Proximal vs Distal parenting: What’s the difference?by Best Case Expert- Updated November 16, 2021
Welcome back to Best Case Parenting. Today we are delving back into some parenting styles that are commonly talked about. If you have heard about Proximal and Distal parenting, but don’t know what they are, read on 🙂
Research into the kinds of parenting that produce successful offspring often looks at the past to discover parenting components that seem to have been the most accepted in each era. Parenting experts toss around terms like proximal parenting and distal parenting along with related terms such as primal parenting and evolved nest. Of course, as the term primal suggests, some research involves methods of parenting that are common to primates, including primitive humans. Over the years, however, parenting has vacillated between this primitive style that is related to proximal parenting and the more modern distal parenting. To examine proximal versus distal parenting, we must first know what the terms mean.
If you have ever seen a mother gorilla and her baby at a zoo, you have seen an example of proximal parenting. The baby is seldom apart from the mother, even clinging to her fur as she moves through her environment. The term proximal derives from the same root as proximity, which is defined as “nearness in space, time or relationship.” This type of parenting has several characteristics according to the website parenting science.today. These include:
• Close bodily contact
• Maternal involvement
• It is cultural
• It involves other types of contact
The close bodily contact includes such things as breastfeeding which may last through the 2nd -to-the-5th year. It also involves stimulating an infant’s body in other ways such as massage to encourage development. This type of parenting is mainly done by the mother and is evident in mostly rural areas. A study detailed on the website Researchgate.net points out that it occurs mainly in people of lower educational levels. It is a more instinctual type of parenting. Infants sleep with their mothers, and there is usually an interdependence with other adults in the society. This has the combined effect of giving the infant emotional warmth and security while keeping him or her physically warm and safe.
This type of parenting is more representative of urban, western educated societies. The word distal is rooted in the idea of “at a distance.” Its hallmarks include:
• Emphasis on cognitive development
• Increased eye contact with child
• Planned independence and autonomy
• Inclusion of other influential adult caretakers
Distal parenting becomes more evident as the baby ages. While rural cultures often depend upon mutual acceptance of goals and concepts for survival of the population, the more recent distal plan encourages the child to explore and become aware of him or herself and their surroundings. involves face-to-face interaction with an infant that means less bodily contact. Looking back at the mother gorilla and her baby, as she holds the infant tightly to her, there can be little eye contact. This parenting style involves object stimulation, which is the use of an object such as a toy when interacting with an infant. Proponents believe that this type of parenting produces a more autonomous, independent child.
Those explanations clear up many questions but still do not completely answer the question: what is proximal and distal parenting? Let’s look at some examples to help with that!
Proximal and Distal Parenting Examples
The study of proximal vs distal parenting is also helped by looking at examples. Children in small rural towns of the mid-twentieth century were often cared for entirely by their mothers, and were examples of proximal parenting. Even in the 1950’s America, only 34 percent of women were in the workforce. The father was the provider, and the mother was the caregiver. This worked to the advantage of the city or town because children developed an extremely close relationship with their mothers and were willing to accept her moral compass and belief system., which usually were held in common with the community. Most mothers in the 1920s through the late 1940s breastfed their infants, according to the National Library of Medicine, sometimes through the child’s fifth year.
In contrast, Distal parenting was a signature of the well-to-do or even average Victorian family. Mothers handed over newborns to nannies and settled into a life of artistic and social pursuits. Fathers and mothers saw their children only once a day at planned meetings. Adults and children did not even eat together.
The caregivers were often women with no children of their own, older and frequently emotionally distant. Parental contact took place on a more intellectual plane, with adult expectations of behavior at an early stage. Children were taught to achieve academic and social goals. Boys were taught mathematics and reading as well as horsemanship and other “manly” pursuits. Girls learned to read, play instruments, and do decorative sewing. This was true to the extreme in wealthy homes, but also true in households of moderate income where the employ of nursemaids was common.
Pros and Cons of Proximal Parenting
There is a natural basis in proximal parenting. Science tells us that the brain of a newborn has only 25 percent of the functioning capacity of an adult brain. In fact, it says that humans do not reach the cognitive abilities of other animal babies until they are 18 months old. The concept of the “evolved nest” is based upon this truth. Every animal provides for its young an “environment” that is based upon the rate at which they develop. An article on Mental Floss.com asserts that human children need the first three months in close proximity to their mothers. Babies respond well to being wrapped tightly and like to be insulated from loud noises the way they would be in the womb. In short, the article says, the first three months serve as an additional trimester to allow for development.
Promoters of this style of parenting also stress the security of bodily warmth and the emotional bond that results from keeping a child close. Proponents also assert that the physical nearness of the mother leads to accelerated development because the child is more willing to listen to and accept the mother’s instruction.
The proximity of the mother and child lead to better communication between them, some say. Mothers learn to perceive the needs of their children, sometimes through only a shift in body position. A study indicated that this recognition on the part of the mother led to greater verbal comprehension and expressive language abilities in the child. The study also seemed to indicate a greater development of self-awareness and self-regulation for the same reasons.
However, some of those positive results are interpreted as negatives by those who disfavor this parenting technique. They say that the profound and prolonged attachment to the mother robs the child of the ability to form other attachments. It also, some say, leads to over-parenting, a concept known today as “helicopter parenting,” and this may lead to restrictions on a child’s curiosity and “exploration freedom.” In addition, opponents stress that the very reliance on the care and affection of the mother can create a dependency in the child.
Pros and Cons of Distal Parenting
Distal parenting, some assert, produces more intellectually engaged children, children with more curiosity and ability to function autonomously. They stress that eye contact, more than physical contact, encourages rapid development of the brain.
While that may be true in older babies and young children, opponents of this parenting tactic say infants lack the visual acuity to make eye contact with another individual until they are several months old. Researchers have also found that physical contact creates more interest in making eye contact during face-to-face play times.
Another positive result seen by some in distal learning is that children grow up with an independent spirit. Opponents say that kids see rules and regulations differently when there is no attachment to the authority behind it. That, in turn, could lead to irresponsible adult behavior.
Which Style is Best for Me?
That is the question to which this article has led. We have looked at proximal and distal parenting examples, and have defined the terms. We have explored the pros and cons and read the research materials. Still, all the scientific studies and psychological evaluations which have ever been performed do no good if they don’t help people make informed decisions. The first response may be that parents should do what feels natural to them. There is a reason that adults intuitively protect and nurture infants. It lies in the survival of the species. So, while an infant still smells new and sweet, perhaps parents are wise to cradle them and enjoy their nearness.
As to parenting older babies and young children, a bit of reading and thinking about the evidence might help. While “helicopter parenting” may lead to low self-confidence and the inability to think independently in some children, it has been shown to increase learning skills in others. Parenting is hard. It is subjective. It depends not only upon the child, but on the personality and nature of the parent.
Some subtypes of proximal parenting are the afore-mentioned helicopter parenting and authoritarian parenting. So, while some point out the negatives of hovering and issuing “proclamations,” others say this type of parenting builds responsibility into kids and helps them stay safe.
Free-Range parenting, which may correlate to the distal style, may improve social skills and increase self-confidence in some kids, but today’s global environment can be a dangerous place to let children distance themselves from parents.
An article in parentingsciencetoday.com says there are four components to a good parenting style. These are:
• Child centered. The nanny-based parenting of the Victorian period was founded on the supposition that the parents’ lives were the important element. Good parenting, however, realizes that the end product is a happy child who is emotionally and physically healthy.
• Mutual consent. This, of course, is important when children agree that they need the guidance of a parent and the parent agrees to lead, but a newborn build that trust necessary to accept guidance through physical contact with the parent.
• Discipline. Holding a tiny baby limits its movements. That can be crucial to calming them and to keeping them safe. Older children accept the role of the parent as the one who sets the limits to behavior. That, in turn, creates a self-regulated adult.
What is proximal and distal parenting? The truth is that the distant, cold parenting style of the Victorian period was replaced by the Behaviorism and strict structure of the 1920’s. That, in turn, fell victim to the relaxed proximal parenting of the 1950’s. Many people remember the always-present mother on ‘Leave it to Beaver‘ and the dad that came home to a drink and a “hello” after work. Then, in the 1960’s, parents took a hands-off approach to raising their little darlings. There was no time, nor any desire, to breastfeed babies. Mom and Dad filled up their spare time with demonstrations and causes, letting the kids follow along. Whatever “sparked their interest “was the key to raising them. Today, we are discussing the benefits and failures of helicopter parenting. That is the reality. As frightening as it may sound, there is no certain fool-proof way of parenting children. So, what can parents do?
Many authorities suggest a mixture of techniques. Parents might take their cues from the age of their child, the stage of development, the culture in which they are being raised and the needs of the parents themselves. A tiny baby will perhaps suffer no ill effects from being cuddled for hours by a content mother, and a toddler can probably benefit from some time away at preschool. In any case, the desire to adopt the best parenting style for a child comes from the need to care for him or her, and no baby was ever hurt by an overabundance of care.
Why not read up on multiple parenting styles and take the best elements for yourself? Maybe a hybrid style is the best style for you, as it is tailor made.