Monkey See, Monkey Do

monkey see

When we take an evolutionary look at ourselves, it becomes easier to forgive ourselves for our follies and foibles. It makes it possible to keep in mind what our default settings are, and once we are aware of something, we can often do something to stop, change or leverage it.

I have talked before about how in our evolutionary past, it was much easier to raise children because there was a fixed number of possibilities in their world, and how that is no longer the case. I’m here to give everyone another out concerning the difficulty of parenting: you were never taught how to parent.

Modeling is one of the most important things that we do for our children. Monkey see, monkey do; not monkey hear, monkey do. Modeling is also how we learn most skills. A cursory thought will make it clear that watching other people perform tasks well helps you learn quicker than reading about them.

If our brains are made primarily to reflect the models that we see, both to construct an image of the world we live in and to grow into it, I want to ask you one thing: What models did you have for parenting?

I am not saying your parents were bad parents. Either they were wonderful, or you’re here making sure you don’t repeat what you feel are their mistakes. Or both.

The point is, even if you had excellent parents, how many times did you see children being raised? If you include yourself, once. On the right tail of this bell curve would be someone growing up in a day care, and in the middle someone with a few siblings.

In the past, you saw parenting modeled again and again. Because society was largely out in the open, not behind closed doors in the absolute nuclear family, we had a lot more information at our disposal.

Now, we don’t know what’s normal. Is my baby sleeping too much? Are they supposed to be this gassy? Are this many tantrums okay? Shouldn’t he be developmental milestone-ing by now?

There is a huge amount of anxiety that would be reduced if we just spent time around families as we were growing up. If we had a large variety of responses modeled for us. But we don’t.

Parenting obviously isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are customs passed down, cultural norms, and variation. Did you see some women breastfeed their baby on both boobs during one a feeding? Only one breast? In the cradle hold, football hold, side lying? Did you see some women burp their baby by patting their backs, by gently rocking them up and down, by sitting them bent over your knees, by laying them across your lap? How hard should you hit babies back if you’re burping him? What counts as shaking?

Did you ever see the colic hold?


How do you take care of a penis? Is your intact boys penis supposed to balloon with pee like that? (Yes.)

Infant care in particular is daunting because people want to present their babies perfectly. As well as internal motivation, the fear of child protective services looms large for many people. Dread around germs also daunts most of us, and sometimes rationally so because we are in such close quarters with so many in our cities.

These are all concerns that would virtually never materialize in an evolutionary environment, and as such, your anxiety would be reduced. With reduced anxiety, it would be easier to remain unruffled.

We lack tribes, which would not only give us a greater sense of community, but more information on the task at hand. In light of this, I suggest spending a lot of time around other moms with an open dialogue about how you handle different issues. Instead of reading it online, you might actually see it modeled. This is an essential part of learning for us.

The world gives to the givers and takes from the takers. Be a giver. If there are younger women in your neighborhood who are interested in having children of their own, be open and honest with them about what your struggles are, and show them how you approach common baby problems: sleep, diaper rash, pottying, etc.

We have lost a lot when we lost our communities: modeling, predictability, and togetherness. We know that we should show, not tell, to our children. The flip side is also true. See if you can be shown, not told, what to do.

Journal Questions:

  1. What is a quality that I need to model for my child more?
  2. What examples did I see of parenting before I became a parent? What was useful? What was not?


  1. Get together with one mother that you know and ask her to show you how to do something that you’re struggling with.



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