On Parenting and Altruism

Perhaps more than anything else, parenting is what defines humanity. The appearance of parenting in the world signaled the end of the Age of Reptiles (dinosaurs and their brethren) and heralded the beginning of the Age of Mammals—and parenting is probably the most important activity that humans have ever undertaken.

Reptile mothers reproduce by laying external eggs and hatching offspring capable of immediate independent survival. Reptiles have no apparent concerns for members of their own or any other species, including offspring, and often engage in cannibalism. Humans, thankfully, are different (most of the time). Like all mammals, our pregnant mothers bear young that emerge incapable of surviving without care. So for humans, parenting—protection and nurturance of offspring from birth—is absolutely necessary for the survival of the child and the species.

The root of our amazing brain began to develop in our reptilian ancestors. Initially, its capabilities were focused exclusively on self-interest, the individual’s own survival. Then in the later years of the reptilian age, another ability began to emerge in that ancestral brain: altruism, the capacity to be concerned about another individual. Modern science has physically located this capacity in the limbic system, part of our brain’s second developmental stage. Altruism is essential to the activities of parenting. The limbic system also appears to include a key prohibition against cannibalism: thou shalt not eat thine own kind, if you will.

Because brain development has been a process of accretion, with each new ability added to the previously existing ones, the capacities to act out of self-interest or out of altruism are both hard-wired into our heads. Thus, our ultimate actions are a matter of choice, a function of free will; and technically, a function of the neocortex, our brain’s third developmental stage.

That neurological and behavioral lineage strongly suggests that our lives are in our own hands. By extension, how we can best live becomes a matter of education, beginning with our children. One of the most important functions of parenting is education, through example and through the provision of schooling. Along with basic and advanced academic skills, parents can enhance their children’s education by encouraging their participation in sports and the arts—especially team sports and performing arts, as these activities both demonstrate and require sharing.

Learning how to share is a critically important lesson of childhood. It is absolutely fundamental to establishing and sustaining the personal relationships that will define a full, healthy human life. Outside of certain inherently imbalanced learning situations with parent/child or teacher/student, any true sharing demands an equality in power between the people involved in the sharing, with each person having the freedom to accept or reject the sharing without penalty.

Sharing’s deep significance derives from its mutuality and the fact that it simultaneously meets the needs of both self-interest and altruism. My mother demonstrated these profundities with a very simple but powerful example when I was fourteen. After school one day, my older brother and I were squabbling in our kitchen over who’d get the last apple in the fruit bowl. Mom heard us and intervened, taking the apple. She gave my brother a knife, saying, “You cut,” then saying to me, “And you pick first!” Her solution, and our actions, satisfied our self-interests and yet involved a consideration of each other at the same time.

Obviously, that incident made a deep impression on me. I’ve tried to apply its lesson in my adult life. In my book, To Find The Way Of Love, I define the way of love for humans as “promoting freedom and equality in all personal relationships.” Voluntary promotion that arises from within is the most desirable, but even an external stimulus can lead to finding the way. And parents are in the best position to provide that stimulus to the next generation. Simply being a parent, after all, is an act of altruism. Parents can also take us all a great step further, by demonstrating equality with their children. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “Try not to make your children like you. Try to be like them.”

Oliver & Barbara

This article appeared in Today’s Parent magazine: http://www.todaysparentusa.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *