On trial-and-error learning

As I’ve been ruminating about maternal instincts, and maternal learning, I thought about the different strategies my husband and I used with our newborns. As we got more experienced, the crying baby didn’t fluster us so much. When she cried, we just started the sequence.


This flowchart is a basic depiction of my personal sequence; my husband’s may have differed slightly, but the basic principles are the same. 

My husband and I both had some version of the sequence, and generally if we picked the baby up, or fed her, or changed her, about 90% of the time, that worked and she calmed down. Sure, 5-10% of the time we had to be slightly more creative, and yes, I hear of some babies that cry and cry and these simple steps don’t work. But my basic point is that most parents arrive at a simple checklist that works most of the time.

Grandparents and other caregivers also have these ways of figuring out what a particular baby needs. Which is significant, because maybe it’s not so much down to maternal instincts, or paternal instincts either. Maybe all we need, to be successful parents, is the ability to problem solve, to use the fairly simple tools of trial-and-error learning to meet the demands of a particular situation. We already know humans are capable of solving novel problems that they’ve never seen before. If you’ve never seen this in action, hand your nearest toddler an iPhone and see how long it takes them to master the push/swipe. It doesn’t take long, and they will stick to it until they figure it out.

Other animals certainly can learn through trial-and-error learning. That isn’t unique to primates. So how much does that play a role in parenting? Do we need instincts at all? Does there need to be a genetic basis for parenting behavior, or does it make more sense for there to be a genetic basis for basic problem solving and the ability to think up and try different solutions to novel problems?


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