Lots of keyboards have been mutilated in efforts to explain why college students are so damned oversensitive. Talking like them is like crossing a sea of trip wires. The Mizzou and Yale events are only the most recent in a long series of absurd outrages. My colleague Rob Tracinski rightly places an onus on school administrators and professors; but I wonder if another source also exists, a much more primary source. In short, I wonder if it’s fair to assign some blame to our nation’s mothering crisis.
The plain biological reality is that children develop their base of emotional security particularly through a secure attachment to their biological mothers from in the womb through the first three years of ex utero life. They also learn their interpersonal habits from watching their mothers (and fathers, but mostly mothers) handle stressful family situations.
The first is one reason why adopted children simply don’t do as well, in aggregate, as children born and raised in their own biological homes, no matter how caring and attentive adoptive parents are (and they generally are extremely so). Starting in the womb, tiny children develop iron-strong biological and psychological attachments to their mothers. A mother’s heartbeat, voice, scents, and daily rhythms imprint on her children, and mean that nobody else is as good as she is for meeting their needs.
After babies are born into a cold world where suddenly they are not being held warmly 24/7 and they do not automatically have that little belly filled, they cling to their mothers to help them very slowly acclimate. If you have ever seen a baby stop crying when he hears his mother’s voice, you have seen one example of this bond.
Children Need to Develop ‘Felt Safety’
Children who have less-sustained interactions with their mothers in their early years (and in general) are more likely to be nervous, agitated, and hard to calm down. For an extreme example: We have a dear friend who adopted a little girl from a Eastern European orphanage when the little girl was 18 months old. Since she spent the first portion of her young life with not only no mother but also a set of not particularly warm caregivers, who were in very scarce supply to boot, Ellie has a very hard time managing her emotions. She cannot stand to be around babies, for fear they might cry. When she sees one, she acts pretty much like a Yale student facing an unwelcome idea: She physically shakes, she stutters, she even screams if pushed too hard.
Even children who have, thankfully, not been subject to overt neglect, have a very strong and human need for “felt safety.” In short, one of the major things that happens during a child’s crucial first years is learning, through thousands of episodes where he gets frightened or angry or sad and mommy comforts him, that when bad things happen, he will be okay. On the contrary:
Children who experience sub-optimal care during the early months of life are susceptible to hyper-responsiveness of the [hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis]. Part of that responsiveness may include chronically elevated levels of cortisol which can become toxic to sensitive regions in the brain such as the hippocampus the limbic system which are involved in decision-making, and in understanding and expressing emotions.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. When someone’s brain is overloaded with it, they tend to make very bad decisions. In other words, there may be some genuine legitimacy to college students’ fears about being “triggered.” Perhaps they really are feeling triggered. Perhaps their childhoods did not include enough interactions with mom to help them develop that sense of felt safety that would foster resilience in the rest of their lives.
It is certainly the case that a weak attachment to parents damages a child for life, which includes both economic effects and social ones, such as (interestingly enough for those worried about millennials’ low rates of marriage) raising barriers to happy marriages: “The effects of attachment on behavioral and psychological problems have been seen to last into adolescence, and indeed in adult partnerships…Socio-emotional security also seems to play a role in adult partnerships and family formation. Problems of trust and fidelity were common issues for ‘fragile families.’” Self-regulation is also called “executive function,” and it’s crucial to academic success and being a well-adjusted person.
Is Economic Success Impoverishing Kids’ Emotions?
How, one might ask, is it possible that these kids, who have everything, cannot have a conversation without going into a tantrum? That’s what toddlers do, after all, not young adults. The upper half of high-school students are the ones entering college. These are kids who are far more likely to have come from middle-class and upper-class homes, to be living with their married, biological parents. Their families have more money, and liberal sociologists (but I repeat myself) have been harping on us for decades about how poor kids need “economic security.”
As true as that may be, children need emotional stability, too. They need to learn how to regulate their own emotions. The ability to delay gratification may be the number-one predictor for personal success (remember the marshmallow study?). It’s more important than money, in fact, and so is emotional resilience. And children, again, primarily learn these emotional skills from their parents. Columbia-trained psychologist Laura Markham has made a career of explaining how children pick up their emotional regulation ability from their parents.
This, of course, bring me to perhaps the most touchy part of my hypothesis. This is the part where Mizzou kids’ emotional problems relate to their mothers’ absence from the home or, at least her emotional absence from her children. If a mother is not available to do all this highly necessary bonding and emotional regulation training, well, her kids lose out, and so do we all. Obviously, the biggest thing in our society detaching mothers and kids is paid work. Even among women who have children younger than age six, two-thirds work, according to Pew.
The Kids Are Not Alright
Canada’s recent experience with universal government childcare showed that more women entered the workforce after it was enacted, such that 75 percent of children ages 1 through 4 were in non-parental care. While researchers found this did not seem to damage kids’ academics, it drastically damaged their behavior: “the Quebec policy had a lasting negative impact on the non-cognitive skills of exposed children, but no consistent impact on their cognitive skills [which include self-regulation]. At older ages, program exposure is associated with worsened health and life satisfaction, and increased rates of criminal activity. Increases in aggression and hyperactivity are concentrated in boys, as is the rise in the crime rates.” Yes. Government childcare led to more crime.
I’m not saying women should not work. I’m a working mother. I am saying, however, that we need to discuss the social effects of more mothers out of their homes full-time, especially when most women with children would prefer to work part-time. We need to consider that we may be earning more money to pay for the kids’ vacations and piano lessons at the expense of their ability to handle conflict. The more women leave their children to themselves, to loneliness and paid caregivers whom, however kind, simply are not mommy and simply cannot conjure up those natural biological ties, the more this in the aggregate could have devastating social consequences. Several years ago, Mary Eberstat raised questions like this in deeper detail, and backed it up with far more research than I can put into an article.
If so, women need to hear this, and we need to be socially validated in our unpaid but utterly crucial work of passing on and creating self-regulation within our children through thousands of small, and sometimes annoying, interactions no one else can foster. And policymakers need to think about whether, given the drastic increase in what can only be called riots in both impoverished neighborhoods such as Ferguson and tony neighborhoods such as those surrounding the University of Missouri, when separated from mothers into government childcare and preschool programs, the kids will really be alright.