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What Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Says About All of Us

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The new pyramid makes baby the king.

On Friday, Lisa Belkin at Motherlode finally gave her opinion about the recent re-design of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that puts parenting at the apex of a pyramid explaining how humans can live life to the fullest.  As you can imagine, those without children are not only appalled but actually laughing about it, and those of us with children are left scratching our heads.  Parenting is the new self-actualization?  I don’t think so.  I’d like to think part of being self-actualized means not being covered in spit-up.

Belkin very concisely explains why the change in the pyramid  is so offensive across the board.  She says, “It has brought protest from people who don’t want children (and who see the redesign as a criticism of their choice) or can’t have children (who see it as an intimation that they are not psychologically complete) or who oppose gay marriage (who see in this an attempt to legitimize same-sex parenting as a psychological right).”  But, she concludes, “Most of all, it raises the question of whether the tendency in recent decades to all but sanctify parenting has gone just a bit too far.”

Amen to that.  Presenting parenting as the zenith of the human experience, as opposed to say, reproduction, a clinical and basic term not loaded with all of the connotations of privilege that “parenting” is, simply doesn’t make sense.  It’s not just that being a parent isn’t for everyone, or that many people who have children don’t necessarily want to be identified as a parent first and person second.  It’s that parenting resting perilously at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t gel with sex lying broadly at the bottom.  If sex is one of our utmost basic human needs, then by the very laws of nature, parenting (or, again, reproduction) should be much closer to the base of the pyramid.  That is, if as author of the change Douglas Kenrick says, this pyramid is not aspirational.  But his employer, Arizona State, begins a press release about the new pyramid saying, “If you have ever felt that your children are your life’s work, then you may in fact be recognizing a high-level psychological need.”  Zoinks!  Stage mothers and helicopter parents rejoice!  Take a look at a comparison of the old and new pyramids:

Maslow's Pyramid of Needs

The Old and New Pyramids of Needs

After the release of the new pyramid in Perspectives on Psychological Science earlier this summer, Kenrick had to backpedal a bit and defend his position.  Here he is, as quoted in TIME:

Based on inclusive fitness theory, we argued that human motives are, like all psychological mechanisms, designed to facilitate reproduction, and that Maslow largely overlooked that.  Based on research and theory on evolutionary life history theory, we argued that, developmentally, parenting is the goal at the top.  This means parenting goals will come to the fore only after other social and reproductive goals have been accomplished.  But in our renovated pyramid, the pinnacle is NOT designed to be aspirational.

So we are NOT saying that everyone should aspire to have as many children as they can, or even to have any children at all.  My personal belief is that the world is already more than sufficiently overpopulated

Kenrick and his co-authors knocked self-actualization/creativity off the top of the hierarchy and replaced it with parenting.  Belkin notes, “Kenrick isn’t saying the pursuit of art and such has no evolutionary purpose; he just sees it as subordinate to the main act.”  Kenrick himself wrote, “Look at it this way.  If you are a good poet or a good musician, there is a reproductive payoff: women are attracted to men with these abilities.  What a man is saying when he is playing his guitar up there is ‘look at my good genes.’”

Kenrick has clearly never hung out with musicians.  What a dude’s DNA is saying while he’s up there ripping a mean guitar solo is, “My children are destined to be alcoholics.  Wanna bone?”  (Female guitar players take note: your sperm is apparently worthless.)

What I’m saying is, I agree with Belkin when she says, “I find it hard to look at the new pyramid, with parenting at its apex, and not see a value judgement.”  And not just about parenting, but about the type of parent you are, since right below parenting in this new hierarchy come “mate acquisition” and “mate retention,” which obviously means there’s no way to be a good Parent if you’re a single mother.  (That’s okay, I’ll just go hang out with the guitarists.  They may not be able to give me Love – a third-level need in the old pyramid – but I’m sure they’ll let me be “affiliated” with the band – which is what I need, I guess, to find a mate: Affiliation.  So romantic!)

Yes, the changes presented to this Hierarchy of Needs say a lot about the way people themselves have changed in the 67 years since Maslow first introduced the concept.  Instead of Love we have Affiliation.  Where Self-Esteem was once essential, we now pursue Status.  We no longer need to feel safe, we need Self-Protection.  This is the kind of tragic, semantic garbage George Carlin would have a field day with.  Are we such self-centered, arrogant, pathetic jerks that we think after we affiliate ourselves with a great company, and rise to a certain job-status level there, then we can find a great husband/wife, live as a couple for a while – you know, travel to Europe first – and then settle down and raise perfect little children?

Oh yeah.  We’re just like that.  Maybe this new pyramid isn’t so off after all.

Whether or not Kenrick means for his new Hierarchy of Needs to be aspirational or not, it is by virtue of its design.  The first three broad layers may be real human needs – things like sleep, safety, friendship are all components necessary for a healthy life.  But it’s hard to argue that self-actualization is a need (though for the record I do think it’s a right).  Of course many of us feel that there’s no point in living if we don’t have something to work toward, and for most of us engaging here on a parenting site, that means being a great parent is at or near the top of that list.  But that’s certainly not the case for everyone.  Especially not Alex Balk at The Awl, who has created his own very funny Hierarchy of Needs.  What’s yours?

Image: FuzzyCo.com

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