July 8, 2013

Can "shared experiences" grow within a family setting?

I mean the kind that are crucial for identity formation, that lead to a feeling of belonging, and that endow mere spaces (where the experiences happened) with a "sense of place."

Helicopter parents believe that although they're effectively cutting their kid off from all social contact with peers, they can make up for it within the nuclear family. What then becomes of shared experiences, one of the most important outcomes of peer relations, when kids are interacting instead with only their parents and siblings?

Interactions among siblings in a helicopter parent household are not left to develop spontaneously. So even though they would seem like a hopeful source of shared experiences -- similar age, similar inclinations, etc. -- siblings are all controlled by their meddling parents. Lacking autonomy, their interactions don't feel like "our shared experiences."

If you boil down what "shared experiences" are all about, it's that "we're all in the same boat" feeling. We're subject to the same forces or challenges or constraints, and our fates are joined together. While we may not have chosen the challenges, we still need to feel like our responses are more freely chosen. Without that sense of agency, the event will not get incorporated into the narrative of our character formation.

"We were all badgered by mom and dad into cleaning up the backyard that one time" -- OK, but unless something unfolded spontaneously among you all outside of parental supervision, it doesn't feel like a shared experience, anymore than toiling under the same boss does at the workplace.

Then there's all that sibling rivalry getting in the way. When siblings interact, they are so often at cross-purposes, and that keeps things from feeling like a shared experience.

The main thing getting in the way of shared experiences between parents and children is the power imbalance. It's not "our shared experience" if you're telling me what to do, and I'm complying with it. Our goals are so opposed to each other's. What happens to one does not happen to the other -- just the opposite! One side dishes it out and never takes it in return.

While the authority dynamic is well adapted for disciplining your children, it spells doom for developing shared experiences with them. This kind of interaction is what defines the parent-child relationship, so it severely restricts the range of shared experiences that can unfold.

Now, of course there are occasions where the parent and child are in the same boat. Going on a frightening rollercoaster together, for instance. None of the riders has any control over what happens, hence their influence over the outcome is roughly equal (equally minimal here). The laws of physics are in control. And whatever happens to you happens to me -- the rise, the fall, the loop, whatever. Going camping as a family is another example.

But those events are not particularly likely to involve parents and children as the participants. And they are more likely to obtain when the child is already an adult, not so much before or even during adolescence. Hiking with your father, for example. So the general law remains: because of their opposite roles in the authority dynamic, parents and children are unlikely to develop many shared experiences.

It's worth pointing out that the roles do not have to be similar in order to allow shared experiences. But they cannot be opposite or at cross purposes. Any team working toward the same goal can come away with shared experiences, even if there's a sharp division of labor or role differentiation among them, such as among a high school sports team.

Furthermore, it doesn't matter if the participants have the same interpretation of the event, or the same emotional reactions. While our group of friends is playing a game of War around the neighborhood, maybe you perceive the game as too risky, while I perceive it to be perfectly safe. Maybe you're a little afraid and I'm more excited. Yet it still persists as one of those shared experiences that we'll remember into adulthood.

We see the crippling effect of authority on the development of shared experiences outside of the nuclear family too. You probably don't have too many fond memories of your elementary school teachers -- unless they were not the martinet type, who leaned more toward inspiration than authority. Those are uncommon, though. And who felt any shared experiences with the recess monitors?

Most people will tend to have a feeling of shared experiences with the librarian who read them stories, the music teacher who led the students in chorus, or the gym teacher who could get the class all riled up and who does the same exercises as he wants the students to do (and in sync with them). They're setting an emotional wavelength that everybody is resonating with, including the leader themselves. They're not creating one groove for the students and another for the leader, let alone in some kind of opposing way.

This has large implications for how generations will turn out different from others, but that's another post altogether. Just think, though, what you'd expect to happen if the child comes away with so few shared experiences because his over-protective parents keep him insulated from peers, and because family life provides so few of them to make up the difference.


  1. If anything shared events with parents are unpleasantly awkward and feel deeply phony, although the attractions of EPCOT will make up for all of that.

    My only shared experience was an inadvertent daytrip where I was asked to drive after age 40.

  2. My strongest shared experiences came from helping out my dad with his entrepreneurial side businesses. That was when I was about 8, 9, 10 years old.

    He didn't force me into helping -- I wanted the responsibility. And he didn't order me around, but told me what needed to be done respectfully. Since he was flying by the seat of his pants, we felt fairly equal -- equally uncertain but pressing ahead.


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