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updated 10/15/2010 8:15:17 AM ET 2010-10-15T12:15:17

In 2-year-old Nate Macauley's world, the arms of mom and dad — and a small cadre of family friends — are always available for a snuggle, whether it's to help calm the toddler's woes, or just to keep him close. To his mom, Amy, the plentiful hugs and cuddles they lavish on Nate provide an important lesson.

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"I want Nate to grow up to be a kind person," says the 33-year-old from Cleveland. "And the way we can do that is to show him kindness.”

The Macauleys' take on parenting — showing compassion for a little one just learning to navigate his world — sounds so easy even a caveman could do it.

In fact, that's just how doting Stone Age parents reared their children, according to three new studies presented this week at a University of Notre Dame conference. While our hunter-gatherer ancestors may not have been big on dental hygiene, they did get it right when it came to raising well-adjusted, empathetic children, says lead researcher Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, whose research focuses on moral development of children.

“They instinctively knew what was right for a child, and children thrived because of that,” claims Narvaez, who discussed her research on hunter-gatherer societies at a meeting exploring the psychological, anthropological and biological conditions related to human development.

When every day brings a new report about packs of student bullies , teenage cyber-harrassment and even 6-year-old kindergarteners terrorizing their less-fashionable peers, a return to Stone Age parenting may be just what we need to reverse what’s widely being called a rampant “culture of mean,” the researchers suggest.

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Hunter-gatherers , the human way of life until the agricultural revolution about 8,000 years ago, were responsive caregivers, who didn’t let a baby cry it out. Moms breast-fed, probably for about five or six years. Cave kids had hours of unstructured free play, with children of all ages. And the little Pebbles and Bamm-Bamms of that Paleolithic period probably had multiple caregivers who provided nurturing and love. Cavemoms and dads didn’t spank their kids. Rather, they were the first adopters of positive touch, constantly carrying, cuddling and holding their children.

Many of our modern parenting practices are in direct opposition to our Stone Age brethren. The result: kids with a skewed sense of moral behavior, poor social skills, high rates of anxiety and depression, and a host of other ills, according to Narvaez. As one example, college kids today are about 40 percent less empathetic (a trait measured by standardized tests) compared to college students just 30 years ago, a study from the University of Michigan found.

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Granted, much of the prehistoric parenting style was directly related to survival, especially against big-toothed, hungry predators that could eat an entire extended family in one sitting. But research shows that many of these ancient practices do result in positive benefits to a kid’s psyche and health.

Take that multiple caregiver scenario, for example.

“Humans are incredibly weak, but incredibly adaptable, and we knew we needed to create alliances to help us out,” says James McKenna, Notre Dame's Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., professor of anthropology. “Babies needed to be protected. A group of people who really care for an infant provides more protection than just mom and dad.” 

Non-structured free play improves mental health and enhances intelligence. Longer-term breast-feeding boosted the immune systems of Stone Age kids, helping to protect them from disease. And with all that affection they received, they grew into happy, well-adjusted adults, because cuddling and holding infants helps boost neurologic development.

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When born, a baby is “a big bundle of nerves and sensory systems,” with little regulation for self-control, says Narvaez. Because babies are “experience dependent,” caregivers become “external psychobiological regulators,” helping shape the babies brain to better deal with stress. As the brain matures, this so-called “external, caregiver based regulation” gives way to internal regulation, as the baby learns to comfort itself.

“Babies that learn that their distress is soothed don’t develop a pattern of very extreme emotional shifts as they mature,” Narvaez says. “Their brains aren’t stressed.”

The caveman studies make sense, say children’s health experts. “There seems to be a a critical period where human beings need physical affection and touch,” says clinical psychologist Carolyn Landis, associate professor pediatrics at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. “It’s important to remind people how important a warm, responsive parent is to a child’s development.”

How our parenting styles got so far from our evolutionary roots is anyone’s guess. Our “no coddling” philosophy may have started back in the late 1920s with behaviorist James Watson’s theory of child rearing that included respect, coupled with emotional detachment. Religious ideologies that look at children as inherently evil may have played a role, says Narvaez. 

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And it may simply be the natural course of evolution, as we morphed from hunter-gatherers to smart-phone wielding captains of commerce who, unfortunately, have little time to pick up a child and simply cuddle. But that’s the price of an industrialized society, says anthropologist McKenna.

“Teaching parents how to love their children isn’t something that we ever thought we would have to teach,” he says.

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Getting back to caveman parenting isn't that tough, however. “All parents need to know is to trust their instincts,” Narvaez says. “Babies need touch. When I hear a parent say ‘I’m going to let my baby cry,’ it just breaks my heart.”

Mom Amy Macauley, who works two part-time jobs and attends college, doesn’t think it makes much sense either.

“It’s not easy, but I can cuddle Nate and do Facebook at the same time,” she laughs. “Parents can find a way to work it out.”

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