Evolution, are you fishin’ with my parenting?

My oldest son, who has just started kindergarten, has begun what was until recently a kinda cute phase of suddenly being embarrassed to be different from his peers. First he told me he wanted to be browner (his school has a majority of kids who are South Asian, East Asian, African-American, or mixed race). Then he begged for me to pack American cheese in his lunchbox instead of fresh mozzarella. Etc.

Then yesterday came a day that I knew would come, but I hoped would come later. I had my disabled son with me when I picked him up from school. I couldn’t leave my kid with disabilities in the car, so I carried him with me. As we walked back to the car, my oldest son picked up a stick and started slamming the car with it in a fury. I asked if he was angry and embarrassed that I brought his brother, and he said yes.

This was a heartbreaking moment. I was sad for my son with disabilities, whose mere presence is a source of shame. I was sad for my oldest son, who will have to put up with years of such moments of embarrassment, and perhaps teasing. Part of me wanted to say, “You shouldn’t be embarrassed of him! You should be proud!” But I just said that lots of siblings of disabled kids feels that way, and it won’t be the last time he feels it. He shouldn’t feel bad about it. But he won’t always be embarrassed, and I love him.

But it got me thinking – why do kids care so damn much what their peers think? Every parent knows this to be true. I can stand on my head and turn blue in the face asking my kid to do something. Nada. A peer does it, and presto change-o — it happens. Some people say it’s that kid’s feel safer saying no to the family. But I think it’s more than that. They feel compelled to imitate other kids, even when others aren’t teasing them. Kids end up with the accent of where they live, not their parents’ accent (to my current amusement). There is also that deep, deep humiliation that they can feel in front of their peers. Why the humiliation? Why the humiliation about one’s family, often?

I have read plenty of studies that have established the importance of peers, and I have read theories that peers are far more important in shaping the outcome of children than parents. Certainly, that parents are far less important than most people believe.

But I haven’t read a theory as to why this should be the case. Why is it so hard for parents to shape kids’ behavior? Why is it comparatively easy for peers to shape behavior? Why are kids usually embarrassed of their family in front of their peers ? Why are they usually not embarrassed of their peers in front of their families (there are exceptions, but it’s less frequent and intense)?

Allow me to engage in a bit a speculative psychology. I am just musing here, I haven’t done research on this.

I wonder if there isn’t an innate tendency to focus on peers instead of parents to discourage the idiosyncracies of families and encourage a more cohesive larger culture. If kids did whatever their parents told them, kids would grow up a lot different from one another. Each families’ idiosyncracies would be magnified. Society’s habits and mores would be more fractured. If kids are interested in imitating their peers, and want to avoid acting like their parents, however, society has more unified habits.

I remember first having this idea a while ago while readingPride and Prejudice. I read this passage about a sixteen-year-old female character:

“I have heard, indeed, that she is uncommonly improved within this year or two. When I last saw her, she was not very promising. I am very glad you liked her. I hope she will turn out well.”

“I dare say she will; she has got over the most trying age.”

I thought it was interesting that in Regency era England, someone who was sixteen was considered just past the most difficult age. Because you know, that’s pretty much how we might think of a sixteen-year-old. Which made me wonder if it is a universal tendency.

I know, I know. One line in a Jane Austen novel and a realization that kids like to learn from each other doesn’t tell us anything. I’m just musing. Either way, my typical kids will sometimes be embarrassed of my kid with disabilities, sometimes they will drive me nuts by not listening to the sanest of advice, sometimes they will follow the stupidest of fads, and that’s that. But, I do wonder: Evolution, it would really be a big help with parenting my kids if you weren’t encouraging them not to listen to me?

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I think it is as simple as Aristotle, “Man by nature is a social animal”.

    Our parents and maybe our siblings are not really our peers until we are adults and possibly not even then. No one can choose their family and this makes the relationship more tricky and complicated. Many people love their parents and siblings but don’t always feel naturally connected I suppose.

    When kids are in school for the first time especially Kindergarten perhaps, it is the first time that they truly feel like they are among equals/peers for a long amount of time. They are trying to form groups of their own instead of ones that were hoisted upon them by birth. Since most people (including those who say otherwise) have a natural desire to love and be included, we become extra-conscious of the differences. My parents used to do educational birthday parties when I was in elementary school at the local science center. A lot of other parents held birthday parties at the bowling alley, roller skating rink, and an Arcade that modified the machines to be quarter free. I remember it taking a long time to convince my parents that the science parties were not considered cool.

    The one incident that sticks out to me from my childhood was in 1st grade recess. There was a piece of equipment on the playground. It had ladders climbing up to a wooden circle and there was a fireman’s pole in the middle and slides. So you could climb up and hang around on top and then slide down. During one recess while I was in la-la land, the class bully managed to get everyone on the wooden base and then proceeded to mock me for being stuck below. That really hurt.

    It also hurt not being invited to as many Bar or Bat Mitzvahs as other kids, having some people (especially girls) decline invitations to my Bar Mitzvah because of my status, and only getting invited to one sweet sixteen. Currently as a 32 year old guy, I have only been to one non-familal wedding. I have a few very close friends that provide a decent but not always adequate social/emotional life.

    And I was and still am someone who largely went to the beat of a different drummer but still felt like an odd duck with not too much pleasure. I tried to be defiant when other kids called me weird but I would have liked more friends in elementary through high school. I got into rock music after a harrowing summer at a sleepaway camp between 7th and 8th grade. I did not care about music until then but something about that summer made me turn on MTV as soon as I got home from camp for the first time. Of course, I eventually settled on the weirder and more alternative music than the mainstream stuff but that is a different story.

    On a semi-related note, there was an essay in the NY Times Magazine several years ago about a family with an elder daughter and her two very Autistic younger brothers. The daughter was about 10 and eventually it came out in the article that she told her parents she feared becoming like her two very Autistic younger brothers. Perhaps your much younger son fears that he will go to sleep and wake up one day like his disabled brother to a certain extent?

    • > Perhaps your much younger son fears that he will go to sleep and wake up one day like his disabled brother to a certain extent?

      That is a very common fear among siblings of SN kids. We tell him explicitly and repeatedly that he can never get it, and that his brother will never not have it. He also knows that it’s something that happens when the sperm joins the egg. Which he will happily describe to strangers.

      Does that erase the fear entirely? Probably not. I can tell him over and over that there are no ghosts, and he is still afraid of ghosts.

      But I also hope he knows that it means our love is unconditional. He sees we love his brother. I hope he knows that no matter what he can or can’t do, we love him.

      Right now, he’s more upset that we ask him to do things for himself (get dressed, set the table, go to the bathroom by himself, etc.), and we don’t ask his brother to do anything for himself. He gets someone to do everything for him. Also, people who visit go on and on about how amazingly well my disabled son is doing, and don’t say nearly as much about how my oldest is doing. Others also show more interest in my kid with disabilities – this is partly perhaps overcompensation, but my kid with disabilities is also by nature more outgoing than my oldest. Anyhow. It’s all complicated.

  2. Meh. Kids are the way you train them to be. If you train them to listen to others, to be courteous, to share and not fight… all of that leads into a reliance on others to tell them what acceptable behavior is.

    America’s a lot less about social teaching than a lot of places, anyhow.

  3. My youngest daughter is quite the chameleon when with her peer group. There is nothing more amusing that listening to a bunch of upper-middle class white kids try to talk like black kids from the projects. Then she comes home and it goes away immediately. Kids are weird little creatures. I refuse to acknowledge that I was ever one myself.

    • That sounds like a certain subset from my middle and high school days. I thought it was odd back then and think it is odd now. Indie rock always felt more authentic to my upper-middle class upbringing. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I was not super-popular in high school.

      I think it does bring up interesting issues of authenticity though. I have a theory that a decent amount of kids who grow up upper-middle class and suburban do not feel like they had an “authentic” upbringing. I only use authentic for lack of a better word. Our culture does paint growing up on the streets or in less than suburban and middle class circumstances as being “real” while growing up in the burbs is the height of artifice. Some kids try to comepnsate for this by adopting the music, fashion, and speech of various groups that are rougher.

      Someone I went to school with grew up in an upper-middle class suburb and cursed with every other word. My armchair psychology made me think he was over compensating for the softness of his upbringing by trying to sound more uncouth and less educated. Or as I called it “an imitation of a parody of a Mamet character”

  4. Why is it so hard for parents to shape kids’ behavior? Why is it comparatively easy for peers to shape behavior?

    I think that you still have oceans of influence over his behavior in ways that you’d probably only notice if you told yourself to look for them and he’d has no idea that they’re even happening.

    His entire life, though, he’s had you. You’re The Mom. God, for lack of a better term.

    I’m guessing that this is the first time he’s been thrown hip deep into a situation where he is swimming in peers. I’m sure it’s overwhelming to him primarily because his practice with peers is within his memory for the most part but you’ve been there Always.

    • RW,
      Your description of your oldest’s problems fills me with abject terror for my little one who is only a little younger. Thank you. 🙂

      I am still mulling over your request for me to write about how my understanding of God has changed since I became a father. Your last phrase here–“you’ve been there Always”–is definitely part of it.

      • Boegiboe, I actually enjoy this age much more. He is able to be angry at more sophisticated issues, yes, embarrassed at more, yes. And sometimes that means he acts out more. He never used to act out in public. Now pretty much the only time he acts out is in public. But he is much more empathetic, observant, and interesting to talk to. He tries to comfort us if he thinks we’re upset about something, he defends his brothers if he thinks we’re being unfair. He often helps us with caring for his brothers. His hostility, in addition to being much less frequent, is also much more attributable to a reason (as in this case). It’s not just random rebellion. Spending time with him is a lot more fun.

  5. For the most past, 13-16 are the heights of puberty, when periodic washes of hormones create the strongest and most unpredicable mood swings. At that age, the autonomy of adulthood can be understood and seen and coveted, but not realized within oneself. Desires for romance and companionship with a mate one selects for oneself are present, but parental and social controls over that sort of behavior restrain the young teen from realizing those desires. And one sees one’s peers beginning to excel in various arenas, causing self-doubt — “He’s better at basketball than I am, so I must be worthless,” or “She’s smarter than me, I must be dumb.” It’s a frustrating phase of life, and sufficient restraints over one’s own behavior have not been learned to prevent the teen from sometimes taking out those frustrations on others.

  6. Well,

    You love them always, no matter what, and you always have and you always will. Which means they don’t have to care what you think from moment to moment because you’ll never leave, and you’ll never make fun of them, no matter how mad you get. Peers, on the other hand, can hate you–or, worse, ignore you.

    In addition, once the kids are out of the house and in school, they see their peers for more of the day, and for more of the active part of the day.

    • This assumes secure attachment. Which I’m fairly confident Rose has in spades with her children. But, yea, assuming that, this makes a good deal of sense and I would venture is at least part of the explanation.

  7. why do kids care so damn much what their peers think?

    Hypothesis: People innately care what their social group thinks about them, and because the social group kids experience on a day to day basis is relatively devoid of adults, children of other ages, extended family members and the broader clan, how they are perceived by their peers takes on more prominence in their social development.

    • Yeah, I hear you. My hypothesis is one step further (or loopier), a sort of variation on the incest taboo: people innately care more what non-family member social group members think about them than family members.

      • I don’t know if it is care but fear about is0lation and being stigmatized.

        Most people probably expect something close to unconditional love from our families. There are a lot of times when my mom can drive me up the wall (and vice-versa) but we still are fiercely protective of one another.

        Peers have no such compulsion and can break things off with0ut regret if you step out of bounds. We need both family and friendships among peers. The latter requires a very different kind of upkeep.

  8. Kids care because historically those who didn’t care paid a steep price in terms of Darwinian fitness.

    This is why I hate people like this. They get to get off on thinking about how edgy and progressive they are, while their children pay the social price for failing to conform to gender norms.

  9. As you likely know, the age at which your son is doing this is perfectly expected. Children spend the early years of their life completely unaware that others perceive the world differently than they do. Eventually this changes (usually around 5) and suddenly they are acutely aware that folks view them differently than they view themselves. From there, they quickly become aware that these folks might be (and likely are) judging them. HOLY CRAP!

    From there, their response to the judgement they receive from peers and adults is quite different, largely because those relationships are completely different. They are seeking something very different from these disparate groups. I don’t know that this gets us any closer to “Why?” but I thought it might at least shed a bit of light on the developmental processes going on.

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