Bottlenose dolphin mothers whistle continuously when they deliver their babies. Why? As the newborn emerges to swim amid a sea of dolphins, each with its own whistle, it will be better able to locate its mom. This is just one of the fascinating observations animal behaviorist Jennifer L. Verdolin discovered in her work learning about the births, child-rearing and leaving-the-nest habits of animals in the wild.
Verdolin, a biologist and adjunct professor at Duke University, shares her knowledge in her coming book, “Raised by Animals: The Surprising New Science of Animal Family Dynamics.” In it, she compares animal behavior to human behavior and explains how we can use this information to be better parents.
We spoke with Verdolin to learn more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your goal in writing this book?
Jennifer Verdolin: The ultimate goal was to help parents and help people understand that some of the things we do that we think are just human things are very similar to what occurs in animals. The goal was to think about and talk about what it means to be a parent and how to create our own version of family.
For me personally … I was that kid that dug up stuff and wanted to hold things. I had guinea pigs and birds. I just really wanted to be near animals. As I grew older, that feeling never left me but then I became interested in why are they doing what they are doing.
How did you choose which animals to focus on?
Verdolin: I looked at what research has been done and wanted to find animals that might seem unexpected to people. For example, the breast-feeding, legless reptiles, caecilians, which are a snakelike amphibian, but smaller. I chose them because they are not considered similar.
We all have to feed our offspring and we can do it in different ways. For humans — breast-feeding, bottle-fed. In caecilians, the mom lays eggs and the babies hatch but in the meantime she is thickening her skin with very similar proteins found in human breast milk. So the outer layer of her skin thickens up with fat and protein and when her babies hatch they have tiny teeth and they eat the outer layer of her skin.
In the wild, you say, animal parents typically ignore tantrums.
Verdolin: Prairie dogs start throwing tantrums when they don’t want to be weaned. Just like our kids they throw themselves to the ground, they yell, they scream and cry.
For a prairie dog [mother] who was not keen on continuing to nurse, the mom was having none of it. She started walking away with the youngster attached to her, bouncing upside down on the ground. It was a very nondramatic way of saying “I’m not going to feed you anymore.”
What surprised you the most in your research?
Verdolin: There was so much that I found remarkable. The patience animals have and how they are so careful to never be physically aggressive with their offspring unless there is something wrong with the parent or to protect the child.
Would you explain this more?
Verdolin: The Barbary macaques — they can have a tantrum, and it’s usually around weaning, and the parents pretty much deal with it by basically ignoring them. They don’t get into a fuss about it. They might give in to them or they might ignore them, but there is no real fuss.
But they are not physically aggressive.
Verdolin: It doesn’t make sense to physically harm your child. It’s relatively rare for an animal to physically reprimand their offspring. It’s pretty common in humans. For animal parents, there are many steps before they ever get to a physical correction; that is usually to protect the animal from even greater harm — basically yanking them out of the street, an emergency situation.
What does this say about human parents?
Verdolin: We underestimate the degree of patience that is required to raise a child without physical or verbal aggression. It gets compliance perhaps, but it’s compliance based on fear, not learning. Animals are more focused on teaching.
What do animals seem to know about parenting that humans don’t quite get?
Verdolin: They know that everything about their life is to devote everything they do to raising kids that will go on to be successful adults. We underestimate how much it really takes of our attention and focus.
Verdolin: If it is an elephant, they are in close physical contact 24/7 between the infant and its mom up until a certain point. And we have created situations where we expect infants to cope with being alone, and we are not built for that. We are wired as infants to have adults close to us all the time. Cortisol, the stress hormone, in infants goes up when separated from the mother or father. If you put an infant in a separate room and you are not sleeping in the same room — not the same bed, the same space — the research shows their stress hormones go way up.
An orangutan mom does not put her infant in a separate nest. … We have created a society where we can’t take our babies to work with us. And we have very giant houses where our babies are in a room down the hall instead of in a room with us. We’ve had a lot of changes with modern society, and infants haven’t changed that much. Animals don’t have to deal with this problem.
And yet you mention that children of helicopter parents would not survive long in the wild.
Verdolin: How do animal parents and human parents decide when it’s okay to take this leap to independence? Some animals are the opposite of helicopter parents. In barnacle geese, their offspring get catapulted off a cliff and a lot of them die. That’s just throwing your kid out into the world — “you are 18, out you go, I’m done,” and you never taught them anything in between.
Then there are that go to a college class with their child. What we know from college students who have those overbearing and overprotective parents, they have more anxiety and less confidence in terms of navigating their world. One of the challenges is understanding when to say no and when to say yes and not projecting our own fears.
Our children communicate when they are ready — and sometimes they are not ready — but by keeping them so close to us and not teaching them things they could do on their own, we are harming them.
If a child wants to cook a meal, and they are not quite ready to cook a meal without worrying they are going to burn down the house, you could involve them in the steps of the process incrementally rather than saying “You are too young to do that.” They will develop much more confidence in their ability if they are able to incrementally learn.
Let’s say the goal is to teach a cheetah cub how to hunt. They don’t throw you out in the Serengeti and say, “Okay, go catch it.” There is an incremental process for all the steps that have to go into play to raise successful children depending on what your goal is.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Verdolin: I hope they take away that there is no right way to parent and no perfect family. They can take away some thoughts and ideas and some new strategies that we can borrow from animals. I hope they take away feeling less guilt and resentment about being parents and understanding this is huge undertaking to successfully have a child and raise them to be everything you wish for them to be in the world — to be well adjusted and happy and successful. And that they get some humor out of it and some laughs and feel more of a kinship.
What’s next for you?
Verdolin: Another book. I can’t stop looking at the world this way — saying, “Wow, we have the same thing in animals; I wonder what we could learn from them about this.”