The Surprising Reason Why Parents Are Like Lemmings

Can We Really Blame Parents for Their Anxiety?

Posted Nov 05, 2018

The best video game ever was introduced in 1991. You guessed right: it was Lemmings. I had two little brothers, and we had one computer between us. Competition was fierce to play that awesomeness. You had to solve puzzles as quickly as possible, because the adorable little lemmings never stopped marching to their certain deaths. If you diverted them fast enough, you could beat the level. Only to start the next.

Eventually, I always hit a level that was just too hard. The lemmings would swarm to destruction as I resisted banging the keyboard in frustration.

A high school-er, I used to ponder the lemmings. We’d been told in school that lemmings demonstrated a deep truth about human nature and group psychology. Have you heard the story?

The myth of the lemmings: every 3-4 years in Norway, huge herds of lemmings run to their deaths by hurling themselves off the cliffs. We learned this in biology class, and were given theories about why they did this. We were told they showed something about humans, self-destructiveness, consumerism and modern anxiety.

Except they don’t. Do this.

Lemmings actually have deep drives that are adaptive responses to the population booms they experience every few years. When there are too many of them, a group sets out to find a new home. And water doesn’t stop them, because they can swim. So they go right ahead and jump into lakes to cross them. Some of them drown, but some of them make it to the new home.

What parents and lemmings have in common is that they’ve both been set up by other people’s expectations, and then falsely accused. And in both cases, there is an industry riding on that false accusation.

Lemmings have been falsely accused.

In 1958 Disney made a documentary nature film called White Wilderness. While the myth of lemming mass suicide had been around for a while, Disney showed the world “proof.”

North American Brown lemmings were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary. The lemmings were the wrong sub-species, since it is the Norwegian lemming that is thought to jump off cliffs. Then, they were forced off the cliff by the camera crew. Because the crew had a limited number of animals, they used tight camera angles and a large, snow-covered turn table to show them “jumping” off the cliff. The lemmings were pushed off the cliff again and again. The film won an Academy Award. Disney profited.

Parents have also been falsely accused.

Those of us who study the epidemic of childhood anxiety inevitably come to the conclusion that it is tied to the culture of over-parenting. But then, too many make a leap that is not logical and imply that somehow we parents got ourselves here. A blanket of blame falls on parents. Aren’t we a sad bunch of lemmings driven to bizarre group behavior?

We didn’t create this culture of anxiety and perfectionism by ourselves. We got here by heeding endless streams of advice telling us that we are inadequate. Advice telling us we that are hopeless without the advice. And there is an industry encouraging this anxiety and profiting from it. We are told that we should purchase the right thing, book or service, our children will be great. If we don’t, they will suffer, or be left behind their peers.

Maybe it's Time to Migrate

Lemmings do migrate in the interest of their community and their young. And parents do what we do for the same reason. Are we worried? Absolutely. I bet the lemmings are too. The ones who leave go because they’ve run out of space and resources to sustain life. These tiny animals show grit and courage as they cross large bodies of water.

They want what is best for their children. So do we. But the biggest mistake those lemmings could make is not to strike out and seek a better life. The biggest mistake would be staying put where they would be starved by the lack of resources, hiding from the foxes.

Sometimes we feel like tiny animals when we stand against our culture. The Shouldstorm has us hiding in fear. We can’t help the worry we feel. A lot of it is justified. It’s time for us to strike out too, with the courage to make a step away from the culture of anxiety that is suffocating us and our children. We can change how we approach our worry, and how much we believe it when people tell us we should do it their way. Leaving the Shouldstorm is about doing something hard—finding the courage to lead from ourselves.

©Alison Escalante MD

Photo by Abigail Lynn on Unsplash
The Surprising Reason Parents are Like Lemmings by Alison Escalante MD
Source: Photo by Abigail Lynn on Unsplash


Woodford, Riley (2003). "Lemming Suicide Myth, Disney Film Faked Bogus Behavior". Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Archived from the original on 2011-09-25.

Nicholls, Henry (21 November 2014). "BBC – Earth – The truth about Norwegian lemmings". BBC. Archived from the original on 3 July 2017. Retrieved 18 October 2017

Mcleod, Bryce D. Wood, Jeffrey J., Weisz, John R. (2007). “Examining the association between parenting and childhood anxiety: A meta-analysis.” Elsevier.