Feature

Most parents are familiar with the struggle to get their babies on feeding and sleeping schedules-the prescriptions for which vary according to the pediatric wisdom du jour, says Phoenix-based clinical psychologist Harriet J. Smith, PhD.

Surprisingly enough, though, monkeys may have better advice for us, believes Smith, who before becoming a clinician studied apes and monkeys in the lab, field and academically-as well as at home, where she raised 50 cotton-top tamarins over 30 years, from 1972 to 2001.

"Unlike most parents in the United States today, wild monkey mothers have the luxury of being able to feed on demand, carry their babies all the time, sleep with their babies and be responsive rather than doting," says Smith. All of this lays a foundation of attachment and trust that lasts a lifetime, she has observed: "As primate mothers show, when you respond quickly to your baby in the first few months, you can't spoil it!" she says.

Smith's many years observing monkeys, as well as her experiences raising two daughters and working with troubled families in practice, led her to write "Parenting for Primates" (Harvard, 2006), a 436-page tome that argues nonhuman primates are experts in dealing with a range of difficult parenting issues today's humans face, including coping with single parenthood, using babysitters safely and reducing stress to avoid child abuse and neglect.

"I wanted other clinical psychologists to be aware of some of our primate proclivities, because this information can be very useful in problem-solving with clients," explains Smith, who draws from more than 400 journal articles and books in primatology, evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology and clinical psychology to make her case.

"I'm certainly not advocating that we should behave like monkeys and apes," she adds. "I'm saying that understanding the basic primate way will help us make more informed choices about the kinds of parents we want to be."

A beautiful friendship

Smith began her love affair with monkeys in 1968 as a freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After seeing a film on baboon behavior, she was "completely and totally hooked" on nonhuman primates-so much so that she spent the next decade studying them, both as an undergraduate and doctoral student in comparative psychology at the University of Arizona, where she transferred, and as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, where she studied the vocal behavior of squirrel monkeys.

Not long into her doctoral studies, a professor asked her to take home three cotton-top tamarin triplets to observe and care for as part of a research study. Over time, she adopted other tamarins who were no longer needed for research, and a life path was born.

Three years after bringing the first infants home, her charges started to have babies. And when they did, Smith faced a disturbing reality.

"I'd hear these bloodcurdling screams in the middle of the night, and there were the parents, careering around the cages, terrified, with their babies on their backs," she recalls. "They were doing everything they could to dislodge the [babies]-biting them and trying to fling them off." In essence, because Smith had parented the original tamarins, they hadn't grown up in a normal family group and therefore lacked a template with which to raise their young, she explains.

So Smith began tending the infants herself, feeding them around the clock with a doll bottle. She hoped the parents would catch on, but the only tamarin to show an interest was Rachel-who unlike the others, had been captured as an adult in the wild.

Smith devised a system where she cared for and bottle-fed the babies in their first few months, then transferred them into a cage with Rachel, who finished rearing the youngsters. Rachel proved an excellent mom, but died two years later. Smith then began a painstaking process of training the parents to care for their own young. The work took five years, many litters and several mishaps, but eventually resulted in her goal: the mated pairs' ability to care for their young from the moment of birth.

Applying it to people

In 1981, Smith made another life-changing decision: to retrain as a clinical psychologist. During a postdoc in clinical psychology at George Washington University, she noticed that her experience with monkeys and her academic training was relevant to clients who were parents.

"I realized I formulated cases differently than my clinical colleagues," she says. "I had all of this material in my head about the evolution of social behavior and parenting, and I wanted to apply it in practice."

One of her central observations came from the tamarins who had rejected their offspring: Good parents are made, not born. Tamarins learn to parent by observing their own parents care for young siblings and by babysitting new additions to the family. Without this crucial early experience, parenting ability is seriously impaired, she says.

"So when a client comes in and says, 'Oh, my God, I have no maternal instinct,'" my answer is, 'Well, nobody does,'" Smith says. The up side of this picture, of course, is that both men and women can learn to be better parents. Indeed, in tamarin families and a few other monkey species, males babysit from an early age and provide as much or even more of the child care than females, she notes.

Single parenthood is another arena where knowledge about our nonhuman primate cousins can prove useful, Smith says. While many simian moms are single parents-that is, they don't have a mate-many species live in groups where they get lots of help from female relatives, and occasionally from adult males as well. When single mothers tell Smith they feel overwhelmed, she'll say, "'Absolutely-it's not the primate way to raise a child in isolation from others,'" she says. "I really try to normalize their experience and help them figure out how to reach out for support from others."

Simian behavior has something to say about modern day-care and babysitting practices as well, Smith believes.

For instance, many nonhuman primates rely on babysitters, but they're picky about who they let do it, Smith says. Sitters must either be kin-and therefore invested in the survival of the infant-or subordinates who recognize that the mother is in charge. Mom is never out of her infant's earshot, either: "When the baby cries, the mother immediately takes over," Smith says. Moreover, the simian world has no equivalent of human day care where someone besides the mother watches a large group of youngsters, Smith says.

Smith says she understands full well that many people would have a hard time eschewing day care or unsupervised babysitting. But with clients, she may suggest applying these findings in more nuanced ways. For instance, she may counsel them to make sure day-care providers are invested in taking good care of their baby, by paying them well and developing a good relationship with the day-care agency. With babysitting, she may advise moms to have caring relatives or friends babysit, or to stay home and do chores while a babysitter plays with her infant.

When sharing thoughts from the nonhuman primate world with clients, "I try to tell stories that are very comforting," says Smith, "because most of the things I've learned are really comforting."

Critical praise

"Parenting for Primates" has received critical praise from Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, and well-known colleagues such as Charles Snowdon, PhD, Hilldale Professor of Psychology and Zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and psychologist Jay Belsky, PhD, director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at the University of London.

Clinicians of different orientations appreciate her work as well. Colleague Barbara Levy, PhD, a retired psychoanalytic psychologist in Phoenix who has known Smith, her family and her monkeys since the late 1980s, applauds Smith's synthesis of multiple sources of information, which shows how fluid and complex parenting is.

"As therapists, there is plenty of room for different points of view that have the same basic goals and purposes," Levy says.

A few reviewers, though, have criticized Smith for making direct comparisons between humans and monkeys, and for what they view as a put-down of modern mothers, especially on issues like breastfeeding on demand and putting children in day care for long hours.

In the APA Review of Books, for example, experimental psychologist Emily D. Klein, PhD, of Georgia State University, argues that Smith fails to acknowledge the realities of people living in industrialized societies, who cannot realistically hold down a career and parent full-time.

"The natural primate strategies espoused in Smith's book are nearly impossible for the majority of working women to adopt and do not necessarily represent the best fit with American culture," Klein writes.

For her part, Smith emphasizes that she in no way disapproves of working moms.

"I am a working mother, and most primate moms-from baboons to mothers in traditional societies to mothers in industrial societies-work for their living," she says. "My message is not that mothers shouldn't work, but that they should be thoughtful about how much time they spend away from their children and about who will care for them in their absence."

She wrote her book, she adds, to help human parents understand the parenting behavior found among most primates-partly because unlike most mammals, primates are very closely related genetically.

"I wanted to explain why something as 'natural' as parenting can feel so unnatural, and at times, overwhelming," she says.


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.