October 13, 2012

The transmission of social avoidance across generations

One of the stranger patterns in this age of helicopter parenting is how neglectful the mother or father is when their child shows clear signs of distress, even in public, where you'd think that shame would lead parents away from neglectful behavior. You'd also think that all that hovering meant they're just waiting to receive the distress signal, when they'd swoop in and smother the kid with affection to reassure it.

In reality, though, kids scream and cry all the time in public spaces, and their parents either totally let it slide or respond to them with incredibly flat affect, at least considering the kid's apparent cry for help. The inflection in their voice isn't so different from an ordinary conversational tone, nor do their facial expressions depart from their normal shape (they don't reflect a sudden surge of concern, for example).

In fact, they try to engage their child on a completely rational, rather than emotional level, explaining why the kid is in factual error in assuming that the evident cause of distress will continue to distress them. Man, he doesn't care about whether his beliefs are true or false -- he just wants someone to comfort him.

They take this approach also when the kid is obviously acting out to get attention, such as the toddler who kept kicking the back of the seat of a woman in my row on a plane. The mother twice asked the ankle-biter how he would feel if someone else were kicking the back of his seat. Children are incapable of empathy at such a young age (which is why they find it so easy to kick people's seats like that), so the mother was clearly trying to reason logically with her kid, as though it were a discussion in an ethical philosophy course.

When parents either don't respond at all to distress signals or acting out, or if they only respond in an emotionally uncommitted way, the kid begins to suspect that he lives in a world lacking emotional closeness or fellow-feeling. Of course he could be wrong by inferring this only from how his parents treat him, but since the way that adults in general treat children in general tends not to vary so much within a given time and place, it's not such a bad guess.

That hunch is then confirmed when genetically unrelated grown-ups also fail to respond to his distress signals and acting out, or do so without any feeling behind it. All the other grown-ups feel that "It's not my place" to intervene, whether to console an upset baby or to pinch the ear of one who's acting out, and shouting "Listen to your mother!" to drive the point home.

So, the child concludes, basically no one is emotionally invested in coming to my aid (if they do in the first place). If that's how the grown-up world is, and I'll eventually wind up in that world, I'd better prepare by dialing down whatever desire I may have to attach myself emotionally to others. By adolescence, that avoidant attachment style has more or less hardened into shape for life, much as their native language development is done by that point, after which they cannot effortlessly acquire other languages.

And of course the opposite goes for children who experience a world where adults respond with gusto, whether positive or negative. You don't get that worked up emotionally for those who you aren't very attached to, so it must be that emotional closeness will be a regular feature of adult life, and you had better prepare for that by dialing up your desire to connect that way with others.

The main source of change over time is, as usual, the trend in the crime rate. When it's rising, parents take a greater risk by ignoring their children's distress signals, whereas parents can afford more to call their kids' bluff during a falling-crime period.

This creates very sharp divides between those who went through childhood just before vs. just after a resting point in the crime rate. For example, those who went through most of childhood from 1959 onward into the '60s -- the Baby Boomers -- were seen by the Silent Generation just before them as having been shown too much affection in childhood, which made them overly emotional as adults. The Silents had been children during an earlier era of helicopter parenting, where parents let their kids be watched over by radio and later TV, and where spanking was frowned on as retrograde. And with kids sheltered from public spaces, they wouldn't receive correction from adults outside the family. The results can be seen in exaggerated but no less illuminating form in the classic film noir movie Mildred Pierce.

As the crime rate soared, parents only devoted greater emotional intensity to their children -- again, positive or negative. If you gave signs of distress, they took it very seriously, and their tone of voice switched to a highly inflected form of Motherese, and they'd twist their faces into more unusual, silly shapes to try to cheer you up. Also, if you were acting out, they wouldn't just try to explain why what you did was wrong -- they'd just give you a real passionate beating. Spanking with the hand, spanking with a shock weapon, smacking in the face, pinching the ear, pinching the tender parts of your arms or legs, vocalizing through shouts, wearing a clearly angry face, and so on. I don't recall specific cases, but I do remember adults outside the family taking an interest in our discipline if it was in a public space, although not trying to usurp our parents' role.

And sure enough that's resulted in high levels of emotional attachment among those kids. I'd say roughly those born between 1975 and 1984 are most likely to be sentimental, nostalgic, and most at ease opening up emotionally, not to mention wanting others to open up as well. That's just the culmination of the trend first begun with Baby Boomers, and continuing through Generation X.

Then on the other side are the Millennials, most of whose pre-pubescent social learning took place in falling-crime times, when parents began to emotionally detach themselves more from their kids, notwithstanding all the hovering, monitoring, and regulating. Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers find the Millennials' social nature puzzling, but it's downright bewildering to people born in the late '70s and early '80s, where the contrast with Millennials is sharpest.

Millennials always have their guard up, even around people they're supposed to feel comfortable with. The physical reflects the emotional: even around supposed friends, they've got their laptop out to wall others off, or they're holding their protective phone or ipod in front of their chest, jamming earbuds in their head, wearing sunglasses indoors, etc. It's totally common to see a group of "friends" all like this sitting near each other in Starbucks -- physically close yet emotionally isolated. Time to update the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks...

I haven't asked around really extensively, but I think most people my age and older share this assessment about the younger generation. It's easier for me to shoot the shit with a Baby Boomer who's pushing 60 years old, just because they aren't socially and emotionally retarded.

It seems like in the good old days, people wanted to socialize to some degree with those who were somewhat younger than they were. It was like your responsibility to initiate them, all in a fun-loving and informal way -- show them the ropes. But if there's a fundamental split between the two in attachment styles, it won't go anywhere. Kind of like how the Silents didn't really mentor the Boomers, who more or less brought themselves up, my mini-generation of late '70s / early '80s births doesn't seem to care much about showing Millennials how to join the cool older kids. The personality differences are just too great.

For a little while during the mid-2000s, I gave it a shot, and they actually responded somewhat. But that was a partly rising-crime zeitgeist, due to the reactions to 9/11. Somewhere around 2009 they started to really dork out, and it's only gotten worse since. It feels like a gip, since you get a sense of meaning in life by helping the next age group below you to join you and eventually take your place. It gives you a feeling of continuity and immortality of the cultural group that you belong to.

Now, though, they'd rather snicker along with Jon Stewart's lame snark, plug into video games, or pretend to converse on Facebook / texting. By now, there's little use in trying to help them act normal; their preferences are set. Might as well wait until the next incarnation of the Baby Boomers come along, where you'll find a more receptive audience. Of course it won't be two adjacent age groups interacting, but that doesn't prevent you from having some influence.


  1. With your development model, because you are normally at least OK on this stuff, do you ahve any developmental psychology stuff cites to support any of this armchair psychology? Or is just kind of made up?

    they'd rather snicker along with Jon Stewart's lame snark



    Daily Show has 39, 36, 16, 7 in the categories 18-29, 30-49, 50-64 and 65+. Interesting to see how that compares with the age structure of the USA (i.e. is is it disproportionate and by how much).

    "The median age of "Daily Show" viewers in May 2009 was 41.4, and the median age of "Colbert Report" viewers was 38.3. That's still pretty youthful compared to "The Late Show with David Letterman" (54) and the Leno-era "Tonight Show" (55)."

    That's slightly older than the median age of the USA (38), but maybe younger than the median age of people older than 16 (or so). 36.8 years

    Based on the population pyramid of the USA at wikipedia, the median age of people over 20 should be around 42.

    Also, it seems like ye olde Silents are not particularly likely to enjoy snarky humor, certainly compared to Boomers...

  2. It's not armchair, as Attachment Theory is a well developed field. I'm just applying it to how the mix of people who have one or the other attachment style changes over time.

    The Daily Show was an off-the-cuff example, which will skew older just because it's about current events. Closer to reality would be some series of snarky internet memes.

    Boomers never went for really snarky humor. They prefer Chevy Chase and Steve Martin. There wasn't much snark when the Silents were young, but their preferred comedy was still less humanistic and more laughing-at than it was for Boomers (laughing-with).

    The mid-century was the golden age of the abrasive Jewish comic persona, whatever they were like in real life. Most famously the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and the Jack Benny Program.

    Outside of comedy, youngsters of the mid-century also shared this era's fascination with torture porn, only it was in comic books instead of movies and video games. Seduction of the Innocent was written about the pop culture weirdness of the Silents.

    Horror movies from the 1920s and early '30s, and later from the '60s through the '80s, aren't single-mindedly focused on torture and pain. They're more about identifying with the characters in trouble, and feeling catharsis when the survivors escape at the end.

    So that's another sign of differences in attachment style -- wanting to empathize or not with the potential victims in a horror story.


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