Evolution wants you to be a good dad. Sure, it may have taken hundreds of millions of years, but now you’re programmed to feel good when your kid smiles. You want to protect them at all costs. You wouldn’t dream of eating them. And for all the upright walking you do, you’re still not fully evolved. Human brains actually retain vestiges of their reptilian ancestors, which can interfere with your natural parental empathy (and explains your love of sunbathing). So how do you keep those lizard impulses in check so you can care for your warm-blooded mammal?
Clinical psychologist Jonathan Baylin and his co-author Daniel Hughes explore this conflict in their book Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience Of Caregiving For Healthy Attachment. While your brain naturally motivates you to care for your children, stress sets off those primordial self-defense mechanisms, which makes you yell. Fortunately, the more you know about your evolutionary wiring, the closer you are to becoming a 21st-century man.
Reptiles Are Terrible Parents
Lizards suck at being parents. If you think you know deadbeat dads, lizards are worse. As soon as that egg is fertilized, male lizards get the hell out of Dodge. And even reptile mothers, like sea turtles, move on after they lay eggs. Mammals, however, care for their kids longer because their brains tell them to. “There’s a circuitry, or a chemistry, in our brains that enable us to be caring,” says Baylin. “The brain developed in a way to make us care for the young and take care of a child for a long period of time. Reptiles don’t do that.”
Your Body Rewards You For Being A Good Dad
So how does your mammalian mind trick you into raising a child? By getting you hooked on dopamine and making your kid the dealer. “Our brains reward us when a baby smiles at us,” says Baylin. “When we tickle them, they laugh. Or if they’re crying and we comfort them, it actually activates our dopamine system.” In other words, nature’s reward for being a good parent is a nice high.
Stress Shuts Down Your Nurturing Side
The limbic system — that would be the brain’s fight or flight response — is one of those hold-over from the reptile days. You’ve probably heard of the amygdala, the small cluster of neurons buried deep in the middle of the brain? That reacts to stimuli by broadcasting fear and anxiety. It’s helpful when a woolly mammoth is charging, but less useful when your kid is crying.
“Stress can start to shut down people’s nurturing, caring system,” says Baylin. “That can happen to everybody. It doesn’t mean that you’ve lost your ability to be a loving, nurturing dad. It means that ability is being suppressed or blocked by your stress.” He says it’s important to understand that the caring system is still there, it’s just being temporarily taken over by an a-hole.
Start Early And Reap The Biological Rewards
The brain chemical oxytocin aids in bonding and trust. This is the “love hormone” which floods your body post sex (and during cuddling). Baylin says oxytocin evolved to turn off your defense system, so you don’t lose that loving feeling. And while women get a high level of oxytocin from pregnancy, birth, and nursing, there’s a way men can get in on the action.
“One of the biggest reason for men to be involved early, during pregnancy and infancy, is that it turns on our oxytocin system,” says Baylin. “We’re not getting it the same way it works in women. But if we get really engaged with the process — we’re talking to the kid in the womb and changing the diapers and playing with babies — it turns on our oxytocin.”
It’s Okay If The Lizard Wins Sometimes
Oxytocin-enhanced empathy and your higher reasoning aren’t going to win every battle against your reptilian brain. Your kid will whine while you’re stuck in traffic, knock over something pricey, or keep you up at night and you’ll snap. Baylin says it’s important to realize that every dad snaps and that feeling guilty over snapping only makes it harder for you to get back to being the parent you want to be. “When you’re tired or stressed out, you’re going to have negative reactions to your kids,” he says. “When you can be compassionate with yourself, you don’t get as caught up in those negative feelings.”
Your Childhood Brain Determines Your Parenting Brain
According to Balyin, if you had good parents you’ll probably be a good parent. “If children’s early experience with parents somehow put them on the defensive — like it’s scary and it activates the kid’s limbic system early — it gets very sensitive,” he says.
That translates to strong defense mechanisms, which makes trusting others difficult. “When you get into tense situations with your kids, it can trigger your defensiveness,” says Baylin. “You have to work harder and keep regulating your own reactions so you’re not chronically getting into a mutual defense society with your kid.” Although Mutual Defense Society does sound like a great name for your superhero team.