Revolutionary Parenting

UA experts explore successful parenting by working with humans — and our evolutionary cousins

Eric Van Meter

Humans are odd. 

Not because we balk at $4 a gallon for gas but will suck down six venti lattes at $25 a gallon. Not because we drive to the gym to jog in place. Not even because we stress and sweat over how to sign off in email. In the kingdom of things that walk this earth, we’re most odd for how we parent.

For one, we never stop. We’re one of very few species to maintain one-on-one relations with our adult offspring. 

On the Front Lines of Parenting
At the University of Arizona, research into human parenting approaches the question from different directions. Horst Dieter and Netzin Steklis study parenting like few others: cross-culturally through published research, but also in the trenches — or, in this case, the savannas, mountains, and jungles that are home to the families of gorillas, baboons, and other primates they’ve observed for more than 20 years.

Andrea Romero is also in the trenches, but in a more traditional approach to family studies — in towns and cities, working directly with families from all walks of life to learn what challenges them, where they find resiliency, and why some families thrive. 

For the Steklises, the differences and similarities between humans and our closest animal cousins are illuminating. 

“Primate research gives us the fundamental rules of the game — the primate parenting principles,” says Netzin Steklis, punctuating the idea expressed by her husband Dieter: “The only way we can know our unique requirements as humans is through this kind of comparative study.” 

On the flip side, Romero’s research engages those unique requirements through the complex ways they play out in daily life. And while these approaches may seem worlds apart, from an evolutionary perspective, they’re closer than you think. Together, they have a lot to teach us about parenting.

Correct to Protect

One of the most challenging roles for any parent — at least any human parent — is that of disciplinarian: knowing when and how to punish your child. For some, it’s a responsibility fraught with guilt and second-guessing that can lead to erratic punishment or none at all. This is something gorillas don’t fret about.

“They’re not going to sit there and have a debate about whether they should spank their children,” says Netzin Steklis. “Across species, youngsters are often firmly disciplined by adults in the group: They get slammed, they get bitten, they get put in their place.” Not because apes and monkeys are mean, but because they correct to protect. 

Instinctive Adjustments

More so than most humans today, other animals deal with hostile forces of nature on a daily basis, explains Dieter Steklis. Cutting slack can quickly mean the death of your offspring. Even so, not all primate mothers are equally strict. A high-ranking female, for example, may be a little more laissez-faire. She can afford to be, because hostile animals in her group aren’t likely to attack her offspring when she’s not looking — one less threat to worry about. 

Like apes, we also correct to protect, proportionate to the dangers we try to stave off. And because every family’s “ecosystem” is unique — depending on family history, environment, and other factors — discipline presents, in Romero’s research, a great opportunity for one of the hallmarks of healthier families: shared planning in establishing rules, rewards, and punishments.

Teens especially are more receptive to boundaries when they’re involved in setting them, Romero explains. Parents and teens can decide together, for example, appropriate rules for phone use and appropriate consequences when rules are broken. It’s an approach that works well when independence is the issue: curfews, driving, social media, and more.

Be Present and Consistent

Of course, setting consequences only helps when parents follow through, and Romero has seen, again and again, how hard that is for many. “They don’t want to always be seen as the bad guy,” she says, “but older teens and college students say they’re glad their parents didn’t let them get away with misbehavior.” In the long run, consistency pays off, and sometimes being “the bad guy” is really being the good guy. 

Put another way, being the good guy (or gal) means not being the “on and off” parent — someone who sometimes checks out from being a protector, an educator, or even just a listener. In fact, consistently asking our kids questions and listening to their answers is one of the simplest ways parents can demonstrate the caring and trustworthiness critical to healthy development.

Continuous Signaling

“What children need is regular, positive communication,” Romero says — even when they make mistakes, even as they get older and make communicating an uphill battle. “As much as they say ‘I don’t need you’ and ‘I don’t want you’ and walk four paces ahead of you,” Romero says, “they’re still looking back to make sure that you’re following them.” 

If you’re a good human parent — or a good chimp parent — you are still following, or at least watching. Even without text messages or breakfast chat, mother chimps communicate unswerving attention, says Netzin Steklis. “They’re constantly signaling: ‘I am present, I am protecting, I am grooming, I am watching, I’m correcting’ — and all those things signal ‘I am caring for you.’”

Don’t Go It Alone

A constant, caring figure sounds well and good, but can anyone really be “on” all the time, month after month, year after year? Of course not, and non-human primate families have something to teach us here, as well: We’re not meant to.

“It’s pretty clear growing up in, say, a baboon society, that there are definite boundaries and social rules, and youngsters learn very quickly how to behave,” Dieter Steklis says, “Not just from their parents, but from extended family and other adults in the group.”

In fact, we still see this “It takes a village to raise a child” model in many communities around the world. Romero points out, for example, that grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other extended family members are often very involved with raising children in Latino families. The Steklises suggest that the isolated family common in America today — with one or two parents juggling too many responsibilities on their own — may be a dangerous aberration.

Find Your Troop

“In our society today, parents don’t have a wider pool of adult family around to help them,” Dieter Steklis notes. “These elders and multiple generations of relatives are reservoirs of knowledge, and having them around as part of a child-rearing cooperative was something we think was critical to the success of the human species.”

While American moms don’t typically live with their mothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters their whole lives as do females in a troop of baboons, moms and dads alike can — and should — find their own “troop” of supportive parents and adults, Romero says, especially as their children hit adolescence.

“I’ve worked with parents of teens for a long time, and they’re always so relieved to come together and talk,” Romero says. “We have a million books on how to get a baby to sleep or what to do when your child is a year old. And then you get to the teenage years and there’s so little information and so few opportunities for parents to get together and talk about what’s normal and how they faced certain issues. That kind of parent-to-parent mentorship is really important.” 


Parents of “tweens,” take heart: The teen years ahead may not be as bad as you expect. Drawing on research in the field of family studies, Andrea Romero offers some simple but solid suggestions. 

Ask Questions Often
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” or something as simple as “What do you think about this music?” helps lay the foundation for heavier conversations that are bound to come up as our children grow up.

Create Some Space
Give teens some freedom away from you and outside of the home with sports or other activities — safe places, with safe people. Activities that are “youth led, adult guided” are especially good.

Zip It and Listen
Most teens share a common complaint: My parents don’t listen to me. “One of the greatest gifts parents can give is to say ‘Tell me what’s going on with you’ and then just really be quiet and listen,” Romero says.

Horst Dieter Steklis, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Arizona South with academic appointments in the UA Department of Psychology and the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families, affiliated with the program in Family Studies and Human Development at the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Netzin Steklis, M.A., is a lecturer in Family Studies and Human Development with an academic appointment in the Frances McClelland Institute. Both have extensive leadership and research experience with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.
Husband and wife, they often collaborate on projects concerning primate personality, behavior, biology, and conservation. Their work has been featured in National Geographic and other national and international magazines, radio programs, and TV broadcasts.

Andrea Romero, Ph.D., is the Fitch Nesbitt Associate Professor in Family Studies and Human Development at the UA Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences with concurrent academic appointments in the UA departments of psychology and Mexican American studies. Her 
co-authored book, Preventing Teen Depression and Suicide Among Latinas: Resilience Research and Theory, was published by Springer in September.