Updated: May 20
Orangutans are very sensitive animals, who are also very intelligent. They are very adaptable and very capable of reasoning and problem solving. They often find and use objects as tools to help them complete tasks that they want to do e.g. using leaves as umbrellas or cushions. There has also been some evidence of orangutans learning sign language to communicate with people. The name Orangutan actually means ‘person of the forest.’
Like many animals, Orangutans are very empathic, picking up the feelings and emotions of others, with research finding that they often mimic the emotions in others (Ross, Menzler & Zimmermann 2007). Female Orangutans are very loving and nurturing with their young, keeping them close by for up to 10 years, keeping them safe and teaching them new skills to survive to help them survive in the wild.
This article covers three key things that we can learn from the Orangutan to help you develop positive relationships and emotional wellbeing in your children. It includes the importance of feeling safe, why good communication is so important and one of the best ways to teach your children how to survive and thrive in this world.
Orangutans keep their young with them in the nest until they are 10 years old. This is the longest that any mammal other than humans keep their child close by. This is thought to be because it takes them that long to learn what they need to learn to survive and to keep them safe.
A feeling of being safe is so important to the wellbeing of any child. In 1943, a famous Psychologist, called Abraham Maslow, produced a model of needs, known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which he listed safety as one of the most basic needs.
Safety is indeed a huge factor in children’s development and wellbeing. From first being born, babies seek out the safety of their mother – for comfort, food, love and reassurance. This soon extends to other key figures in their life. It is with the support and assurance of this safety net that children develop more confidence to try new things and explore new people and places e.g. school and clubs, therefore expanding their safety net further.
When children feel unsafe their lower brain kicks in, driving their emotions into fight, flight or freeze mode, which prevents them from being able to rationalise their behaviour. This can result in inappropriate behaviour, including hurting others, running away or becoming withdrawn. It can also result in hyper-vigilance, which is when they become so alert to everything that is going on around them, that they are unable to focus and concentrate on anything. This then affects their ability to learn new things and build positive relationships.
The Importance of Communication and Play
One of the key strategies in helping children to stay safe is to talk with them and interact with them.
Bowlby and Ainsworth, were psychologists, known as Attachment Theorists, who looked at early bonds and relationships. They each developed the theory of attachment, based upon previous research conducted by Harlow in the 50s. They realised that the need for safety begins at a very young age and can be seen in young babies seeking comfort and attention from familiar adults or looking to them for reassurance when trying new things. However, following on from Harlow’s rather cruel experiments on monkeys, they realised that a stronger attachment was formed with someone who gave attention and nurturing, than with someone who just fed them.
Talking with your children not only provides them with the attention that they need to develop a secure, safe relationship with you, but it also helps them learn to understand the world around them and gives them the vocabulary to express themselves and their needs more clearly. This not only enables them to have their needs met, but it prevents the build up of frustration and the negative behaviours associated with this.
Children not only have their own fears, but they often pick up on your worries and fears, without fully understanding them. By talking to your children, you can help to alleviate these fears, understand their emotions and learn to deal with their emotions in positive ways. For more information about this see A Mouse’s Guide To Mighty Kids.
Likewise, from an early age play is also important. By playing with your child you can help them to understand the world around them in a more practical way, whilst having fun, developing their vocabulary and deepening your relationship with your child. Encouraging your child to play with other children helps them to extend their safety net and learn to cooperate and build positive relationships with others. All great steps towards happy and confident kids. For ideas and tips around how you can use play to develop confidence and emotional wellbeing, download my free Guide ‘How to Give Your Kids A Happy Head Start’.
Monkey See Monkey Do
Like orangutans, children learn from watching others, particularly the people that they love and trust. Many of the lessons they learn or pick up are subtle, inherent habits, beliefs or customs that you are not likely to be aware of and that you have more than likely picked up from people around you.
One of the best ways to teach positive behaviour is therefore to model it. If you want your children to use good manners, model using good manners. If you don’t want your child to swear, for example, don’t let them see you swear. If you want your child to try new things, model trying something new yourself and explain how you are feeling, but why you are doing it. If you want to teach your kids to meditate or be mindful, practice it yourself. If you want your children to value themselves, show them how you value yourself. Be mindful that little eyes and ears are constantly watching, listening and learning.
Nurtured kids are happy kids. In order to learn and develop positive relationships children need to feel safe and wanted. Orangutans model this so well with their young. By giving children your time, love and attention and by modelling the behaviour you want your children to learn, you can lay the foundations for them to have a happy and successful life.
Cherry, K. & Gans, S. (2019) Bowlby & Ainsworth: What Is Attachment Theory? The Importance of Early Emotional Bonds. Very well Minds.
Katz, B. Chantek, an Orangutan Who Knew Sign Language, Has Died at 39. Smithosonian Magazine
McLeod, S. A. (2020, March 20). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
Orangutan Behaviour https://orangutan.org/orangutan-facts/orangutan-behavior/ Orangutan Foundation International. Accessed 18/05/20
Orangutan Facts https://www.orangutan.org.uk/orangutans Orangutan Foundation. Accessed 18/05/20
Ross, M.D, Menzler, S, and Zimmermann, E (2007) Rapid facial mimicry in orangutan play https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2412946/