Lessons from the Mongoose

This article first appeared in ‘My Child’ magazine in 2006

New parents tend to be a fairly blinkered lot. For most of us, our world is so firmly fixed on our beautiful new addition that the outside world doesn’t exist. This outside world strangely enough, is a place where life marches on without talk of nappies, breastfeeding or wind. It contains people who incomprehensibly don’t see our child as the very center of their universe. Good heavens!

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s a very solid reason why new parents are so single-mindedly child-absorbed. Biologically, new parents are programmed to do their best to guarantee the survival of their child and thus the continuation of their genetic stuff. I know it sounds harsh but it’s true. It’s the same with all animals, yet unlike the mongoose or the funnel web, out young are fairly hopeless in the fighting, hunting and gathering departments for several years. They rely on us to ensure they at least get to the hunting and gathering stage in one piece. I suppose we call it love. I don’t know what mongooses call it. Mongoose

Now in this stable, wealthy country of ours, this should be an easy task. We don’t have the threat of saber-toothed tigers, malaria or rat plague to worry about. NSW isn’t in a civil war with Queensland and unlike certain types of monkey we don’t need to guard against cannibal raids from the neighboring troop. So what do we worry about? What do we need to protect out children from so we can put our natural biological urges to good use? There’s gotta be something!

On asking a couple of new mums this question up at my local café, one came up with a frightening response. It was definitely a threat that no other generation of kids would have been exposed to and I’m not talking bird flu or reality TV here. She reckoned that the main concern with many new parents was that dreaded ‘I’ word…Imperfection. Most parents wanted their child to be not only safe from any form of harm, but they’d do just about anything to maximise their child’s chance of winning in the perfection stakes. From pre-school education to fashion to creative play, today’s toddlers have the expectation that ‘middle of the pack’ just isn’t good enough. If little Amy isn’t interested in reading at three there’s a problem. Ug!

Now this made me think. My grandmother was the second in a family of six kids. My grandfather was the fifth of five. If, as the statistics show, parents these days are having less children than their ancestors, then the biological pressure to ensure the survival of our smaller families is far more intense.

Indeed, if we choose to only have one child, then we’d better make pretty damn sure that child is 100% cocooned until they reach the hunting and gathering stage and can fend for themselves. Not only that, we’d better guarantee they are 100% equipped to deal with whatever nasty forces he or she confronts in adulthood or our genetic line is well and truly stuffed!

Perhaps the one way to make sure our smaller ‘flock’ survives is to make them perfect, or at least as perfect as they can be. This would pretty much comply with Darwin’s ‘Survival of the fittest’ theory. If our child looks better than others, is healthier than others, more intelligent than others, wiser than most, consistent in action and in all ways the brightest star in our local sky, then according to the theory, he or she should survive hands down. A no-brainer really.

Wrong! We here in parent-land have forgotten that in trying to make any creature more perfect, we actually put them at greater risk. Think about it for a sec. If as human animals we cocoon our young in blankets of safety and perfection, don’t we in some ways maximise the chance that when a negative force does hit, it will hit a damn sight harder than it would if our young been just that little bit rough around the edges?

Molecular biology tells us that if a cell is exposed to and survives threats in the form of viruses, bacteria and harsh conditions, that cell will be more robust in enduring future similar attacks. Many pediatricians are now urging parents to let their child eat the occasional bit of slime off the floor or be exposed to the cold more often; that doing so makes the child’s immune system robust and able to fend off other nasties when they attack.

My daughter ate a snail once. The frothy stuff coming from the side of her mouth didn’t seem to worry her but it sure as hell worried me. I then discovered seven of the buggers in her pocket ready to be snacked on when the mood took her. While I didn’t endorse her choice of snack food, I often wonder whether her time running around naked on the farm in Kangaroo Valley, getting filthy, kissing sheep, swimming in damns and having to dig holes in the ground because we didn’t have a toilet, has helped her be one of the healthiest and more robust kids around.

Even when Rambo, our demented black sheep butted her painfully on the bum, she learned a pretty useful life lesson. Not everyone or everything is nice…all of the time. Like Rambo, we’re all imperfect creatures, and imperfection is simply a facet of life we adjust to and even embrace, not avoid.

So perhaps we have found our equivalent of the sabre-tooth tiger after all. Maybe, just maybe, we can put our protective urges to good use by safeguarding our children from the insidious 21st century disease of suffocating safety, impossible perfection and Everest-like expectation. Maybe by doing that for our kids, we’ll also protect ourselves from the same disease. Now there’s a thought.


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