don’t, there is a constant sense of threat and danger, resulting in a physiological state that becomes stressed and prepares for fight, flight or freeze. In that mode, large amounts of stress hormones flow through the body, all meant to make sure that the organism can bring itself back to safety. Other physical functions are subordinate to that effort, such as learning processes, analytical thinking, planning, creativity, play and empathy. The body suffers from that high stress, but if all goes well, it will only last for a short time and will then be functional: the stress helps to escape the danger.

A still from the documentary ‘Resilience’, representing the survival mode of child experiencing toxic stress

When the stress is permanent, however, and the individual does not succeed in regaining calm and a safe haven, the stress starts to harm the brain, as well as other organs, and so the stress regulation system is disrupted. Chances for disease and problems later in life then increase. The stress is stored in the body’s memory and will refuse to simply fade away once the event is over. The risk becomes that the person remains dysregulated or at least develops a vulnerability for dysregulation. This is a serious issue, because, as psychiatrist and trauma expert Bruce Perry says: ‘An emotionally dysregulated adult cannot regulate an emotionally dysregulated child.’ When they are both in survival mode, it is hard for both of them to take the other’s situation into account. This is the essence of why it is hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (feel empathy) and have consideration and benevolence towards the other (feel compassion) if you yourself are structurally, intensely or repeatedly stressed. A sensitive, responsive approach of others is hard when you’re under stress: you have more than enough to deal with on your own.

Remember the Biosocial Inheritance? ACEs affect the biological mechanisms that are influenced by social factors. Specifically the combination of problematic effectuation of power relations between adults and children and its influence on stress regulation is the essence of Adult Supremacy. (Of course, all these aspects are intertwined!)

Responsibility (again, but different)

A responsive approach means that you react to someone else in an adequate manner, that you acknowledge the other person’s needs or try to meet them, that you see their questions and predicaments and take action. For that, you need a certain amount of empathy. If you have that, you can respond: you carry responsibility. In relation to stress and trauma, this is often described as ‘response-ability’: the ability to respond. When you are highly stressed and in a survival mode, you cannot answer, you are not answer-able, you do not have response-ability, not for yourself and not for someone else. Put differently: the more burdened parents and other adults are, with their present chores and duties or with pain, grief or trauma from the past, the harder it is for them to really see the child’s needs and satisfy them. This way, an endlessly repetitive pattern can arise of stress leading to stress, of disturbed development leading to disturbed development, of lack of connection with the self to lack of connection with the other, in short: of intergenerational trauma. The child, based on its immaturity, can usually change little to nothing about such a situation; that really is the task of the adults in the social community. They have to take up these issues and deal with them. Policies and therapies have to fix the adult problems, the adult structures, not the children. Those children and the problem behaviour they may exhibit, are only a symptom, a reflection of the problems in the adult world, in which the child loses the connection to self. This can happen because for the adults, the authenticity of the child, the unique singularity, the powerful urge to fully unfold itself, may be too much, too difficult, too complicated, too different, too confronting, too painful in relation to how they themselves were not allowed to be who they were when they were little. That is hard, because in order to survive and be happy, you need more than physical safety. Emotional security, being able to survive spiritually and creatively, are just as important, as we know from science today, because emotional insecurity leads to all kinds of misery. How can we prevent that?

An image describing the influences of different sectors of society in relation to ACEs

Investing in the child

As parents and adults, we all know this feeling of being ‘done’, ‘out’, of not being able to remain patient, of not wanting to be approachable for the needs and endless questions of our children. Does this explain something about how ‘troublesome’ and ‘nasty’ the child is? Or does the amount of impatience say something about the degree to which we are or are not sufficiently grown-up to see these child longings for what they are: a deep need to be heard, seen, valued and appreciated?
Modern science, both social and medical, shows how important those early years are: those who start out healthy, usually increase that positive head start; those who start out unhealthy, see diverse problems pile up throughout life. Childhood, thus, is a very intensive phase in life for parents, a phase in which they (have to) comprehensively put time and energy (and money) into the child’s future. This is not a plea for ‘child supremacy’, but it is a call to strive for more ‘child inclusivity’ as a society, for policies in which the needs and consequently the rights of children are taken much more seriously. Despite several trends to the contrary, it also seems urgent that the caring for children is no longer personally and societally viewed as a problematic set of expenses that are a nuisance, but as an honourable job, a fantastic investment in the new generation. Every child is born with a hidden potential. Through nurturing care, that potential can bloom and make the child flourish.

Taking care of children deserves more social and economic status than it possesses right now, but for that to happen, the adult supremacy will have to give way. Adult interests (more societal, such as neoliberal ideologies) and the interests of adults (more personal, such as individual development away from the child) will have to take a step back in relation to what children, as the weaker party in a power system of the community) need. That is probably a challenge for which a paradigm shift is needed, a fundamental change in how we view children. Such a change, however, in which compassion is key, along with curiosity about what drives the child, is more than worth the effort in all aspects, because, as the 19th-century, abolitionist activist Frederick Douglass said: ‘It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men’!

This was the final part in a series on Adult Supremacy.

Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 4

Last week, we discussed that under stress, children develop coping strategies that are attuned to the situation in which they live or have to survive. Stress becomes toxic when social support is lacking; to handle this stress, children need the buffering protection of an adult for that. A situation in which the needs of the child are constantly trumped by the privileges, ambitions and biosocial needs of the adults continuously increases that stress and harms the health and wellbeing of the child. Analogous to white and male supremacy, we could call this Adult Supremacy (AS). How do we, as a society, deal with that power inequality, with the interest of the child in relation to the adult interests?

Nature or nurture? 

The AS-concept resulted from the fascinating question about the development of the young child into adulthood. How do we, as humans, build a view of the world around us? How does our personality build itself? How can we understand the way our health and wellbeing are rooted in our childhood? For decades, in discussions about the relationship between nature and nurture, between genetic and upbringing’s inheritance, between biological and social influences on personality and health, the balance tipped towards the first. If we look at parenting and many other forms of institutionalised policies, that is probably still the case for many. The thought often goes more or less like this: “Surely there is a certain influence of how we are treated, but, in the end, it is just about how we are, about what is in our genes. Some things are simply hereditary.”
This is an interesting position to take, because it also implies that when someone is (socially) dysfunctioning, we have to conclude that this person was born this way. They did not become this way due to the circumstances, but because of their genes – they were difficult, stubborn, lazy, headstrong, or selfish from the very start . This is quite an assumption to make, and at the same time one that doesn’t hold. Research has shown that such a position is way too simplistic and untenable in light of the current scientific understanding . It is a scientific consensus nowadays that the two are so intricately linked that they cannot be divided, unless we refer to a 100% genetically transmitted condition, such as Huntington’s disease. As such, the early years have proved to be way more important than we initially thought… or maybe rather than we hoped, because if these early years are so crucial, they place  a big responsibility on the shoulders of the adults around the child. And that actually is quite something! It tells us something about the status of the child in society and about whether we consider this status important enough to finetune our social practices to it.

Where do the child and the child’s interest stand in society?

In essence, AS is about the position of the adult in the life of the young child and, a bit broader, about the way in which adults deal with children and their interests, both in private life and through the national and local government, societal institutions and many forms of legislation. What is the position of children in our communities? How do we view them? How do we weigh their short- and long-term interests against our adult interests and adults’ interest? (More on the difference between the two next week.)
Regularly, the child’s interest comes off fairly poorly. In practical circumstances, but also in policy documents, the general tenor is: the child has to adjust to adult life and adult pace. Wordings like ‘prevent the child from taking over’, ‘make sure who’s in charge’, ‘be strictly consistent, because the child has to know where it stands’ all indicate what the power balance looks like: the child is the subordinate.
In this vein, there are several guidelines in the parenting field in which the fundamental tone is still very adult-centred: the interests of the adult are the guiding principle, as can often be gathered from the language used and the recommendations made in these policy documents. Combined with what we can perceive around us in (parenting) books and discussions about children, it can be very hard to remain optimistic regarding the extent to which we as a society keep the interests of the child in sharp focus. This is particularly the case when societies are facing exceptional problems as a whole, as has been the case since March 2020. Government policies state that they want to protect the most vulnerable, but is that indeed what happens? How are children being protected?

Two examples that might be considered AS

The present corona circumstances show some pressing AS-examples, two of which we will highlight here.
First, the closing of schools and childcare locations is meant to make sure that parents work at home and do not have to commute to bring and fetch their children. What is overlooked in this is that:
1) children have constantly been described as a non-substantial source of infection;
2) children need positive interactions for their social and intellectual development and school is for some children the safe place where they can flourish and can evade the (sometimes toxic!) stress of their home base;
3) children cannot get the care they need at home if their parents have to work there, which increases the chances of high stress to such levels that possibly everyone becomes a victim of it.
This government measure thus creates worrisome risk factors in relation to the child’s interest and seems to insufficiently recognise the importance of parental stability as the foundation of child wellbeing.

Second, there is the fact that professional lactation care is on the list of ‘non-necessary contact professions’, comparable to hairdressers and nail stylists. The foundation of health is laid in infancy, as is recognised globally and also by the Dutch government through the concept of ‘the first 1000 days’: you only have one chance of optimising this period. Breastfeeding is a part of those first 1000 days, based on nutritional components, the development of a healthy microbiome and thus immunity, and because breastfeeding facilitates and promotes healthy stress regulation and secure attachment. International documents speak about the child’s right to the highest attainable standard of health and in line with that, about the child’s right to be breastfed. This makes one seriously wonder how it is possible that the support for breastfeeding is not categorised as necessary care. This government measure, too, seems to insufficiently keep the child’s interest in focus and shows that the role of breastfeeding for health is still not properly acknowledged. This decision also insufficiently considers the significance of supporting powerful parenting, characterised by self-efficacy, which is so important for the extent to which parents can offer their child the aforementioned buffering protection in case of stress. Which AS-aspects can we uncover  in all this?

The essence of Adult Supremacy

Let us repeat the definition once more:
Adult Supremacy (AS) is a power position in which adults consciously or unconsciously cause their privileges, ambitions and (unrecognised) biosocial needs to trump child wellbeing, rendering the minor minor.
The essential components are probably clear:

  • it is about the power position of the adult: the child is dependent, the adult decides about issues that influence the child;
  • wishes and needs of the adult play an important role in that: the adult wants or needs to have a full time paid career, grapples with being overburdened in parenthood, does not want to allow the child what was not allowed in their own childhood, feels pressure to make clear who in the family makes the rules, based on personal trauma or common opinions about this;
  • adult interests are strived for, consciously or unconsciously at the expense of the child’s interest: adults are part of a large arsenal of social conventions and (have to) follow these without thorough reflection on how they correlate to child needs;
  • the minor becomes minor: adults do not see the child as an equal human with similar needs and feelings.

This is a tough list, one that can easily create the impression that the term Adult Supremacy is simply meant to picture parents as ill-willing creatures and to blame them for problems in the child. That is most certainly not the intention and therefore next week’s episode will delve into this more deeply.

An interesting and powerful statement by Benjamin Perks, UNICEF New York


The child’s interest is often considered of lesser importance compared to the adult interest. Behaviour and personality are often still seen mainly as a consequence of nature, of innate characteristics. As a consequence, the influence of nurture, the way we treat children, can be made less relevant or secondary. Seeing the extensive knowledge around the social construction of stress and behaviour and around the impact of buffering protection on the prevention of building life-lasting problems, it is rather shocking to note that many policies still fall short in taking those insights into account.

Next week, we will look at the responsibility adults have to really protect the most vulnerable and how that can be very difficult when they struggle with their own biosocial inheritance.

Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 3

Last week, we discussed that health and wellbeing are influenced by the biosocial inheritance, the very complex and historically formed interaction of social factors and biological mechanisms. Because of their complete dependence, children cannot escape adult decisions and will regularly have to sacrifice part of their authenticity to maintain the attachment relationship, with all due consequences. How can we understand the link between power relations and health?

Development and coping strategies

To grow, to reach its full potential, and to remain healthy, the human brain needs stimulating social interaction. The brain is not an ‘isolated data processor’, but an ‘ultrasocial and multiply connected social brain’. Through its experiences, it builds up a worldview and moral attitude, as social scientists Meloni and Narvaez describe it. The previously mentioned immaturity of the human baby at birth means that the biggest part of its development will take place outside of the womb. The advantage of that is that this development can then be optimally attuned to the lifeworld into which the child is born; that increases the survival chances in the present. A possible disadvantage however, is that problematic environmental factors lead to a stunted or deficient development, with an attunement that puts survival chances in the future under pressure.

For babies, infants, and young children, a social environment that is lacking in responsive care is a tricky issue. Often mostly unconsciously, there is this important question: ‘Whose needs are central here? Who is in control in this situation? Can I influence these circumstances? What strategy am I to use: fight, flight, or freeze?’ Whatever the choice may be… with all three coping strategies there will be stress. In the body, levels of the stress hormones increase and the child will enter a survival mode: restlessness arises, the fuse gets shorter, counting to ten becomes more difficult, approaching others calmly and confidently becomes an arduous assignment, accomplishing learning processes becomes an almost insurmountable problem.
And in all of this, all bodily systems are continuously under pressure. That is grueling; that wears out the body and shortens the lifespan. Based on the 1998 ACE-study, different pyramids have been developed to show this process. New versions become increasingly detailed by incorporating more of the different aspects of the biosocial inheritance. Below, you find one of those pyramids.

Is stress always bad?

It is not that as humans we are not able to tolerate any amount of stress. We simply need some stress, or we will not be able to reach any performance at all. In that context, the term ‘healthy stress’ is often used: you make an effort and exert yourself and afterwards you unwind and can come to rest. Situations that are hard, but can be handled, are categorised as ‘tolerable stress’: it is tough and you have to grapple with it, but with a loving social environment you find your balance back again. When severe stress is constant or repetitive and there is no escape from it, in a situation where the most close adults do not offer the child buffering protection, we speak of ‘toxic stress’. The word ‘toxic’ is based on the fact that brain cells die under such high stress levels and that the higher brain functions are harmed.

How can we prevent those problematic forms of stress? How, as adults, can we meet the intense needs of our children? How do we weigh our own interests and needs against those of the baby or infant? Do we organise our lives and societies around infant needs or do we strive for the child’s adjustment to the lives we led before we were parents, to the hectic of society as we know it? In most cases, this is not a decision we can make on a purely individual basis; after all, as adults we are embedded in a cultural, societal and socioeconomic system that makes demands on us and has expectations of us with regard to our availability. In this, it can once again be noticed that the biosocial inheritance is an important player where our health is concerned. That biosocial inheritance influences the extent to which we can take the evolutionarily built biological blueprint of our children seriously, with everything that flows from it: need and ability for connection, compassion, courage, curiosity, confidence, kindness, resilience – the seven pillars of ACE Aware NL.

Growth and social relationships

With the passing of time, children do not only grow physically; their personality grows as well. Studies with rats show that the quality of maternal care is a crucial factor for the future of the young: a caring and sensitive mother raises caring and sensitive pups. With humans, that kind of research is not very feasible: a human life spans a long period of time and during that time, there are incredible amounts of influences and habits that build on that early foundation and strengthen or, in contrast, weaken it. Still, from what we do know, it is constantly confirmed that the early stages strongly impact the rest of a human life. With that knowledge, the inescapable question arises: how do we create circumstances in which we can realise high quality maternal (and family and community) care? From Nelson Mandela we have this wonderful quote: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ How do we do that? How do we treat our children and how do we treat their needs? And how much of a say do our children have over decisions that determine their wellbeing?

White supremacy and male supremacy

When we ask about who makes the decisions, who is the boss, we speak about domination, or, in case of more stronger forms, about supremacy. In a situation of supremacy, you and your interests are placed above those of the other person. Your will is law, your vision is the norm, your activity has priority. In ‘white supremacy’, this shows itself in subordination of non-white people; in ‘male supremacy’, the issue is subordination of women and girls. This subordination has major consequences for the groups involved. You can think of influences on education, housing, work and social standing (social acceptance, reputation, prestige, authority). What we can conclude is that the supremacy of the one group threatens the health and wellbeing of the subaltern group. In this context, it is interesting to look at the social standing of children (and their social acceptance, reputation, prestige, authority!). Two questions puzzled me while thinking about this. First, is there an overarching concept in use that addresses the subordination of children? Second, is there a concept in use that relates to the social standing of children and in addition offers at least a partial explanation for white and male supremacy? My impression is that there is no way around it: there has to be a link between physiology and sociology, between supremacy and empathy, between health and power. There has to be a link between adult supremacy and the health and wellbeing of children.

Adult Supremacy

We know from physiology that a responsive, sensitive approach of others offers the best guarantee for the development of empathy, for learning to feel what someone else feels and for having compassion with them. If we would have to conclude that children are structurally subordinated, that quite often they are completely subjected to the choices adults make and that they have little opportunity to effect change in that situation and that the consequences negatively affect their health… should all of that, analogous to the other two concepts, not be called Adult Supremacy?
And would that not be a fairly logical explanation for those other forms of discrimination? If the infant’s needs are not met and the child regularly feels unsafe and insecure or threatened, how can we expect the child’s development of empathy to go smoothly? How can the child put itself in someone else’s shoes (with a different cultural background or a different gender), if it lacks that competence for empathy?
Based on my thoughts on these aspects, I have written the following definition for Adult Supremacy:
Adult Supremacy (AS) is a power position in which adults consciously or unconsciously cause their privileges, ambitions, and unrecognised biosocial needs to trump child wellbeing, rendering the minor minor.


Today’s conclusion can be that under stress, children develop coping strategies that are attuned to the situation in which they live or have to survive. Stress becomes toxic when there is no buffering support from an adult and the child feels or actually is structurally left to their own devices. High quality care prevents stress from becoming overwhelming and toxic. A situation in which the interests of the child are constantly trumped by ambitions and privileges of adults, will increase that stress and harms the health and wellbeing of the child. Analogous to white and male supremacy, we can call this Adult Supremacy.

Next week, we will look at practical examples and the concept of Adult Supremacy will be worked out in more detail.

Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 2

Last week, we discussed several basic aspects of human coexistence and children’s need to feel secure and integrated within their communities. From there, we work further towards the concept of Adult Supremacy (AS). Today, we pose the question of how the interaction between social factors and biological mechanisms influences health and wellbeing.

The biosocial inheritance

Last week, we looked at how historical aspects are partly responsible for building the local character. In that, we deal with properties of the natural and the social environment, but of course, there is much more involved. Every country has a history; there were wars, natural disasters, revolutions, technological innovations, infrastructural developments, changes in societal views, and much more. This whole interplay is both caused by and consequential for a country’s politics and economy. It also influences how relationships and the social environment take shape. And, in relation to our Adult Supremacy-theme, even more important: all these aspects have power facets, that can be explicit or implicit, and that result in less or more dependency on the decisions of others.
Who is in charge at the global stage? Who determines which societal needs the government will support to satisfy, policy-wise and financially? Who decides what is important, when and for whom? And at the micro level: what do those adult decisions mean for the daily life and health of babies, infants and children? How do those social aspects impact their biology?

A visual representation of the Framework of Biosocial Inheritance; the dark blue social factors are in the original model, the light blue ones could be seen as additional factors influencing the Biosocial Inheritance.

Anthropologists Hoke and McDade summarised the result of all these interactions in the term ‘Biosocial Inheritance’.  This means that the ‘inheritance’ we receive from our parents and grandparents and from the society in which we grow up, is built by both biological and social aspects, that mutually influence one another intensively. Through this mechanism, social and health disparities are transmitted and often reinforced. This process, by the way, does not start after birth, but already begins in the womb, as the research by Tessa Roseboom showed. She studied the influence of the Dutch Hunger Winter in the Second World War for several health issues in the next generation. The famine and stress of the war turned out to have an influence on the health of the children who were conceived and born in that period. (Here, you see Tessa Roseboom together with Minister of Health, Hugo de Jonge, in an interview in 2019; the minister says that we only have one chance to get it right for a healthy start!)
From the physiological perspective, the coherence between the social and the biological is logical: if there is a lot of threat, if you feel lonely, or if you live in famine (social factors), your psychological and emotional perceptions change, leading to the activation of your stress system and an adaptation in your metabolism (biological mechanisms). This influences what the organism learns from each situation for the future (the interaction). Of course, we do indeed have to learn from such situations, because if we do not, our survival in the short term is at risk. The question is, however: what price do we pay in the long term for the negative consequences of that interaction?

Social construction, attachment and authenticity

If we know that the influence of cultural habits, traditions, and human interaction is so big, shouldn’t we give more attention to the way we communicate with and treat babies and young children? If, in study after study,  that early period turns out to be the main explanation for how a child approaches the world as an adult and how health develops, should we not consider change to be urgent? The high burden of disease that results from it at a societal level surely speaks for doing so. These issues may seem obvious, but they are not that easy to solve. They imply a quest in which the role of adults is a significant factor. Of course, that role, in and of itself, again also carries its own biosocial inheritance.
Babies and infants are dependent on the care of the adults around them. They have a deep need to attach to those adults and simultaneously an intense urge to be and show themselves. They have little to no opportunity to leave a deficient environment and find a new one, an environment that does more justice to their personality and in which the young human is actually being seen, heard and valued for their unique individuality. Often, the consequence is that if the need for personal expression comes at the expense of attachment, attachment is favoured: after all, without the adults, the child cannot survive. Thus, authenticity is being suppressed and the child becomes alienated from themselves: the basis for trauma. In this video, trauma specialist Gabor Maté further explains this principle.

The tension between attachment and authenticity is something that deserves attention, seeing there are many cultural practices of which we know that they disturb or negatively influence a healthy development or powerful authenticity, practices that therefore deserve or even require a critical  reexamination. That is not easy, and usually pretty confronting, because what we find will often be about habits that are deeply ingrained in our culture. We view them as so normal that it is hard to consider the thought that they might be harmful, that they constitute social conventions with a negative impact on the biology of our youngest. Take for instance the so-called ‘survivorship bias’, the argument of ‘yes, these bad events happened to me, but I turned out alright, didn’t I, so it isn’t all that bad if my child gets its butt kicked!’ If we closely investigate such patterns, it often actually means that we have to revise the status quo, reconsider the power positions. Think, for example, of discrimination and segregation of certain population groups, but also of corporal punishment (spanking, a ‘loving slap’), of not respecting a child’s physical integrity, of divorces with a lot of quarrels and alienation. Furthermore, you can think of institutionalised forms of policy in which stress for the child is lurking or certain: very  early childcare away from the parents, birthing practices in which mother and baby are not kept together, circumcision without a medical indication, parenting methods in which blackmail, humiliation, isolation and adult supremacy are utilised or encouraged (‘if you will not do [x], then you will not be allowed to [y]’, ‘you are such a disappointment, ‘go to your room, I don’t wanna see you for a while’, ‘teach your child who is the boss’).


Today’s conclusion can be that health and wellbeing are influenced by biosocial inheritance, the very complex and historically formed interaction of social factors and biological mechanisms. In all that, power relations play an important role. Children, due to their dependence, cannot escape the choices of adults and will regularly have to sacrifice part of their authenticity to maintain their attachment relationships, with all due consequences

Next week, we will look at the influence of different forms of stress on development and power relations will be featured more prominently.

Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 1

Last week in our blog, we mentioned the concept of ‘Adult Supremacy’ (AS), the dominance of (the interests of) adults. Seeing that this theme is so closely related to everything that ACE-awareness is about, we would like to elaborate on this in more detail, based on earlier articles Marianne has written on the topic. Our guiding question will be whether we will be able to let ourselves be taken by the hand of a baby’s basic, primal needs and whether we can design our societies in such a way that we can accommodate caregivers to attend to these needs more easily than is currently the case. What can we do to, in the words of developmental psychologist Darcia Narvaez, stick with the ‘evolved developmental niche’, in which a nurturing environment leads to species-typical outcomes in health and wellbeing? Today’s blog is the first part in a series and discusses a number of basic aspects of human coexistence.


Human babies are very immature when they come into the world. Their developmental stage at birth means they are totally dependent on others. The quality of the care they are surrounded with, influences how their physical, social, cognitive and emotional systems will mature. This immaturity also means that children have many needs. Every parent can relate to that: the infant’s need to be cared for is immense!
Despite all this initial immaturity, all over the world children generally become competent members of their social communities: they go through the process of socialisation. They master the local language both verbally and bodily, they know what is expected of them and they rapidly notice what is ‘appropriate’ and what is not. Every environment has its own demands and is distinctive in what it has to offer. In a hostile and harsh living environment, children will have to learn different skills than in a plentiful or kind setting. Try to imagine what this has been like for millennia: a child growing up on a savannah, where most of the time water and vegetation are scarce and prey animals always lurk, has to develop a different behavioural repertoire than a child growing up in a subtropical setting with a lot of rain and crops and fruits, or than a child in the Arctic, focussed on protection from the cold and the catching of fish. The differences between industrialised societies may be less big, but even there, children have to deal with specific societal characteristics that influence daily life and social interaction. One rather powerful example is the continuously changing trends in socialising for children – where today we observe more time spent on gadgets (smartphones, tablets) and less time spent on the playground than we could ever imagine even 20 years ago, let alone 100.
One way or another, we all have to adapt to our living environment to survive.

The cover of the dvd ‘Babies’, on the first year of life of four babies in four different locations around the world (Namibia, Japan, Mongolia and the United States)

Universal environmental influences?

During much of human history, societies strongly depended on what the living environment had to offer – such influences do not disappear easily. The way in which a society takes shape and the habits, traditions, and rituals that come with it, will to some extent be related to those influences. To illustrate this, the fact that the Netherlands are known for their ‘polder culture’ has its roots in such an environmental aspect. In a country where water level and water force are a constant threat, not only for your home base, but also for your harvest and your trading activities, you will have to, whether you like it or not, cooperate to keep your feet dry. The much-discussed and often considered infamous ‘poldering’ in politics and all kinds of work settings thus has a cultural-materialist caliber: the natural environment has a centuries-old influence on the local character. In this case that amounts to: you need to have constructive relations with the one who manages the canals, whom you may not know and who may be far away, in order to achieve the water level in the ditch along your farmland. That is something very different from maintaining a good relationship with your mother’s cousin who controls the water well in your village.
How a culture develops, may not be fully determined by the environment and its natural and man-made resources, but it is partly, and most of the time this has old, historical origins. Within anthropology, this social construction is a core theme that we have often heard being addressed in more or less this way: ‘How people behave, is not fixed, but is established by social and cultural influences. These determine how everyone in the group deals with a situation. We cannot make any universally valid statements on that, because it is different everywhere.’ Is this indeed true? Can we not discover similarities in the effects of certain circumstances? Are there no universal features and behavioural patterns that connect people with one another? Probably there are, because if there were not, then why would we find discrimination so objectionable? Is that not exactly because we have so much in common and are equal in that, despite all the external, apparent differences? Let us take a look at that as well from an evolutionary perspective, at all that connects us.

Much of the social conventions we abide by, is not visible and often not even conscious. We will dive into this aspect of biopsychosocial influences on health and wellbeing in a next episode.

‘Wired for connection’

Within the possibilities and limitations of the living environment, children learn the skills to survive in their own life world and to make the best of what it has to offer. Connection to others is crucial in those efforts, because of the aforementioned dependence. Fortunately, children are inclined by nature to seek connection to others; they are ‘wired for connection’, neurologically built to make and expect contact with others. Additionally, children are innately ‘prosocial’: with their large eyes, chubby cheeks and upturned nose, they try to seduce adults to care, share, help and support, and from the very beginning, they themselves also seek opportunities to maintain good social relationships by caring, sharing, helping and supporting. The idea that children are egotistic, is really a myth that desperately needs to be discarded.
Prosociality is a concept that is often seen as a proactive form of socially competent behaviour: we not only try to avoid letting things get messed up and avoid obstructing mutual relations, but we actively try to influence things in a positive way. That tendency for empathy and cooperation is innate, but like other skills, needs a responsive environment to flourish. The foundation of prosociality is a deeply ingrained expectation pattern, an existential need to be part of a community, to be seen and heard and valued, because without all that, survival is hardly possible. Social isolation is, for a social animal like the human, one of the worst things that could possibly happen.

A still from the dvd ‘Babies’, with a young sibbling taking care of a baby and thus being granted responsibilities that require empathy and attentiveness


Today’s conclusion can be that children are very dependent at birth. Very soon, however, they become socialised in their own life world and they learn to deal with its possibilities and limitations. The proficiency they show in doing so, comes from their innate capacity to initiate relationships with others in their social environment: they are prosocial and ‘wired for connection’ and they want to be a respected member of their ‘tribe’.
Next week, we will look at the biosocial inheritance, the impact of the social environment on our biology.