‘Raised by Animals: The Surprising New Science of Animal Family Dynamics’ Is a Stunningly Informative Guide to Child Rearing

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Those who adopt a dog often think of how much they have to teach their new family member, but few consider how much the animal kingdom has to teach us, even about childbirth and childrearing. As Jennifer Verdolin, author of “Raised by Animals” would tell you, they have lots and lots of good advice for humans. But since animals can’t talk, Verdolin has researched that information and consolidated it into an easy-to-read, fascinating book.

Animal lovers know that animals aren’t really that different from us. They can express affection, experience joy, get lonely, copy our actions and have families. But Verdolin explains that animals do much more than merely reflect human values; often, animals teach their offspring those very values. In fact, do our values spring from the combined knowledge of what we’ve learned from the animals around us? Verdolin might very well argue for that theory.

The book is filled with fascinating information and is incredibly interesting to read. While some other nonfiction books are also filled with information, they are also often dry, dense, and difficult to read. “Raised by Animals,” however, showcases Verdolin’s conversational writing style that makes complex information simple to understand.

She starts with some touching examples of animal behavior that any human mother can relate to. And even this almost paragraph-long sentence demonstrates her ability to write passages that are filled with both beauty and information.

“The grief we witness when killer whales are separated from their families, when elephants frantically band together to rescue another’s child, when a gorilla mother steadfastly refuses to lay down the body of her dead infant, and when an emperor penguin wails desperately in the hope that her cries will rouse the frozen chick lying at her feet — these things reveal more about what we have in common than where our differences lie, and they suggest that our emotional experience of parenting emerges from a deep connection we have with other species.”

Skeptics might say that comparing humans and animals is like comparing apples and oranges. She has a brilliant response to that. She writes about the fact that although the fruit diverged genetically over eighty million years ago, there are many similarities in apple and orange trees — both start off as a single flower that needs insects to pollinate it, both need water and light to grow, and both fruits are sweet and can be made into juice.

“More importantly, researchers, like myself, are constantly discovering new information about other species that are blurring the lines between ourselves and other species. Pigeons recognize words, dogs read our emotions and understand our words, horses communicate with us, and fish sing at dawn. These are just a few of the discoveries reported in a single month while writing this book. As these boundaries continue to collapse, it makes even more sense to look to other species for some counsel.”

One dilemma new parents invariably struggle with is the question of what to do about a crying baby. Is the baby crying because he or she is truly in need, or because the baby is trying to manipulate the parents into responding to every whim and need? Verdolin states — in no uncertain terms — that there is no other mammal that does not respond to the crying of its baby. Verdolin’s suggestion to new parents, based on scientific research of mammals, is that parents “consider responding 100 percent of the time to crying (when possible) for the first six months. After six months, implement a slow and gradual change in response time. Start with one to two minutes and add additional time slowly.” She also shares the fact that research shows that “when parents respond to crying infants, infants reduce their overall crying rate.”

In a chapter simply titled “No! The Nature of Discipline,” Verdolin shares information about how various animals discipline their children. It turns out that chimpanzee moms, instead of punishing youngsters who bother them, ignore them. They do become less tolerant as the young chimp grows older, from which Verdolin says, “…we can infer that other animals likely can differentiate stages of development and ability and treat their offspring accordingly.” Scientific research has shown that aggressively punishing children either verbally or physically, especially when children are young, can change their development both verbally and cognitively. She suggests: Ignore misbehavior; don’t react physically to misbehavior; use humor.

Verdolin writes that “Teaching our children the strategies to get along with others in any situation is central to a cooperative society, if that is the society we strive to create.” By modeling empathy, parents foster that sense, by talking about differences (diversity of color, religion, cognitive/physical ability), parents encourage acceptance. Verdolin writes about both animal and human models.

“Rats automatically help each other, even when they must forego a personal reward in order to do so.  But the research on rats reveals that biases can emerge when they are not exposed to individuals that look different.” She concludes “…simply integrating children with others from a variety of backgrounds may go a long way toward changing these negative attitudes.”

Verdolin also points out examples from egalitarian societies where cooperation, sharing and respect are central to society. Foremost in those societies is a physical and emotional closeness. Adults touch each other and infants are held most of the day. In addition to physical and emotional closeness, let children have some autonomy in their choices, and let them play. Unstructured, noncompetitive play is crucial for children, and all too often, children in our society have rigid schedules where they go from school to after-school sports or karate lessons or math enrichment.

This book would be a perfect gift for any new parents, but also for grandparents, teachers, and animal lovers. This is a book about how we can learn to be better humans by studying the creatures around us. Even the lowliest of them may have important lessons to teach us, if we only stop to notice.

Please note: This review is based on the final, paperback book provided by the publisher, The Experiment, for review purposes.