Paul Zak, Oxytocin, and Parenting

Okay, so over the weekend I got to watch a great talk by Paul Zak at Ted Talks. In it he talks about the purpose and implications of the chemical oxytocin, in the brain.

Now, to me the interesting thing about all this is that oxytocin response is what determines both trust/trustworthiness and empathy. Those two things are at the heart of morality and social connection. They determine the quality of relationships all of us have with those around us.

They’re also things that any parent should be acutely aware of. When we pick up and cuddle our babies when they cry, their brains release oxytocin. When we nurse them, oxytocin. When we laugh with them, tickle them, play with them, talk to them, change their diapers, comfort them at three in the morning – oxytocin!

It sets the stage. When our needs are met when we are small, then our brain is conditioned to view the world with trust and empathy and to act with trustworthiness.

When our babies are little we talk about this as attachment. Secure attachment occurs when enough needs are met. Insecure attachment happens when they aren’t. Researchers have known for a long time that attachment is predictive of long-term emotional health, but Paul Zak actually demonstrates why.


That’s amazing!

That means that as parents we are daily responsible for the long-term success of our society. We control the future. (Mwa-ha-ha-ha!)

It also means there are a few things that can really mess this up. Cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that works against oxytocin. Cortisol is released when we yell at our kids, when we spank them, when we leave them to cry alone, and when we ignore them.

So, if we trigger oxytocin in our kids brains they learn trust, trustworthiness, and empathy and long-term are happier, more productive, better citizens of planet earth. On the other hand, if we trigger cortisol, we set them up for health problems, distrust, untrustworthiness, and a lack of empathy. What we do today sets our children up to succeed. Or fail.

We control the future. That’s sobering. (And I was having so much fun…)

There are a lot of various parenting books out there that tell us how to parent. So many that there are now whole books telling us not to worry about it. I honestly side with the books that are trying to help us be better parents.

This isn’t unimportant. There are long-term consequences to decisions that we are seeing increasingly minimized. It does matter whether you let your child “cry-it-out”. It does matter whether you spank. It does matter whether you respond to your child when they cry. And it matters today AND thirty years from now.

This is why I think about and work hard at parenting. Our every action will echo through the future. This isn’t some feel-good hippy-dippy stuff either. This is science. This is measurable. This is predictive.

You want happy, productive, healthy, moral children? You watched the video. You read this. Go hug your kids.  Work on your tool-box.  Love more. Punish less. Worry more about attachment and less about behavior.


Talk to me, Baby!

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