Photo of the Day, Viceroy Sugar Beach Resort, Soufriere, St. Lucia

Published by Wednesday Martin

No matter where they are and no matter where they're from, when kids land together in a community, they all do pretty much the same thing. First, they find each other. Then they form a rangy mixed-age group (a universal preference among kids). And then, they play. Their play will often resemble some type of "work," with an industrious edge or a theme of struggle and overcoming. If the group is big enough, they might form teams and work together or at odds on some imagined "task."

At the resort where we're staying in St. Lucia I have enjoyed observing the different parenting styles of couples from Germany, England, Iceland, France and the US among others. My highly unscientific conclusion is that I hover too much and don't give my kids enough freedom. My kids' European counterparts range far from their parents, show up for breakfast alone on the resort's shuttle service, introduce themselves to others, and resolve their own disputes quite nicely. They might even have a tiny sip of a grown up's cocktail at dinner. Wow, so much of that would not happen in the tribe of affluent Manhattan parents I study!

Being at a family resort with parents and kids from many countries, you see that what counts as "good parenting" varies widely from culture to culture. What's consistent is that, when ecological circumstances are right and they are able to do so without compromising their own well-being, parents invest heavily in each and every child. This is a real rarity in the long evolutionary view of parenting and childhood; for many millennia, just keeping oneself and one's offspring alive required incredible effort, canny social and environmental calculus, and utterly unsentimental strategic skills, as it still does for many animal species today (invest in this brood now, or wait for a year when weather and other ecological conditions are better? raise them all, or let this one peck the other one to death? let this not-quite-experienced pre-reproductive watch my unweaned babe so I can forage a bit? a nap would be nice. but what if she drops him? etc) Today, many of us who live in the industrialized West are relatively unconstrained by such concerns and considerations. In fact, it's arguable that nothing better exemplifies what it means to live — and parent — in a state of ecological release than a "family vacation" at an upscale Caribbean resort.

From my lounge chair perch, I have had lots of opportunities to watch not only parents and kids, but kids at play. The kids are remarkably resourceful, overcoming language barriers and cultural differences to get down to the business at hand, whether it's a spontaneous soccer game or an afternoon of sandcastle building. The boys, particularly the English ones, like "a bit of rough fun" — "Piss off!" "Pass the ball, you, pass it!" and "You're an idiot!" are frequently heard — and their parents tend to let it go.

The group pictured above formed and reformed itself every day for nearly a week, with other kids joining and peeling away spontaneously. These kids range in age from six to 12. The 11-year-old girl, who is German, tended to my six -year-old in true alloparental style. Like so many other juvenile female primates, she was not just being a help to me and thrilling my young son with her attentions. She was also improving her parenting skills and perhaps, eventually, her own reproductive fitness down the line. Mostly, I think she was capitulating to the charms of my younger son. Just beyond toddlerhood, he retains many of the features — chubby cheeks and arms, big round eyes, a protruding tummy, and an attention-grabbing natal coat (he wears a hot pink, vivid purple or bright orange scuba shirt many days) — that Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has observed render the littlest and most vulnerable primates, be they human or non-human,  irresistible to potential caregivers.

Further reading:

AV Bell, K Hinde, Newson, L, Who Was Helping? The Scope for Female Cooperative Breeding in Early Homo

S Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, Bellknap Press, 2011