When a kid acts like a wild animal, biologist Dr. Jennifer Verdolin thinks it might be best to treat them like one. Her new book, Raised by Animals: The Surprising New Science of Animal Family Dynamics, examines the parenting styles of myriad animal species, many of which have plenty to teach inquiring humans. Specifically, many furry and even parents have great instincts when it comes to discipline and consistent feedback. It’s how they avoid extinction.
Verdolin says that writing about animal discipline is harder than writing about other behaviors because humans have an unusual approach. Punishments are uncommon in the wild. Kids are correct and instructed–that’s more or less the end of it. That aggressive regulation is profoundly effective precisely because it is frequently subtle. Cubs and calves and pups learn about consequences and how to avoid them. They do not–for the most part– have consequences thrust upon them.
Verdolin spoke to Fatherly about how human parents can take cues from animals and human doulas can learn from Siberian Hamsters.
In your book, you address animal tantrums and parental discipline. What species dealt with tantrums the best and how does this compare to humans?
I knew a 3-year-old orangutan that loved drinking out of a bottle and was not happy when she could no longer have one. Whenever she saw a human infant with a bottle, she lost it. She would whine and throw herself to the ground and roll herself in a circle in a ball and flop her arms. It was hilarious, but we don’t tend to view toddler tantrums as hilarious.
Moms almost always ignore this stuff and go about their business. The exception is in Rhesus Macaques, a small monkey found in India and Nepal, that exhibit a bystander effect. You know how when you are in a supermarket and your child is having a meltdown, and sometimes the parent acts really aggressively toward their child because they’re in public? This happens in rhesus macaques. When they’re surrounded by friends and family, the moms give into tantrums about half the time. But when they’re surrounded by a more dominant individual, that’s not a friend or family, then they will give in 80 percent of the time. They will be a bit rougher than they would normally be and that’s because they might get attacked by the dominant animal—the equivalent of us, right, sneering and making rude remarks like, “Oh! Take control of your kid!” in Target.
Do human parents less patient or have worse impulse control by nature?
But I don’t think human adults actually have less impulse control when it comes to dealing with children. What I think is that we have modified our world so much that we don’t recognize how deeply stressed we are as individuals. And that goes for parents.
You mentioned parental aggression. There’s more and more evidence among humans that spanking doesn’t work and is harmful. Are there any exceptions among animals where they would physically discipline their kids?
With rhesus macaques, which I already mentioned, about 8 percent were classified as abusive because they injured their offspring in some way. And it turned out those females had two things in common: one, they were overprotective kind of domineering, over-controlling parents, like helicopter parents. And two, they were more likely to be that way if they had a mother who was also that way.
I got chills and I said, “Oh my god, intergenerational abuse.”
So it seems with parenting and everything else, we’re most similar to primates.
I wouldn’t say that necessarily because I don’t want to leave out, you know, wonderful prairie gulls or California mice or Siberian hamsters where the father actually helps to deliver the babies.
Okay, who are the best dads in the animal kingdom?
Titi monkeys where the father also helps deliver the babies, and then he does everything. He carries them, he does all the work. Ostrich males sit on the eggs and basically runs a daycare for all his chicks, and the only thing he can’t do is lay the eggs himself. Tamarin dads pretty much don’t let moms do anything but the feeding. Seahorse males get pregnant.
That is our publication mascot.
Oh, I love that. I mean, they gotta get pregnant, they gotta have the babies, and of course, it’s not exact pregnancy like humans. But they basically collect the eggs from the female, inseminate them in their pouch, and they nurture – they actually provide food for the developing little baby seahorses, and they shoot out their little baby seahorses, and they take care of them, and it’s all him.
If the man gets pregnant, that wins the prize.