Why Parents-only Time Is Good for the Whole Family

The new normal? Being stressed out — intensely and all the time. We’ve all got that thing we blame it on — too much work, too little down-time, too many ways in which to fall into the computer for hours — but as an Episcopal minister who has spent a lot of time talking to parents about why they’re losing it, I’ve come to realize the thing that’s stressing us out the most is isolation. And you know who else it’s stressing out? Our kids, who of course pick up on everything.

Here’s the good news: this piece of parenting advice is about having fun. Turns out we need to spend more time socializing with our peers. Not with our screens, and not just with our kids, but with each other. Think of it as if your doctor prescribed more time with your grown-up friends for the sake of your health and your child’s health!

Perhaps we have forgotten that humans are herd animals. For millennia we have lived in our own version of that herd: families, tribes, and communities, which satisfy our primal need to bond, and to feel we belong. Our primate cousins all groom each other because they instinctively know that socializing scratches that primal itch we have to bond. This bonding reduces stress and promotes the group cohesion and cooperation that primates need to survive. And we humans actually “groom” each other all the time. We just do it verbally, rather than reaching directly into our neighbor’s hair.

Outside America, most other cultures still recognize that visiting with one another is the “social grooming” that maintains mental health. When we travel abroad, we can see how much more certain cultures socialize. In many communities, for example, the town square is still the center of social life; families visit with their friends and relatives in the village square every evening, while their kids play together nearby. And we downright envy the café culture of Europeans, who linger over coffee and meals. In countries where three generations of a family often live in close proximity, rates of divorce and addictions are lower, and people seem happier.

But nowadays, I sometimes wonder if we have forgotten our primal need for bonding, so we neglect the “social grooming” that calms our anxiety levels and improves our health. We visit our parents less often, drift away from our relatives, move away from our friends, and distance ourselves emotionally from our spouses. We work longer hours with more responsibility and pressure than before, and we spend more time in front of our electronic screens.

As a result, studies like this one from Duke show that, while social media is on the upswing, civility and real-life social skills are declining rapidly. Americans go on 60 percent fewer picnics today, and families eat dinner together 40 percent less often compared with 1965. Furthermore, a recent survey found that more than two-thirds of parents now allow their children to text during family meals. And research shows that five times more young people are dealing with anxiety and mental health issues today than during the Great Depression. Americans are more isolated than they were only two decades ago, and our growing isolation seems to be slowly ratcheting up our stress levels.

The parents I talk with have changed the way they describe what makes them crazy. Ten years ago, couples would say parenting was a roller-coaster ride, with peaks and valleys. Today, parents talk instead about feeling constantly exhausted and on the brink of losing it. Without respite. That’s different, and I think these parents are onto something important.

What has changed? Well, we used to have acute periods of stress, followed by several martinis at the Smith’s dinner party or an entire month at the lake cottage. Now our stress is like a constant dull roar, and it seems to be getting louder all the time.

Our ancestors used to have a brief spike in stress when, say, a saber-toothed tiger attacked or marauders pillaged their sleepy village. But our ancestors lived in herds with a built-in social support network that buffered their stress and helped them cope. Today, we’re on our own — literally.

So, over the years our stress-response has inched up, without our noticing until now that it is chronically in overdrive. If many of us feel overwhelmed, it’s because we are. If we notice people behaving more competitively and aggressively than before, it’s because they are. In other words, we have gone from periods of acute stress to chronic, never-ending stress. We feel more edgy and irritable more often, so we find excuses to avoid social contact, and we end up increasingly isolated — which of course renders us even more anxious.

But it’s not just the grown-ups who feel more stressed. These days I hear so many parents worrying about BPA in plastics and chemicals in food, but when it comes to children’s health, I’m starting to wonder if the real toxin is their parents’ stress. Research shows that parents’ stress can leave an “imprint” on children’s DNA that can last up through adolescence.

Many people believe child ailments are largely genetic, but studies of nearly 6,000 British children in 2009 and of 3,000 California children in 2008 concluded that parental stress can increase the risk of asthma in kids. The California study’s authors noted that children in highly stressed families were almost three times more likely to develop asthma than children of non-stressed families. The results were the same even when the parents had no history of asthma whatsoever.

Another study of 4,400 children in 2005 showed that offspring of stressed parents are almost twice as likely to develop Type 1 diabetes, and the study’s authors added that a family’s stressful life events increased the children’s diabetes risk by 230 percent. This was true even for children with no parental history of the disease.

This link between parental stress and child health merits is especially significant because of a kind of “on-off switch” on our genes, called the epigenome. In a child’s developing brain or immune system, even small amounts of stress can switch on genes that cause illness or switch off genes that prevent illness. But the good news is, being around calm parents can switch those genes in a child’s favor, too. McGill University neuroscientist Dr. Michael Meaney has demonstrated in his lab that calm, mellow rat mothers lick and groom their offspring much more frequently than rat mothers under stress, as first reported by scientists at Berkeley School of Public Health. Rat moms who frequently lick and groom their offspring tend to produce pups that learn better, explore their environment more freely, and show less fear. Most surprisingly, these calm rat pups continue to show this well-adjusted, healthy behavior throughout their entire lifetimes. It was as if the mother’s licking “flipped a switch” in the rat pups’ brains that rendered them calm for life.

But here’s the big shocker: even when pups were cross-fostered (i.e., the calm moms were given a stressed mother’s pups to raise), the effect on the foster pups given to the calm moms was the same: they were less fearful, less neurotic, and they learned better, despite their neurotic genetic endowment. And, as an added bonus, these calm pups grew up to become calm mothers who in turn licked their offspring into calm status, and so on for many generations, happily ever after. And isn’t that what we all want for our children?

“Desiree,” a mother of three who lives in Washington state, was delighted when I explained to her the implications of Dr. Meaney’s research:
“YIPPEE! This is good news for me. I was unbelievably stressed while pregnant with my twins because I was continually warned that they would be very premature and I was in the hospital with all sorts of interventions to keep me pregnant. I can’t do anything about that stress back then, but I can work on being the calmest mom possible right now.”
As one Duke geneticist remarked, “I’ve got goosebumps right now talking about it. You’re looking at the book of life, how it’s read, and how you can change it.”

So, parents, I think we made a mistake in our parenting philosophy. It’s not “the more attention you give your kids, the better they’ll turn out.” Rather, it’s “the more time you socialize with other parents while your kids play together, the better they’ll turn out.” Don’t come home from work and build blocks alone with your child. Instead invite your friend over to share a glass of wine while your kids run around in the basement. Have you ever noticed how toddlers gurgle with bliss while they play near chatting parents? There’s something primal about that, and I like how it’s win-win for both our stress levels and our children’s well being.

Maybe the solution is as simple as exercising daily with your spouse or enjoying the occasional happy hour with colleagues after work. But I grow increasingly convinced that our healthy relationships are not only our ticket to happier lives — they may also be the best gift we can give our children.

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