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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Toddlers as Neanderthals? Evolutionary psychology's bargain basement sale - no refunds

I just got done posting on a fun sendup of evolutionary psychology, when the next item was a friend's note about Tara Parker-Pope's article, "Coping with the Caveman in the Crib" (New York Times, February 5, 2008), about a pediatrician who knows how to quiet crying babies. He is, I gather, an overnite evolutionary psychology bestseller:
Dr. Karp notes that in terms of brain development, a toddler is primitive, an emotion-driven, instinctive creature that has yet to develop the thinking skills that define modern humans. Logic and persuasion, common tools of modern parenting, “are meaningless to a Neanderthal,” Dr. Karp says.

Right. So an immature modern Homo sapiens is equivalent to a mature Neanderthal?

Why not to an immature Neanderthal? And then, what's the difference? What point are you trying to make?

Anyway, while Dr. Harvey Karp's advice sounds like it could possibly work ...
Dr. Karp adopts a soothing, childlike voice to demonstrate how to respond to the toddler’s cookie demands.

“You want. You want. You want cookie. You say, ‘Cookie, now. Cookie now.’ ”

it certainly isn't revolutionary. Actually, with toddlers, nothing works consistently. We and they just have to get through it.

Toddlers are not Neanderthals, they are immature modern humans, who must be taught exquisitely complex social behaviour by a variety of methods. It takes sixteen to twenty years, and toddlers start about Year 1. It is very frustrating for them.

Dr. Karp's methods aren’t bad, but there is nothing especially new about them. Decades ago, I was told that the best way to control a small child’s temper tantrum is by whispering.

The explanation was that, if everyone whispers, the child must stop screaming in order to find out if he is getting what he wants. Once he stops, he may not start again. But if the adults are also screaming, the child can get the information without stopping.

Note: What have Neanderthals to do with it anyway? Aren't toddlers just immature, period?

Actually, the Neanderthals, while persistently more clumsy than ourselves, were probably not much different from us. They even buried their dead, in the hope of rising again (= with tools).

UPDATE: Update: Here is a much more reasonable way of looking at it, courtesy editor Jonah Goldberg:

Political theorist Hannah Arendt once said that, every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians - we call them "children." Today's babies aren't meaningfully different from those born 1,000 or 5,000 years ago. A Viking baby magically transported to 21st-century America might grow up to be an accountant or a bus driver. A baby born today and sent back in time might become a Hun, Visigoth or Aztec warrior, whatever his parents expected of him.

Families are civilization factories. They take children and install the necessary software, from what to expect from life to how to treat others. One hears a lot of platitudes about how children are "taught to hate." This is nonsense. Hating comes naturally to humans, and children are perfectly capable of learning to hate on their own. Indeed, everyone hates. The differences between good people and bad resides in what they hate, and why. And although schools and society can teach that, parents imprint it on their kids.

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