The Secret to Healthy Child Development (with Gabor Maté)

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Dr. Gabor Maté, physician and child development expert, takes a deep dive into healthy child development: what conditions are necessary for it, which of those factors are missing from our society, and what parents can do to compensate for it. To unlock the key to healthy child development, he says we need to look towards our ancestors. “Human beings evolved originally in small-band hunter-gatherer groups… children were parented by multiple nurturing adults… and children were held all the time. They had multiple playmates of different ages to play with. And so they grew up confident in themselves and connected to the group.” Plus, why Gabor believes too much influence from peers and the Internet is a developmental disaster for young kids.


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Gabor Maté

Gabor Maté  00:05

Hi, I’m Gabor Maté, and you’re listening to GOOD KIDS. I’m a retired medical doctor and the author of four books published in over 25 languages. And I’m going to talk about healthy child development on this program, the conditions that are necessary for it. What factors are missing in our culture to promote healthy child development, and what we as parents can do to recreate conditions that are conducive to promoting our children’s health and well-being.

Gabor Maté 

I began my interest in child developmental issues, when I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder myself in my mid-50s. And that got me wondering what Well, what’s happening in this society. That’s so many kids are being diagnosed with all kinds of things. And so then I began to research brain development. And I came to the conclusion that the way kids are being raised in a society and the conditions for development that are being provided, are inimical to healthy development. Healthy development in general is when human beings reach their full potential, for being grounded and being present, being effective, being self-confident, being connected with other people in a healthy way.

Gabor Maté 

That’s what I would say healthy development is and that’s in our nature. But that requires certain conditions. And so we have to look at what are the conditions that humans need for the development. Now for that you have to look at human evolution. So, we think we’re civilized and advanced human beings and all that, but compared to our ancestors were doing very poorly. Because human beings evolved originally, in small band hunter gatherer groups, where 60 to 80, humans would be joined together in a group, they would wander together, children were always around adults. There’s no question of parents be separated from kids. Here, kids sleep in the baby cave, and the adults sleep in the adult cave, none of that nonsense. Kids were always around their parents, and they were not just a nuclear family.

Gabor Maté  02:36

Nuclear family is a modern and very aberrant development. Children were parented by multiple nurturing adults. And furthermore, children were held all the time, it was not a question of kids being pushed down, you know, indiscriminately, and they had multiple playmates of different ages to play with. And so that kids grew up in this context of being held by the community. And so they grew up, confident in themselves and connected to the group. Not only does the human personality under the impact of the environment, so does the human brain. So the physiology of the brain itself is determined by our human relationships. And what does that mean? It means that the brain is already being shaped in the universe.

Gabor Maté

And the more support pregnant woman has, the more calm she is, the better for the child’s brain development. And the more stressed she is, the more harmful potentially for the child’s brain development. So a lot of issues for our kids actually begin in the womb, because women are so stressed these days. Parents are under tremendous stress. And that means that kids brains under tremendous stress. And that means that people are just not developing the way human nature would allow us to where the conditions appropriately. So this has to be understood. And it’s not a matter of blaming individual parents.

Gabor Maté  04:18

But if you look at why are so many kids diagnosed with ADHD and why those numbers going up, and so many kids diagnosed with autism and bipolar condition for God’s sakes and anxiety and depression, so on and so on. What’s going on? What’s going on is that the optimal conditions for healthy brain development for children are less and less available. Parents are doing their best under very difficult circumstances. It’s not a question of do parents love their kids? Are they dedicated? Are they doing their best? Yes, yes, yes, but they’re doing so under conditions that do not support healthy development.

Gabor Maté 

Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Buddhist teacher so that the greatest gift parents can give their children is their own happiness. The fact is that children absorb the stresses of their parents. So, right from the beginning, parents have to take care of their own emotional health, if they want to promote emotional health of their children. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, the child has one immense non-negotiable need, which is for attachment non attachment is the drive for closeness and proximity with another human being, why do we have that attachment drive for the purpose primarily of taking care of those that need to be taken care of, and to be taken care of by others.

Gabor Maté 

Now, at no time is the attachment derived and the attachment need more imperative than in early childhood, because the human child is the least mature and the most dependent of any creature in the universe and remains that way for the longest period of time, I mean, the horse can run on the first day of life. Human beings can do that for a year and a half, monkeys can claim to them their mothers, already at birth, humans can’t do that. So that means that our period of dependence and immaturity and vulnerability is much longer. And the only thing that or the thing that supports our health development is a healthy attachment with the nurturing adults.

Gabor Maté  06:40

In our society, that attachment is cut to shambles. A significant percentage of American women go back to work within two weeks of giving birth. Moms are meant to be with their kids for years, I’m done with nature here. And so when women are economically forced to return to work, that separation from the mother is huge for the child. And so children have this attachment drive, but there’s nothing in the child’s brain that tells the child who to attach to. It’s like the duckling that hatches from the egg. And preferentially will imprint on a mother duck if the mother duck is there. But it’s a minute that is not there. The duckling will imprint on anything that moves, including a mechanical toy that can possibly nurture it.

Gabor Maté

Human infants are the same. So when the parents are not around, children can’t attach to the friends, they attach to whoever’s around. And for most of the kids most of the time from early age on, who’s around other kids, which means that young kids these days, are actually getting their significant influences, not from healthy, grounded, mature adults, but from their immature peers. And they’re doing that in person. And they’re doing that online for early age on. And it’s a disaster developmentally, and it creates all kinds of problems. So now we have to compensate for it. So first of all, there ought to be more support for parental leave for sure.

Gabor Maté  08:31

In the absence of that, if kids are going to have to go to daycare as an early age, they need to be with other nurturing adults as if they were back in the tribe 20,000 years ago. So daycares need to be places not just of physical childcare, but of emotional nurturing, from healthy, non-stressed adults. So, number one, and number two, at the end of the day, when we see our kids again, we can’t assume that they’re still ours. Because the whole days they spent connecting with other people, usually their peers, we have to collect them again, we have to bring them under our wing again. That means we have to spend time with them. Not watching television.

Gabor Maté

Not everybody on their little gadget, but family meals where kids or parents or relating to kids where it’s was not about eating or only about eating it’s also primarily about relating. For example, I know one mom who has confessed to me that she’s a workaholic, which has in the past got in the way of her relationship with her children. Now what she does is at six o’clock in the evening she has her daughter hide her cell phone, so in a house where she the mom has no idea where it is. And for two hours she just play with her kids and apparently according to this wonderful Mom, it’s been revolutionary in terms of revitalizing her relationship with her children. And let me tell you, the long-term effect on those kids will be incalculably beautiful. It’s a simple trick, but how effective it is.

Gabor Maté  10:27

I’m working on my next book, which will be published next year in 2022. It’s entitled, “The Midst of Normal Illness and Health in an Insane Culture.” There are so many of my talks on all manner of topics on YouTube freely available, no cost, nothing to sign up for. If you want to follow me even look at my website——and thank you for listening to GOOD KIDS.


GOOD KIDS is a Lemonada Media Original. Supervising producer is Kryssy Pease. Associate producer is Alex McOwen and Kegan Zema is our engineer. The show is executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. The music is by Dan Molad with additional music courtesy of APM music. Check us out on social at @LemonadaMedia, recommend us to a friend and rate and review us wherever you listen to podcast. If you want to submit a show idea, email us at Until next week, stay good.


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