Thriving or Just Surviving? Are Your Children Nested?

Shutterstock/Andrey Yurlov

Some of the experiences that predict thriving in children.

Taking a snapshot of a young child’s experiences in the past week, as reported by a parent, can be predictive of child outcomes, my colleagues and I report in a new paper, “Evolved Developmental Niche Provision Report: Moral Socialization, Social Thriving, and Social Maladaptation in Three Countries.” The measure we used, Evolved Developmental Niche Provision Report (EDNPR), assesses some of humanity’s evolved nest* for young children. (See questions used below.) The nest optimizes normal development. Here the nest was related to child thriving internationally.

The assessment was given to parents in three countries—the USA, Switzerland, and China. Parents of 3-to-5-year-old children indicated how much self-directed play, family togetherness, affection and (lack of) corporal punishment the child received in the past week. (See the questions below.) They also completed validated measures of child social and moral development and mental health.

Three sets of outcomes were examined: child socialization (e.g., self control, empathy), child maladaptation (e.g., distrust, misbehavior), and social thriving (e.g., joy in interpersonal relations).  Other factors (e.g., parental age, income, education, responsiveness) were controlled while examining whether the snapshot report influenced children’s outcomes beyond the other factors. In all three countries, social thriving was predicted by the evolved nest snapshot. In the USA, all sets of outcomes were significantly predicted by how much self-directed play, family activities, affection and (absence of) punishment the child was reported to experience in the past week.

This study aligns with the prior work of the ND Family Life Project (FLP) showing how important the evolved nest is for establishing the trajectory of children toward good health and thriving. FLP work emphasizes the optimization of development—what helps people flourish. Child well-being is often discussed by others as a minimal set of provisions (e.g., nutrition) or an absence of trauma. (Amerijckx & Humblet, 2014). Those foci are just not enough for reaching human potential, and instead reflect the downward shift of expectations for acceptable child raising, child health, adult health, and cultural practices that Narvaez (2014) discusses routinely. (See here.)

It’s important to optimize human potential and capacities so that humanity can solve the crises we face. The poor development of human capacities has contributed to those crises. A person’s neurobiology and social capacities are founded in early months and years of life. We have to remember that babies are like fetuses until 18 months of age and so need an external womb experience to grow properly. Foundations for health, cooperation and compassion are not established in a species-typical manner outside the evolved nest.

Parents can assess their own children’s experience in the past week with the six questions of the Evolved Developmental Niche Provision Report (Note: The measure has been used with preschool children but may be applicable to older children):


  1. How often did you affectionately touch, kiss, or hug the child?
  2. How often did you spank/hit/pinch/slap the child? (This score is reversed. No punishment is better.)
  3. How much did the child play actively and freely with other children OUTSIDE (play organized by the children; not in organized activities)?
  4. How much did the play actively and freely with other children INSIDE (play organized by the children; not in organized activities and not passive watching of television or videos)?
  5. How often did you do things together as a family AT HOME (e.g., eating together, doing chores together, playing)?
  6. How often did you do things together as a family OUTSIDE THE HOME (e.g., going to religious services, shows, community events, visiting parks, traveling)?

*The evolved nest is provided by a community and includes soothing perinatal experiences, responsive care (mitigating distress) by multiple adult caregivers, frequent affectionate touch (and no corporal punishment), breastfeeding for several years, self-directed free play in the natural world with multi-aged playmates, positive social support and climate (no emotional punishment).


Amerijckx, G., & Humblet, P. C. (2014), Child well-being: What does it mean? Children & Society, 28, 404-415. doi:10.1111/chso.12003

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York: Norton.

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