I was talking with my sister on the phone, the sort of chit-chat you carry on when you live hours apart and still want your lives to intersect as much as possible. Jill was telling me that my niece was going to attend a birthday party on Friday. “They’re going to take a limo and get their pictures professionally taken.” My niece was ten years old.
“Are you serious?” I was picturing the sort of sleepover-with-pizza parties my son had been attending.
“Oh, they don’t mess around up here,” Jill said.
I paused, thinking that, where I live, this sort of over-the-top party would definitely cause a stir. “Jeesh,” I said. “If people threw that kind of party here, I’m pretty sure we’d make them feel like assholes.”
That’s when I realized: There is a “we.”
It wasn’t the “we” of our household’s parenting unit, or even the “we” of my circle of friends. It was the “we” made up of the parents of my son’s classmates and friends.
When my son was in kindergarten, his elementary school welcomed the student body and their families by hosting a potluck—we were all instructed to bring a dish that reflected our family’s ethnic or cultural heritage. (In hindsight, we could have gone with a loaf of white bread.) As my husband and I stood by the jungle gym, making small talk and balancing paper plates of pasta salad and spaghetti and lo mein, I surveyed the crowd. It occurred to me that, for the most part, these would be the same people we’d see for the next thirteen years. The parents who volunteered to help the second-graders construct gingerbread houses would someday guide the sixth-graders to the right audition room for all-district band. The father who sat silent and stoic at every Little League game would appear, silent and stoic, at every sporting event from here on out. The gregarious grandma and the annoying flirty mother and the father who thought very highly of himself and the sweet mother who supplied gelt each Hanukkah and the shy one who looked as if she’d rather be undergoing experimental surgery than be there and the bemused stepfather who was doing all of this for the second time … most of them, I realized, would be there in June 2017 when our kids graduated. The date shimmered so far in the future that it felt as if I’d be spending a lifetime with these people.
Although I’ve certainly become friendly with some of them over the intervening seven years, most of these parents aren’t friends of my own choosing. Sure, we have some things in common besides our children’s ages—we all chose to live in this particular city, in this particular part of the city, for example—but, in the same way that their children once called me “Caleb’s Mom,” I think of them primarily in relation to their kids. I don’t even know many of their first names.
But here I was, thinking of us as a tribe, a peer group, a cohort. I was thinking of us as the very sort of group that, upon hearing that another parent went a little nuts with a birthday party, might raise an eyebrow, make a remark in confidence, make it clear to our own children that this should, in no way, affect their expectations of their own party. Is it possible that we’re more intertwined than it seems at first blush? Is it possible that other parents influence our own parenting?
Thanks to a huge body of studies in psychology, sociology, and economics (as well as the spate of Malcolm Gladwell-style books they’ve spawned), we know more and more about how people connect with and influence one another, even unconsciously.
We know, for example, that humans mimic each other. Mimicry is how babies learn to evolve from little hunks of cuteness to functioning members of their species. (Consider the face you make when you feed a baby a spoonful of mushed fruit.) It’s how animals communicate—if I have a scared look on my face, you get the message tout de suite that there’s something (a stampeding bear, a stalking lioness, a known cannibal) coming up behind you. But in the world most of us live in now, mimicking each other has become a way to spread empathy. Our emotions are contagious.
We also know that behaviors can be contagious. In her 2006 study, “Is Having Babies Contagious?” Princeton University economist Ilyana Kuziemko looked at data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a government-funded study that has collected economic, health, and social data from almost nine thousand families since 1968. She found that if your sibling—or more specifically, your sister—had a baby in the past two years, you’re thirty percent more likely to furnish that baby with a cousin. (If your brother has a child, there’s no effect on you.) The “contagion effect,” as it’s called, is strongest when the first child is born and weakens with each subsequent baby—by the time the fifth niece or nephew comes on the scene, siblings aren’t influenced either way. Kuziemko theorized that siblings might have children within a couple of years of one another for a variety of reasons: to share information while it’s still fresh, to provide their children with a cousin around the same age, to share resources like strollers and other baby accoutrements.
It’s not just fertility, of course, that’s contagious. Scholars have found the contagion effect in a whole passel of behaviors, including quitting smoking, getting a mammogram, dropping out of school, voting, getting a divorce, and, disturbingly, committing suicide. The way the behaviors spread varies. Some are fairly simple, like the face-to-face transmission of one family member’s bad mood throughout the house until it’s a five-alarm crankypants situation. Some are fairly simple, though sort of astounding, like large-scale mass psychogenic illnesses (MPIs, or what they used to call “hysteria” in the olden days). MPIs explain why huge segments of schools can suddenly be struck by an unexplained rash with no biological cause, which is exactly what happened in the wake of the anthrax scare of 2001. Then there are those strange instances where people who don’t have any contact with each other still make their marks on each other’s lives.
Nicholas Christakis first noticed this when he was a hospice doctor at the University of Chicago, fifteen years ago. One of his patients was a woman with dementia. As Christakis recalls in a public talk in February 2010, “She was being cared for by her daughter. And the daughter was exhausted from caring for her mother. And the daughter’s husband, he also was sick from his wife’s exhaustion. And I was driving home one day, and I get a phone call from the husband’s friend, calling me because he was depressed about what was happening to his friend. So here I get this call from this random guy that’s having an experience that’s being influenced by people at some social distance.” That’s when Christakis became interested in the idea of social networks. (And by this, I mean actual social networks, not online ones a la Facebook, which are mostly made of “weak ties.”)
Today, Christakis is an internist and social scientist at Harvard. With his longtime collaborator James H. Fowler, a medical school professor and social scientist at the University of California, San Diego, the pair have co-authored Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do, which highlights some of the studies that they’ve conducted, as well as ones that others have published, all on how people influence one another. “Social networks have properties and functions that are neither controlled nor even perceived by the people within them,” they write. Like The Wave making its way around a stadium at a ball game, they write, a network “has a life of its own.” Graphed out using a computer program, their networks look something like Tinkertoys for math geniuses—tons of wheels (people) with spokes connecting some of them (friendships). From this vantage point, the researchers can spot clusters of various phenomena affecting the individuals within the network.
Like happiness. In one study Christakis and Fowler used data from the Framingham Heart Study, which has been collecting info from its participants—now twelve thousand of them—since 1948. They mapped out the relationships between one thousand twenty people and colored the graph according to each participant’s reported level of happiness. They found that within the network, there were clusters of both happy and unhappy people, and that the unhappy people were more likely to be at the edge of the network (meaning they weren’t as connected). Christakis and Fowler write that even after they accounted for outside factors—birds of a feather flocking happily or unhappily together, say, or happy people all participating in an event that caused happiness—they determined that being connected to a happy person makes you fifteen percent more likely to be happy yourself. Curiously, being two degrees away from a happy person makes you ten percent more likely to be happy, and being three degrees away makes you six percent more likely to be happy. After that, the effect stops.
Also using the Framingham Heart Study, Christakis and Fowler looked at the so-called epidemic of obesity, this time taking a sample of a little more than five thousand people. The pair mapped out the obese and the non-obese using body mass indexes of the participants. As in the happiness study, they found that—even after controlling for outside factors—over time, obese people tended to be clustered with other obese people, and likewise for the non-obese. And, as in the happiness study, they found that being connected to an obese person—up to three degrees—increased a person’s own likelihood of becoming obese. (Unlike the happiness study, though, it didn’t seem that a person’s BMI tended to make them more connected or less.)
Why would obesity be contagious? In Connected, Christakis and Fowler chalk it up to several things. The first is behavorial imitation—you see your friend enjoying her Zumba class, and you sign up, too. They also explain that norms change. “When many people start gaining weight, it can reset our expectations about what it actually means to be overweight.” What’s more, they write, a person could be a “carrier” for obesity, even if she’s not obese herself. Say you have two friends who don’t know each other, Christakis and Fowler explain. One has recently put on some weight. You think she looks just fine—she’s still her own awesome self, just with an extra twenty pounds on her bones. You don’t necessarily change any of your own behavior—you exercise, you still eat healthy—but when second friend starts, say, bagging out on the exercise you do together, you don’t push her. In this way, your first friend’s BMI affects your second friend’s BMI, even if they’ve never met.
Connected is full of these Dude-this-kind-of-blows-my-mind studies. But there is precious little research that tackles the sort of parent-on-parent influence I was thinking about, and the book doesn’t address parents specifically. (The exception is a reference to a commentary Christakis penned, published in the British Medical Journal in 2009, where he cites parents’ and schools’ “extreme response” to nut allergies as an example of a mass psychogenic illness.) I spoke with Nicholas Christakis one January evening to see how networks play into parenting.
“There is something to the truism, the friends you meet in nursery school are the friends you have for life,” he told me. “When people are in what is known as a liminal state—that is, they’re in a position between things (for example, when they first board a boat to go on a cruise or when they first arrive on a new campus, or when they arrive at a new school)—people tend to drop their guard and are open to new experiences and new relationships. Most adults don’t form friendships any old time. Children often provide those opportunities for us, for example when we enroll them in school, or when all the kids are doing a new sports team.”
That explains how other parents get into our lives. But anyone who has given in to a kiddo’s pleas for a certain toy knows how these parents’ choices affect our own lives. One day, you’re all sitting around as a family putting together ye old-fashioned jigsaw puzzles. Somewhere, hundreds of miles away, a grandparent is noticing that her young neighbor seems to be enjoying the hell out of a little handheld game. She buys one for her own grandchild. On spring break, this grandchild entertains his family’s out-of-town guests by sharing it with their kids. One of those out-of-town guests is your child’s classmate. Your child’s classmate’s parent—one of those very people whose ethnic and cultural heritage you tasted at the kindergarten potluck!—buys a Nintendo DS for their kid, and the next thing you know, you hear yourself using words like “screen time” and supervising four children slumped shoulder to shoulder the couch, arguing about which Pokémon are worth catching.
Spotting consumer trends is a pretty obvious example—I can pinpoint when that DS made its debut in my life, the moment my husband and I consulted in the kitchen and said yes to the damned thing. But what about those more slippery decisions that feel less like decisions and more like a mindset? Were they truly my own or was there a “we” involved in making them? I look at the parenting choices I’ve made and see how they fall in lockstep with the mores of where I live, a liberal college town where—at least among the well-educated professionals—we know what the socially comfortable choices are, even if we couldn’t have articulated them before we became parents. You breastfeed for at least a year. You discipline using your words. You send the kids to Montessori or Waldorf or one of the parent co-op schools. You encourage sports, but really prize the arts. No matter what religion you are or aren’t, you give your children a passable knowledge of other people’s beliefs. You don’t have extravagant birthday parties. You avoid tooting your own horn and your kids’ horn. (Because no matter what your talent is, there’s someone else here who has a MacArthur “genius” grant for doing the same thing.) When you’re given a form to apply to the gifted program at the elementary school, you answer the question, “When did you first know your child was special?” with long, knotty sentences, trying to make clear that you know very well that every child is special and that your self-worth doesn’t rely on your kid’s getting into the program, even though the teacher is so fabulous that he was the subject of a documentary.
I’ve tended to think that I’d be impervious to the sort of pressure that would lead a parent to throw a limousine-transported birthday party, but putting down roots in my liberal college town wasn’t a stick-a-pin-in-the-map decision. I’ve chosen to live within a network that reflects my values—or at least a place where I’m comfortable reflecting its values. This was actually a criticism of early studies on peer influence, according to an unpublished 2008 paper by economists David Cutler and Edward L. Glaeser, who acknowledged that “the company you keep is rarely random.”
In any given network, though, norms shift. Our attitudes towards almost any parenting issue are hardly static: what size and configuration we choose for our families, when we become parents, whether we vaccinate our kids, how sexually frank we are with them, what we teach our children about other cultures, how much we value education, how closely we hew to gender lines, whether we model civic involvement, how much we shelter or expose them to life’s uglier sides, what jobs we prepare them for, and on and on and on. What was once unthinkable becomes thinkable, and vice versa.
I asked Nicholas Christakis if he could explain, say, the sea change in our cultural attitude toward breastfeeding in less than a generation. “In our book we review a variety of similar behaviors—for example, having babies, divorce, sexual practices. We didn’t look specifically at breastfeeding,” he pointed out. “But networks magnify whatever they’re seeded with. If something else starts a breastfeeding trend going, the network will magnify that, and you’ll get many more people breastfeeding than they would have if they were unconnected from each other. It’ll spread within the network. The network doesn’t give rise to a phenomena—it works like a magnifying glass. A magnifying glass by itself won’t do anything—you need a light. You need something else—a group of people who first adopt the innovation or some kind of marketing campaign that gets it started. Something else has to happen. As people’s friends breastfeed, it’ll logically affect their probability of breastfeeding.”
In the case of breastfeeding, the light, the “something else” is probably a combination of medical studies, media reports, child-rearing manuals. But the most important element to cause a phenomenon to catch fire is your friends.
Christakis explains, though, that top-down messages can work in concert with a friend’s influence. “There’s kind of an overlap in the sense that many people get their messages from the media filtered by their friends,” he said. “In other words, if you read an article that says, ‘Oprah recommends buying this product,’ you might ignore it. But, weirdly, if your friend tells you, ‘Jennifer, I just saw this really interesting article where Oprah recommended doing X and Y,’ you’ll pay more attention.”
For breastfeeding advocates, then, your best shot at influencing other mothers to breastfeed is when you’re nursing yourself—and talking it up to your pals, especially if you’re central in your network, which gives you what social scientists call high “transitivity.” And, it stands to reason, that even if you’re not a breastfeeding advocate—even if you don’t even know what colostrum is—you can still be affected by the changing norms. Once your friends breastfeed in front of you, chances are excellent that witnessing a two-year-old lift up her mother’s shirt to nurse at a park just isn’t worthy of a second thought, much less a flinch. Like in the obesity study where friends of friends were shown to convey habits, you’ve become “tolerant.”
In 2000, conservative Christian writer Lisa Whelchel, who may be better known for her role as Blair in the ’80s sitcom The Facts of Life, published a book called Creative Correction: Extraordinary Ideas for Everyday Discipline. One of those extraordinary ideas was “hot-saucing,” in which a parent looking to curb, as Whelchel puts it, “offenses of the tongue” like lying or sassback would put a dab of Tabasco sauce on his or her child’s tongue. “It stings for a while, but it abates. (It’s the memory that lingers!),” she wrote.
It goes without saying that this idea wouldn’t catch fire in every network, and probably would be considered by many parents to be on the order of no-more-wire-hangers wrong. But some networks were primed. By 2004, The Washington Post published a feature on the trend that described the spread of hot-saucing through parenting websites and friends; one woman who was interviewed “learned about the technique from a friend who carries packets of hot sauce in her purse to correct her own children’s misbehavior.” The pediatricians interviewed by the Post had all heard of the technique. It became widespread enough that some state governments, like Virginia, jumped to weigh in on the disciplinary practice in their protective services guidelines. In January of this year, Jessica Beagley, an Alaskan mother of six, was charged with misdemeanor child abuse after footage aired on a November 2010 Dr. Phil show that captured Beagley hot-saucing her seven-year-old son and making him take a cold shower after lying about getting in trouble at school. The footage showed the mother pouring the sauce directly from the bottle, more than the dab that Whelchel recommended in Creative Correction. Magnification, indeed.
In the aftermath, a few outspoken bloggers decried the charges against Beagley as “politically motivated.” (She’s a Mormon; the child in question was internationally adopted; and her husband works for the Anchorage police department, which was apparently suffering some sort of embarrassment.) While that seems still in the realm of speculation, it’s not hard to imagine the sort of network where hot-saucing might take off. It’s a network where biblical scripture—”Spare the rod, spoil the child,” say, or “The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but a perverse tongue will be cut out”— provides inspiration on how to live and how to parent, sometimes rather literally. It’s a network where a take-charge, authoritarian style of parenting is seen as a good thing, the right thing. It’s a network where, when one of your children exhibits behavior problems and you’re at your wits’ end, you think you can appear on Dr. Phil’s show—a fellow Christian—even with this footage that shows your boy screaming, footage that will bring some audience members to tears. You think this because, in your network, hot-saucing might be unusual, but you don’t know anyone whose opinion you trust who’d call it child abuse.
And if you’re in a different network, maybe this is the first time you’ve been exposed to this technique. You have a decision now: Maybe you’re appalled by it, and you e-mail this article to your friends with a note of outrage. Or maybe you think it’s not such a bad idea and, instead, e-mail this article with a note saying as much. In either case, you’re seeding your network with a stance on hot-saucing. You’ve influenced your network.
I wondered how this works for even larger issues in families’ lives. The decision to work, to stay home, or cobble together a bit of each, for example, has huge ramifications. If networks are so good at spreading behaviors, wouldn’t they convey the results of decisions like these? As Ann Crittenden pointed out in her groundbreaking 2001 book, The Price of Motherhood (and recently driven home by frequent Brain, Child contributor Katy Read’s essay “Pinched” on Salon about her regrets over staying at home with her boys), the biggest risk factor for women winding up in poverty in old age is motherhood. After Crittenden’s book was published, there was a groundswell of interest in a mothers’ movement. Activists called for paid parental leave, more equitable divorce laws, and a host of other business and government measures that would make the U.S. more family-friendly. In the past decade, however, there hasn’t been much of a change, in terms of laws or workplace policy. While it’s certainly fair to chalk it up to other concerns of the lawmakers and the public—like the two ongoing wars and an economy that doesn’t even guarantee paid parental work—I wondered if part of the reason the mothers’ movement didn’t spread further was mothers themselves.
If you’re looking to your network to see what other mothers have done—Kuziemko’s study on the contagiousness of pregnancy found that “information sharing” might be a solid part of why one sister’s decision to have a baby affects another’s—chances are excellent that full-on policy change doesn’t feel urgent. Whether the mothers you know take their six weeks of FMLA leave then head off with their messenger bag, or they embark on the full-time job of caring for the baby, or shake out some kind of work/childcare schedule between two parents, it’s rare you see immediate, terrible consequences for whatever path these families take. I wondered if all of us muddling along, however we did, in our liminal state of new motherhood didn’t blind us to the broad view: experiences of mothers like Read who’d come before us; research like Crittenden’s; plain old financial what-ifs.
I didn’t deliver to Nicholas Christakis a short history of the twenty-first-century mothers’ movement. But, with all of these heavy questions—about economic fate, motherhood, and activism—in my mind, I asked whether networks might preserve the status quo.
Christakis wouldn’t put it that way. “Individuals are located within niches in the network, and if you’re surrounded by people interlocked in the network doing a particular thing, it’s hard for any individual to change. Networks can be stabilizing. They can act as reservoirs of behavior or norms,” he said.
But he added, “Networks don’t just magnify good things. Networks are agnostic. They will magnify fascism, drug use, infections. But they will also magnify happiness and love and kindness.”
The social network theory is still an evolving field, but it holds a lot of promise for thinking about how parents influence each other, for good or ill. “I think understanding social networks and how they form and operate can help us understand not just health and emotions, but all kinds of other phenomena like crime and warfare, and economic phenomena like bank runs and economic crashes, and the adoption of innovation and the spread of product adoption,” Christakis said in his 2010 talk. Another phenomenon that social networks may one day elucidate is parenting—all the issues parents face raising the next generation, issues that encompass health and emotion and economics and, well, the future of our world.
The social network theory also is undoubtedly appealing to anyone who’s uneasy with the proclamation that Mothers Are Experiencing X. Whatever Betty Friedan experienced feeling trapped at home with the kids and the chores, it had to have been a pretty foreign concept to my foremothers. (“You didn’t have time to be bored,” my grandmother tells me, in that distancing-herself-in-the-second-person thing she does when recalling hard times.) As far back as I can tell, the women in my family have always been employed—as nurses and teachers, maids and bootleggers, farm laborers and cooks. In the 1970s, when my mother should have been, according to the Boomer narrative, marching off to her career in her bellbottoms and tinted glasses, she was thrilled that she and my father could scrape together enough money to enable her to stay home with my sisters and me. (In her bellbottoms and tinted glasses.)
We’re not, after all, all in the same network, and even if we are, we’re at different places in the network. Christakis emphasizes that one’s place in a network affects how a person experiences certain phenomena. He points out that people can be at different points on a network; they can be well connected or on the periphery. “Who would you rather be if a deadly germ was spreading through the network? Who would you rather be if a piece of juicy gossip—not about you—was spreading through the network?”
On the topic of how we experience universals—like motherhood—though, Christakis paused. “I think the answer to that is: It depends. There will be subcultural variations—for instance, poor people versus rich people might have different practices in some regard—but I don’t think there’s a general point I can make about that.”
Christakis’s work leads him to understand various phenomena. He’s a medical doctor, and much of his research is done in the service of improving health. For him, there’s not a lot to be gained by looking at the network from the perspective of a single Tinkertoy wheel.
For the rest of us, though, that’s the only perspective we have. And I think there is some relief in knowing that one woman’s motherhood can be an entirely different beast from another woman’s motherhood. At minimum, it makes all the trend pieces about motherhood—now we’re all supposedly blissful, now we’re all supposedly fearful and hovering, now we’re all supposed to be fascinated by Chinese mothering (in which Chinese means not actually Chinese but crazy-makingly strict)—more comprehensible.
It’s also a little scary to think that decisions we consider our own can be swayed by people we don’t even know, especially when those decisions affect our children. Where’s the power, the free will? What do we do when we hear rumblings of thousand-dollar birthday parties, infidelities in our social circle, packets of hot sauce in our friends’ purses? In an interview at the end of Connected, Christakis and Fowler advise, “Stay connected! … On average, every friend makes us healthier and happier. So instead of dumping friends who do things we don’t want to copy, we should work to influence them to change.”
Author’s Note: My son is twelve now, and I have less contact with his friends’ parents. Not on purpose—the kids text and e-mail and walk to each other’s houses without anyone holding their hands. It has occurred to me that the children themselves are kind of the ultimate carriers of their parents’ philosophies. I can tell when one friend thinks he’s been playing Wii for longer than his parents would be comfortable with; I can hear the measured diplomacy of another mother in her daughter’s response to a slight. I love this, but I know it’s just a matter of time before the waters get muddied with the kids’ own desires. We may need another potluck then.
Brain, Child (Spring 2011)
About the Author: Jennifer Niesslein is a writer and editor who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She’s the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way and the co-founder of Brain, Child magazine, where she worked for thirteen years. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and online at Virginia Quarterly Review and The Morning News, among other places. Her website is: http://jenniferniesslein.com/.
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