Parenting Tips from Chimps

By Eloise King | First published: May 29, 2011
body+soul, The Sunday Telegraph 

How chimps raise their young can tell us much about how to nurture our own offspring.

Chimpanzees are our closest evolutionary relatives, so the study of their genetics, habits and interactions is the most useful indicator we have of understanding our own biology and behaviours, says Dr Jane Goodall, the leading expert on the primates.

Dr Goodall, 77, who is visiting Australia next month, is a British primatologist, ethologist and anthropologist best known for her 45-year-plus study of wild chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania.

Her award-winning research suggests the similarities between humans and chimps are not just genetic but exist in our emotions, intellect and relationships, which are heavily shaped by our family life.

“They are more like us than any other living creature and understanding them helps us understand our evolution and answer the question: what makes us different?” says Dr Goodall, who was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2004.

Here are Dr Goodall’s findings on how a chimpanzee family operates, compared with the views of child psychologist Dr John Irvine, author ofHandbook For Happy Families (Finch).

Mum’s the word

“There are good mothers and bad mothers but it’s very clear in chimp society that the early years of a chimp’s life are critical to their later wellbeing,” Dr Goodall says. “The offspring of mothers who are protective, but not too protective; tolerant, but able to discipline; affectionate and above all supportive have less problems.”

She notes offspring don’t even start to leave their mother’s side until the age of eight or nine. “Even at nine years of age, if a chimp accidentally loses mum they get upset and cry, but they are old enough by then to make the choice to go off themselves.”

Dr Irvine says: “Talk to anyone who has achieved anything and you’ll hear there is no substitute for mum. Girls see mum as a role model and boys idolise her. Mum needs help if she is going to do a good job, though. Delinquent behaviour is more likely to emerge if she is doing it all on her own.”

Primary carer needed

If mum is not around, it can be a primary carer who develops the main bond with a baby chimp to provide security and love. Dr Goodall says: “If baby chimps have a primary carer they feel secure with, they develop and learn faster and become more outgoing due to feeling sure within themselves.”

Dr Irvine says: “If mum’s not around, kids will almost always imprint on someone else, whether it be grandma, dad or anyone able to provide stable, secure, constant and consistent care. We are less competent at birth than any other species so we depend on our primary carer more than chimps.”

Dad, the protector

Daddy chimp does not play a hands-on part in raising the kids. “His role is in protecting the entire area for all females and young ones,” Dr Goodall says.

Young males make their first tentative moves away from mum at about seven or eight, usually for just a few hours at a time.

“They typically choose to follow one of the adult males and may hero-worship him,” she says. “By leaving the mother and imitating the chosen male they learn about male activities, communication and appropriate levels of aggression.”

Dr Irvine says: “Young dads are providing much more hands-on care but many feel like a failure because they don’t know how to do it like their wives, who have a different kind of hormonal love.”

Safety in numbers

Small chimps will usually have a trusting relationship with another two or three chimps that are always around and add to their secure start to life, Dr Goodall says.

Dr Irvine says: “For millions of years kids were brought up in a tribe of extended family. It’s only been in the last hundred years that we have moved away from the extended tribe and formed nuclear families with less and less tribal support around and it’s not good for the family.”

Fun leads to learning

The relationship between mother and child chimp is really fun, with lots of game playing. “Chimps learn really quickly when they are interested in what they are learning,” Dr Goodall says.

Dr Irvine says: “Children learn so much through play; when the brain is force-fed it switches off.”

Dr Jane Goodall will be speaking at the Happiness and its Causes Conference next month in Brisbane.

LeeParenting Tips from Chimps

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