What does it mean when people, in social circumstances, begin equating themselves with their children? Recently, I've been struck by acquaintances whose Facebook profile pictures are their kids without them in it or by friends who answer the question "what's up with you?" with an endless list of things that their children are doing. This led me to wonder about the underlying psychological processes involved.
Preface and confession
This is not a "single guy goes off on all of the breeders" rant. In my mind, there is nothing I can think of that's more important than raising a family and doing it well. And, with the exception of an ex-girlfriend whose parents had several chihuahuas wearing clothes (including, alas, diapers), I view an array of family configurations and contributions as meaningful and potentially healthy. Yet admittedly, my initial reaction to encountering such people is "you really need to get a life." However, with greater reflection (including writing this blog), I found my petulant self-righteousness begin to dissolve when thinking about the psychology underlying why people adopt the "me equals my kids" perspective. Below are some thoughts that occurred to me on my own personal journey while exploring this issue.
The self is what we do
Often, particularly in our western culture, we assume that the self-concept is comprised of invariant traits. For example, we may think "Sandi is caring, hardworking, and fun-loving" or that "George is stubborn, macho, and not particularly bright." Our bias is to expect that people are a collection of personality characteristics that do not change across time. For example, we seemed stunned to learn that a serial killer was reasonably nice and unassuming toward his neighbors.
However, the psychological literature teaches us that the self is much more complex than just a collection of traits in a bottle that gets us through our mortal coil. It also includes our important social relationships, social roles, identities, and goals. Thus, it should not be surprising that relationships (e.g., "with my daughter"), roles and identities (e.g., "father"), and goals (e.g., "taking care of my children") are important aspects of the self for many parents. Moreover, some of these self-aspects are more likely to be activated often, which means all things being equal, they are more likely to guide one's actions throughout the day. Thus, the "mom who spends her day driving the minivan that's like a school bus shuttling her children to sundry events" or the "coach dad who spends part of his day wondering what batting line up would work best for his daughter's softball team" not only has a self-aspect that is child focused, but it is likely that its importance (indicated by time spent doing or time spent planning to do) will elevate its magnitude such that it becomes an increasingly central part of the self and serve to guide one's behaviors and thoughts.
Clearly not every parent-bus driver or parent-coach takes a "I am my kids" mentality. If other self-aspects vie for time, doing, and planning (e.g., self-aspects related to work, hobbies, or friends), then the relative importance of the parent self-aspect will be reduced. Also, the notion that everyone should "have balance" may be a bit simplistic. Research would suggest that someone whose says that "her life is her children" will probably be happy if that role brings about positivity on most days. On the other hand, if parenting is not very rewarding or positive for such individuals, diversity probably will help them be happier. Unfortunately, more challenging situations (e.g., dealing with a special-needs child, being a single parent) will probably make having "outlet self-aspects" harder to come by, and as a result, those who might need diversions and differentiated selves the most will probably have the greatest difficulty in cultivating them.
Children as vehicles to our unrealized dreams
As people age, they must face the reality that their time on earth is limited and that many of their life-long dreams and aspirations will go unfulfilled. I was struck by my grandmother, who in her later years, insisted on sending me to Europe when I was a flat-broke college student for a month-long Eurorail and hostel adventure because she knew that she would never leave North America in her life. "Take lots of pictures and tell me what it was like" were her only requests. When I came home and showed her the photos and told her the stories, she beamed with as much excitement as did I.
Children can provide the bridge to the future and the connection to our unfulfilled dreams. A father who watches his son wrestle in high school with hopes of going to the state championship can live the dream he had in high school when he wore the wrestling uniform but never got past a second-place finish in any tournament. A mother who didn't have the opportunity to go to college can aspire that her daughter go on to medical school and become a successful physician. When our dreams are limited by time and reality, children provide a way for our dreams to live on and parents vicariously go along for the ride (and this is related to the notion of Basking in Reflected Glory that I discussed in a previous blog).
There are certainly a number of ways that people can experience this "connection to the future" without children. Acts involving giving money to medical research, endowing an academic chair in a university, and even (don't snicker) public service provide such opportunities.
But why do children serve this role so well for so many parents? Although many people may not have the means to make a bequest to a civic cause, it turns out that progeny provide unique psychological properties that make them well suited to serve as the vehicles for our dreams. Research shows that because family often become included in one's self-concept, the linkage between them and us is extremely strong. The things they do, we do. The things they feel, we feel. Specifically, we empathize with others more strongly when they are more similar to us, and clearly, you cannot get more similar than people who share the same genes and live under the same roof for many years.
A number of lines of research, ranging from social psychology (e.g., people are more likely to loan money to those who dress similarly to them) to evolutionary psychology (e.g., inclusive fitness pressures to pass along our own genes means that most people will run into a burning house to rescue a family member even if they face near-certain death in doing so), have shown that similarity, especially genetic similarity, provides a special and unique bond. And similarity is critical for experiencing empathy, thus the ability to "plug into someone's emotions and feelings" is especially strong for family members. As a result, although my grandmother would certainly enjoy a neighbor's story about a trip to Europe, her ability to "be there with me" was so much greater in my case because I was her grandson.
As stated earlier, there are certainly a number of factors that contribute to parents viewing themselves as "me equals my kids." In this piece, I laid out some psychological factors that make one's children (relative to others) so attractive for self-identification. Although some people respond to the Facebook profile picture that is comprised of their children as someone who "needs to get a life," such a knee-jerk response is probably unfair in many cases. Children and family often enjoy a very privileged status psychologically that make them ripe for such self-concept domination. Undoubtedly some of these people should "get a life," but so too should some people whose profile pictures could just as easily be their "doctor's gown and stethoscope" or "shoe collection" or "Playstation 3." As with most things, healthy living is probably best achieve with moderation instead of monolithic identification to one identity or goal. Yet where family and children are involved, the compelling nature of why "me equals my kids" is understandable and a reflection of very important psychological processes.