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For many parents, the act of child-rearing can resemble déjà vu. Children can be an uncanny mirror of one’s particularities: your weird foot shape, the exact contours of your social anxiety. But even stranger is the way parents often find themselves manifesting their own parents’ tics in the process.
Here are four brand new stories. The Atlantic:
The Reenactment Loop
Children are not blank canvases. My colleague Faith Hill, in a recent article, pointed out that children are not blank slates. Atlantic Article, a child unwittingly represents parental legacy even before she breathes her first air. Certain biological inheritances will shape who a person is and the sort of life she’ll lead, as will her parents’ material circumstances, social support, and values. Before long, her parents’ childhood baggage will also come home to roost, emerging like a GIF-ified Kim Kardashian from their existential foliage.
To put it less obliquely: Parents are destined to repeat their own parents’ mistakes. Whether that’s a once-in-a-while type of thing or a perpetual-reenactment loop, the “intergenerational transmission of parenting” is an established phenomenon of child-rearing—for better and for worse. This birthright is made more difficult by the constraints of a nuclear family.
Elisabeth Stitt is a parenting expert and author of Parenting as a second Language, told me that people are especially likely to default to their parents’ behaviors—including negative ones—if they don’t have any other models to look to. In America, nuclear-family units are far more isolated than in the past; many of us grow up without seeing much child-rearing beyond what we’re subjected to ourselves.
As Faith indicates, things weren’t always this way. The marriage historian Stephanie Coontz has called the economically self-contained—and socially isolated—male-breadwinner family a “historical fluke” that crystallized in the public imagination within a short window after World War II. In this period the U.S. married age dropped and the fertility rate increased. The average (white man) could support his families without having to rely on the income of his wife and children. This hastened a shift away from distributing child-caretaking tasks across a community of neighbors, relatives, and friends, a long-standing practice anthropologists call “cooperative breeding.”
The decline of collective parenting has had disproportionately negative effects on mothers. As the Atlantic contributor David Brooks noted in a 2020 article pointedly titled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” although women benefited from “the loosening of traditional family structures” by becoming able to determine the kind of life they want to live and gaining the freedom to plant new geographic roots, the decision to raise young children away from extended family can be “brutally hard and isolating” for women in particular. “The situation is exacerbated by the fact that women still spend significantly more time on housework and child care than men do, according to recent data,” Brooks continued. “Thus, the reality we see around us: stressed, tired mothers trying to balance work and parenting, and having to reschedule work when family life gets messy.” Simply, it’s hard to do it all with little support. The coronavirus epidemic brought to light the limits of the nuclear family model.
This is why the nuclear family has been pushed to the sidelines. A Pew Research Center report published last summer shows that the percentage of Americans living in multigenerational families has risen steadily since 1970. And although that increase is largely driven by practical considerations, such as caregiving requirements and finances, more than half of the survey’s respondents said that their housing arrangement has proved rewarding—if not always, most of the time.
It stands to reason that a continued departure from the nuclear family, and a move toward more cooperative systems of care, would help ensure future generations’ exposure to a wider array of child-rearing models. Faith’s book explains this in detail. Atlantic Seeing a range parenting techniques can help individuals create a tool kit for raising children that will offset any flaws they inherit from their parents. Parenting can be learned.
But hope is not lost for those raised in nuclear families who aim not to repeat their own parents’ mistakes. Even for those who were not afforded a childhood with diverse, or even positive, parenting models, Faith notes that opportunities abound for continuing education from grandparents, friends, kids’ sports coaches, and others. Rather than a rigid script hewn from the raw material of one’s childhood, parenting might more aptly be described as a creative practice: piecing together source materials and revising along the way, in a style all your own.
- The Congressional Budget Office warned of a “significant risk” that the U.S. will run out of cash in early June if the debt ceiling is not raised, an escalation of the previous projected timeline of July at the earliest.
- COVID-19, the U.S. public health emergency for COVID-19, ended at midnight yesterday. This affected subsidized programs such as free vaccines and work requirements for federal assistance.
- Daniel Penny was charged with second-degree murder in Manhattan Criminal Court for the death of Jordan Neely, a fellow New York City subway rider, who was choked to death last week.
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How I Became Black In America
America fascinates everyone who comes to the country. As a 19-year-old Nigerian student, I had fled my university to study medicine in order to become a writer and live a mind life. Since my early days, I have watched and read to learn. I was struck by America’s newness, its excess, and its contradictions. Most of all, however, by how the idea of identity shaped much of American culture.
America is indeed unlike any other country in the world, not in the kind of triumphalist manner of those who speak of “exceptionalism,” but because, while it was created from violence like many other modern nations, it also claimed plurality, an unusual notion for founding a nation. This mix of Americans, both voluntarily and unvoluntarily, who were living in a land they did not own, has magnified, rather than diminished, identity. In Nigeria, I had often thought about who I was—writer, dreamer, thinker—but only in America did I consider What are the alternatives to using I was.
I became Black in America
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Additional Information The Atlantic
Read. The Ugly History of Beautiful ThingsThe new book, which argues for honoring material desires instead of feeling ashamed about them.
Watch. Michael J. Fox Movie (streaming on Apple TV+), a documentary about Fox’s battle with Parkinson’s disease that is, perhaps surprisingly, not a downer.
Play our Daily Crossword
The historian Stephanie Coontz, whom I cited earlier, has been at the forefront of scholarship on marriage and the family in American life for decades—chances are, if you’ve read parenting columns or family-related op-eds in the past few years, you’ve run into her name. I discovered Coontz’s work while researching my first book, a feminist history of romantic breakups, and can’t imagine what the book would have been if I hadn’t. Coontz’s research continues to inform my understanding of the material incentives, plus political and social factors, that establish family-structure norms. I recommend Coontz’s books to anyone with even a passing interest in these subjects. You can’t really go wrong with any of her books, but Marriage: a History You can also find out more about the following: Social Origins of Private Life Here are two excellent titles to get you started.
Katherine Hu has contributed to this newsletter.
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