Is Communal Parenting the Future of Humanity?

Elephants are known for communal living and alloparenting

What is Alloparenting?

Alloparenting is a system in which adult individuals act in a parenting role to non-descendant young. Alloparenting occurs in multiple species of birds, mammals, arachnids, insects and early research suggests alloparenting is present in some species of fish. This type of parenting is used most often by mammals and birds, but specifically primates living in large groups such as humans and chimpanzees.

Benefits to the Parent?

It’s easy to see how the parent of one or more offspring could benefit from the help of an alloparent. Many times mothers are forced to leave their young unattended in order to hunt, forage for food and nest building materials, or to engage in advantageous social encounters with other adult conspecifics. With the help of an alloparent, the danger of leaving your progeny for an extended period of time to participate in these activities is avoided, and the mortality of your young is reduced significantly.

Benefits to the Alloparent?

When thinking about alloparenting from the standpoint of ethology, it may seem like a maladaptive practice for the alloparent. Why would an animal capable of producing its own young spend valuable time caring for the offspring of another? The three main reasons for this are, education, reciprocation and genetic interest. In helping a conspecific (an animal of the same species) raise it’s young, you gain knowledge and experience in dealing with progeny yourself. This raises the chances of you successfully rearing offspring of your own in the future, but also has a second effect of initiating reciprocation. The reciprocation of alloparenting can happen in one of two ways; either the conspecific you had previously helped returns the favor by eventually helping raise your young, or alternatively you build (gain) advantageous and supportive social bonds within the larger group. Of the reasons to alloparent, genetic interest is the strongest among non-human animals. Many animals alloparent their siblings and cousins which carry at least half of the same genetic material they do. In helping take care of these closely related kin and conspecifics at large, this ensures the propagation of the alloparent’s genes and at very least the survival of their species.

Benefits to the Young?

As mentioned earlier, having an alloparent present decreases the likelihood of mortality among offspring when their parent leaves to participate in necessary activities; while also allowing for easier access to resources such as food, water, and nest building materials. This scenario offers a second, equally beneficial experience to the offspring: socialization. Gregarious animals (those that live in flocks or large groups) must test the social norms of their communities at an early age in order to learn societal paradigms and later assume a role in the hierarchy. Being reared, at least in part, by a conspecific other than your own mother gives the opportunity for young to test these standards against another model. This enables them to better understand these standards before being thrust into the larger group, giving them an advantage over offspring not raised in this way.

*Warning: At this point I begin my own philosophical thought on this topic and not everything is backed up by peer reviewed research and most portions that are, are based on data from the United States only*

Do Humans Alloparent?

This is a question debated by anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, evolutionary biologists, and ethologists alike. Some make the argument that humans do not truly alloparent on a large scale. Most humans do not willingly volunteer a portion of their lives to taking care of other human’s children expecting reciprocation, an advantageous social bond, or genetic propagation in return. Here are some reasons I believe this to be incorrect:

Day Care Services:

- In the United States there are 573,430 child care workers, working in centers five to seven days a week with children on average spending twelve to thirty three hours per week in daycare centers (CCA,2016 CSPAN,2010).

- Children spend 19% of their time per week in daycare centers, and factoring in an average eight hours of sleep each night they are spending 29% of the time they are awake each week in these daycare centers.

-These children are between the ages of 6 months to 2 ½ years old, a time when they are learning social norms and are most susceptible to environmental molding.

Based on these facts I would argue that these daycare workers are certainly alloparenting these children. They are protecting offspring from the dangers of the environment while the parent leaves to collect resources; in the form or monetary value, advantageous social interactions or a combination of both. This arrangement also gives these children opportunities to test social norms, and interact with conspecifics other than their parents. These conspecifics (daycare workers) are then rewarded with both parenting experience and monetary value, which can be used to help raise their young.

Non-Parent Familial Care:

-In the United States 3 million children live in homes where they are taken care of by a relative other than their parent, making up 3.9% of all children in the United States (ASPE,2012).

- It’s estimated that the number of children being taken care of by non-parental relatives in developing and underdeveloped countries is much higher due to economic, social, and environmental constraints.

Based on these facts I would present this as evidence that humans participate in the familial facet of alloparenting, where non-parental kin take on the role of a parent.

Public and Private Schooling:

-In the United States 50.4 million children attend public elementary schools and 5.2 million children attend private elementary schools, spending on average forty-six and a half hours a week in these schools (NCES,2008 NCES,2016).

-These children are spending 27.6% of their time per week in these schools, and factoring in an average eight hours of sleep each night, they are spending 41.4% of their time awake each week in these schools.

-These children are between the ages of 5 and 10 years old, another key point in development when children become aware of social norms and attempt to fit into or reject these standards.

Again based on these facts I would argue that the administration and educational structure itself, are alloparenting students within these schools. They are protecting offspring from the dangers of the environment while the parent leaves to collect resources. This arrangement gives the child opportunities to test social norms and interact with conspecifics other than their parents. These conspecifics (school administration) are then rewarded with both parenting experience and monetary value, which can be used to help raise their young.

Is Alloparenting (Communal Parenting) the Future of Humanity?

In thinking about the potential benefits of alloparenting to the parent, alloparent, and young; as well as the behaviors presented above that indicate that alloparenting is part of most children’s lives on a macro level through day care and education systems, it may be in the best interest of humanity to consider the use of alloparenting on a more micro level. In saying this, I am suggesting that it may be adaptive for the classic nuclear family to be abandoned for a larger family made up of more than one set of parents, a communal family. Having two or more sets of parents acquiring money for a single household, would allow for the sharing of the economic burden that creates stress among many one and two parent households. The difficulty of managing time between a parent’s occupation, social interaction with, and general caring for of young would also be relieved in that when one parent is away, another could step in to tend to the emotional and physical needs of the child. I believe this style of parenting would ultimately grant the sharing of knowledge and skills among both parents and young, creating more well rounded individuals, helping to push the positive evolution of humanity. In my research on this topic I found only a few examples of this concept being put into practice in Europe and the Americas; but I am sure there are others that are doing this, or have done this in the past that haven’t been documented for study. Now I leave this to you the reader, do you believe alloparenting (communal parenting) has a place in the future of humanity? Would you try it yourself? What are other positives to this style of parenting? What are problems you foresee with this idea? I’d love to hear any ideas you’d like to share, as well as any critiques you have of this post. The future of science and the world at large is our choice through the actions we take, so make your voice heard!