Innocents Abroad

There is word throughout the country of young people marching to protest the failure of their elders to protect them from gun violence and to demand the passage of new gun control laws. Adults from many walks of life are joining the youngsters in the indictment of themselves and their own generation. The grown-ups seem to be looking to their children for leadership.

Some years ago an evolutionary biologist put forward a theory of pregnancy as tug of war between mother and fetus. Because a child’s development in the womb is critical to its long-term health, nature favors genes that allow fetuses to draw more resources from their mothers. In the service of extracting these resources the fetus aggressively sprouts blood vessels that invade its mother’s tissues.

At the same time, natural selection should favor mothers who could restrain these incursions in order to have several surviving offspring carrying on their genes. In the face of conflicting genetic interests of mother and child, cooperation breaks down, leading to potential complications.

This interesting theory might well be a metaphor for the story of mother-child, later parent-child relationships throughout development – out of the womb as well as in it. A conflict between the needs of the parent and the needs of the child reappear at many points in life, and often lead to a tug of war similar to the one hypothesized in pregnancy.

Parents and children start from different vantage points. The goal of the parent is to socialize and promote independent, successful functioning in a dependent infant. The goal of the infant, later the child, is to gratify needs and wishes. The efforts of parents to achieve their goals become the first serious interference from the environment with the infant’s, or child’s instinctive desire and impulses. Parents and children are in different place. There is an inherent conflict between what a parent wants and a child wants.

This conflict is apparent in all of the developmental steps a child is required to master in the process of learning to live in the world with others; giving up the bottle, using the potty, feeding and dressing oneself, controlling impulses and following the routines of life. The infant/child on the other hand, may need or wish to hold on to dependent behavior.

In accordance with evolving theories in child development, advice given to parents has dealt with ways to address the complications that may arise as a result of the conflict between the needs and wishes of parent and child. Over time, such advice has alternated between the importance of the child and the importance of the parent in resolving the conflicts between them. Swings in approaches to child-rearing have moved from treating the parent as the authority, to treating the child as the authority in resolving the inherent parent-child conflict.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a point would be reached in the larger social world where both children and parents would concur in children having to take responsibility for their own protection. This seems to be what is happening now with respect to the issue of gun control, the matter of physical safety long assumed to be the responsibility of parents and other adults in the care of the young.

Exposure to violence has disrupted what once was thought to be the age of innocence. That innocence has been attacked at the same time by the exposure of the misuse of social media, the tech world in which young people have increasingly put their trust as well as their personal lives. Both kinds of violence represent a betrayal of the young by their elders.

It may be impossible to restore innocence. What is not impossible to restore is the role of parents in guiding the young. We can support their newly discovered commitment to necessary change without now expecting that it is their responsibility alone to bring about that change.

They sound as though they believe it is.