(Originally posted, in part, with the title “Generations, Part 3” on October 31, 2021 – worth revisiting, because I’m still thinking about this same idea and wonder if you might be, too)
The concept of “parenting” is deeply embedded in our modern human culture and language, beyond the walls of family dwellings.
In computing, for example, “parent-child” is a term used starting in the mid-1960s to describe data architecture. The “parent” could be a customer record, for example; the “child” would be a sales order for that customer.
In corporate speak, a “parent company” is one that owns a controlling interest in another. ViacomCBS is the parent company of, among other holdings, Paramount Pictures. Gannett is the parent company of USA Today, as well as — unfortunately for all of us — an alarming number of what used to be local, independent newspapers.
In the human world, “parent” is the word we use for the adult who is responsible for a child’s rearing, whether that adult is the biological parent, adoptive parent, or foster parent. The process of rearing children is termed “parenting,” and the primary responsibility for the success or failure of that process falls, most often, to the parents. When a child excels or does something that receives public commendation and praise, parents get the credit. When a child is violent (or worse), parents take the blame.
But even though the concept of parenting is woven into almost every part of our lives, people who have children — especially people in the U.S. who have children — too often shoulder the responsibility of parenting alone, without the kind of communal support and acceptance that helped humans rise to the top of the food chain. Parenting is too often a career killer in the white-collar world, and it’s a virtual impossibility among hourly wage earners. So many of the performance “metrics” in place to make the working world fair, equitable, and objective do exactly the opposite. Late to work too many times because it was a struggle to get the children ready for school? You’re fired. Can’t afford (or even find) quality child care for pre-school-aged children? Guess you’ll have to leave your baby with a neighbor’s brother’s friend who’s currently out of work and needs the money.
All of that was true long before the pandemic, and is still true now, despite efforts to address the situation through public policy, workplace investment, and public investment that have been underway for decades.
Back in 2003, the year my daughter was born, I was the managing partner of a local PR firm, and several of my clients were involved, broadly, in the area of early childhood development. One of my clients hosted a breakfast at which Art Rolnick, then senior vice president and director of research at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, and economist Rob Grunewald presented their newly published essay, “Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return.”
The case they presented was based on economic modeling, and it pointed to solutions that seemed like good common sense: Investments in young children (including investments that help parents of young children) pay dividends for everyone, at every level of the economy. Equitable access to high-quality early care and education increases health, education, and prosperity across the board, for everyone. Full stop.
In the almost 20 years since that essay was published, very little has actually changed. Opposition to the concept most often comes from policy hawks who resist the notion of public support in general and point to the private sanctity of parents and families.
That’s just nuts, and it runs counter to what many anthropologists and social scientists have pointed to as the defining characteristics that propelled humans to the top of the food chain: Sharing and cooperating, especially in parenting.
In 2018 NPR ran a short (too short, in my opinion, because it was terrific) series titled How to Raise a Human. One of the animated videos in that series illustrates this idea that human success stems from our ability to share and cooperate, especially in raising our young:
I’m a curious dreamer, an artist and not an anthropologist, but it seems to me that what we’re doing right now is the opposite of supporting human growth and development, the opposite of sharing and cooperating. We are increasingly raising successive generations in closed, not open, cultures. Forget border walls; we are imposing psychological and social walls that get in the way of what we knew about healthy human development, that undermine trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry — the characteristics that are the fabric of civilized interaction and forward progress.
If those terms, “trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry” seem familiar, it’s because they are the first four stages of human development, in Erikson’s model (see earlier post: Generations, part two.)
Even though it was written in 1970, using the language or 1970 (and, since it’s pre-1996, has some unfortunate hiccups in the digitization of its content), this article by psychologist David Elkin about Erik Erikson’s work is a solid companion piece to both the Federal Reserve’s case for early childhood investment and to the NPR series.
Since I know how you readers are, generally, about clicking links, I’ll paste a (long but relevant) excerpt here (note that I fixed some of the word breaks that you’ll see in the original, but I did not change any of the words, even if Dr. Elkind might now use different ones in writing this same set of paragraphs):
TRUST vs. MISTRUST
THE first stage corresponds to the oral stage in classical psychoanalytic theory and usually extends through the first year of life. In Erikson’s view, the new dimension of social interaction that emerges during this period involves basic trust at the one extreme, and mistrust at the other. The degree to which the child conies to trust the world, other people and himself depends to a considerable extent upon the quality of the care that he receives. The infant whose needs are met when they arise, whose discomforts are quickly removed, who is cuddled, fondled, played with and talked to, develops a sense of the world as a safe place to be and of people as helpful and dependable. When, however, the care is inconsistent, inadequate and rejecting, fosters a basic mistrust, an attitude of fear and suspicion on the part of the infant toward the world in general and people in particular that will carry through to later stages of development.
It should be said at this point that the problem of basic trust‐versus‐mistrust (as is true for all the later dimensions) is not resolved once and for all during the first year of life; it arises again at each successive stage of development. There is both hope and danger in this. The child who enters school with a sense of mistrust may come to trust a particular teacher who has taken the trouble to make herself trustworthy; with this second chance, he overcomes his early mistrust. On the other hand, the child who comes through infancy with a vital sense of trust can still have his sense of mistrust activated at a later stage if, say, his parents are divorced and separated under acrimonious circumstances.
This point was brought home to me in a very direct way by a 4‐year‐old patient I saw in a court clinic. He was being seen at the court clinic because his adoptive parents, who had had him for six months, now wanted to give him back to the agency. They claimed that he was cold and unloving, took things and could not be trusted. He was indeed a cold and apathetic boy, but with good reason. About a year after his illegitimate birth, he was taken away from his mother, who had a drinking problem, and was shunted back and forth among several foster homes. Initially he had tried to relate to the persons in the foster homes, but the relation ships never had a chance to develop because he was moved at just the wrong times. In the end he gave up trying to reach out to others, because the inevitable separations hurt too much.
Like the burned child who dreads the flame, this emotionally burned child shunned the pain of emotional involvement. He had trusted his mother, but now he trusted no one. Only years of devoted care and patience could now undo the damage that had been done to this child’s sense of trust.“One man in his time plays many psychosocial parts,” David Elkind. The New York Times, April 5, 1970, p. 207.
“Trust versus Mistrust” is, in Erikson’s framework, the first stage of development. And although Erikson makes clear in his work that an undesirable outcome in this or any single stage of development isn’t permanent, he also makes clear that it gets harder to correct for deficiencies over time.
Carry this idea through, perhaps: Children who cannot trust, in their earliest years, whose life experiences do not lead them to trust, then raise their own children with that same fear, and the trauma becomes generational. Children learn to trust from their direct caregivers (who, as an aside, are typically at the “Generativity vs. Stagnation” stage of development, with implications that might seem obvious by now). But babies also learn from the other humans in their circle as well. They learn from experience, and unless a child and adult live in true isolation, disconnected from anyone or anything else, no one person (parent) is solely responsible for the child’s “Trust versus Mistrust” development.
Maybe your mind is now jumping to images of babies torn from their mothers’ breasts to be sold at auction or put in detention cages, thinking about the roots of generational trauma. Or maybe you’re thinking about Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, and about how some families create their own brand of fear and isolation, with emphasis on control.
Where I hope your mind might wander, eventually, is to a place that allows you to consider how the narrative of rugged individualism is antithetical to our continued existence.
Humans rose to the top of the food chain, where our dominance has allowed us to destroy the planet that is too small to support our burgeoning numbers and now too fragile to support our unabated human behaviors. The fight for natural resources — drinking water, clean air — will only get worse, and it will bait our lesser instincts if we allow it to do so. Maybe we need to take a step backward in order to step forward into something better ahead.
Caring for one another, across generations and identities, is a human survival skill, an early evolutionary differentiator that is increasingly endangered by our allowing fear and doubt to cloud the path ahead.
The basic construct for that human caring, I believe, is parenting — not command-and-control style power dynamics, but nurturing our children, our employees, and our neighbors.
If we recognize and respect the continuum of development, the need for nurturing and compassion, if we can accept the benefits of putting those things first, then perhaps we can find the courage to put our resources and policies behind doing what’s right for people. Not people who think or look the same, but for all people, for generations to come.
About this series:
For the month of August, as a birthday present to myself, I’m doing another daily writing challenge. This year, not unlike last year, it’s all about RE-committing to writing. So far that includes: Reengage, Reconsider, Reassess, Review, Redefine, Relish, Relay, Reinvent, Reevaluate, Reroute, Restore, Rediscover, Reflect, Remember and Reboot.