Connections beyond blood: chosen kin are integral to human social life

– by Ollie Shannon & Anne Pisor

The Vatican made it official: transgender individuals can now serve as godparents.

But what is a godparent and why are godparents important? Ultimately, answering this question requires us to think about the evolution of human social life – and the importance of chosen kin.

Humans raise children cooperatively, with alloparents – people other than the parents – usually involved. Born helpless and with long childhoods, our kids need all the help they can get.

Evolutionary social scientists have traditionally focused on biological kin as helpers, much as bio kin are the primary helpers in other cooperative breeders like crows and meerkats. But the Vatican’s declaration reminds us that in humans, the question of who helps is more complicated.

Choosing kin

Humans have a diversity of non-kin alloparents – a rich tapestry of social relationships and reciprocal obligations. Non-bio kin can be especially involved when bio kin aren’t available to help, like in communities with high residential mobility or in the Queer community, when bio kin sometimes aren’t interested in helping their Queer kids. In marginalized communities facing systematic challenges such as poverty or discrimination, individuals may face limitations in the support they can offer due to these systemic factors and may rely on a combination of bio-kin and non-kin alloparents to help everybody’s children thrive.

When humans lack needed family support, we often create the family we need. In the Black community, for example, churches and religious institutions offer a sense of community during tough times and joyful occasions. The use of kinship terms such as “brother” and “sister” in a religious context affirms and strengthens these relationships. For this reason, non-bio alloparents are often called chosen kin or, using an older term from anthropology, fictive kin.

Compadres, padrinos, and ahijados

Godparents are chosen or bio kin who commit to being a child’s alloparent, usually through a ritual – by being present at a birth, for example, supporting a child’s graduation party, or being present at a child’s baptism. In Latin America, where godparenthood (compadrazgo) is widespread in the Catholic church, the choice of godparent is often guided by a mix of considerations, including the social standing of the godparent and their ability to provide help and resources.

In rural Bolivia, the focus of our recent paper in Evolution & Human Behavior, the support and resources godparents provide is sometimes day-to-day, like after-school care, but can also be rare but big infusions of help. Godparents who live in the city, for example, can house an adult godchild when they go to university, provide help with bureaucracy, or send packages of things not available rurally, like cheap smartphones or other household items.

Given the importance of godparents in this context, we asked: how might godparents impact child outcomes? For example, if godparents often provide after-school care or house their grown godchildren, does this impact godchildren’s educational outcomes? Studying how and the degree to which godparents impact child outcomes across societies could unlock key insights – like the benefits of non-kin alloparental support to kids, parents, and the alloparent themselves – that are still not a common focus in the evolutionary literature.

In 2017, one of us (AP) led a research team that interviewed 148 adults about their children, including their adult children: we wanted to know not only whether their kids had godparents, but where those godparents lived, and what their kids’ educational outcomes were. Among the 210 adult children discussed, 163 had at least one godparent. However, these godparents didn’t have detectable impacts on their godchildren’s education in our statistical models – not on years of education, high school completion, or even pursuing a university degree. It didn’t matter if the godparent lived in the same community – where the godchild’s high school was located – or somewhere else, or even whether the godparent was actually bio kin who had been given godparent status.

Instead, we found that adult children with more older siblings were likely to have more years of primary and secondary education, complete high school, and pursue higher education. Older siblings are important alloparents in many contexts, with varying impacts on child outcomes – including educational attainment.

What next in the study of chosen kin as alloparents?

Our findings underscore that chosen kin may not have measurable effects in all domains of a child’s life – but, as captured by our ethnographic data, are still making things easier for parents and children alike, by providing care, resources, and even housing. Whether through quantitative or qualitative data collection, focusing on impacts on children or even on their parents, there is still much to be done in understanding why chosen kin are so prevalent in human societies.

In the rich tapestry of human sociality, the concept of chosen kinship serves as a testament to the flexible nature of human relationships. By embracing the complexity of chosen kinship, we honor the resilience and diversity of human social bonds, fostering a more inclusive and compassionate approach to human relationships.

Read the original article: Hubbard, E.B., Shannon, O., & Pisor, A.C. (2023). Non-kin alloparents and child outcomes: older siblings, but not godparents, predict educational attainment in a rural context. Evolution & Human Behavior, 44(6), 597-604.