An Evolutionary Theory of Overprotective Parents

Salon has an interview (hat tip: Unqualified Offerings) with Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, a new book arguing that parents should give their kids more freedom to do things on their own. I completely agree with this idea (though I’m not a parent, and wouldn’t bet against my opinion changing if I were to have kids). From my own experience and talking to others, it seems like there’s been a huge shift in parental attitudes in recent years. This demands an explanation. The change has to be at least partly cultural, with child-abduction and paedophilia apparently becoming more salient since I was a kid. I think part of it can also be explained by simple evolutionary theory and economics.

The human mind evolved in an environment of dire poverty and extreme danger compared to that we live in today. The difference between the Pleistocene and modern society can explain many of the political problems we face today. I think one important factor is the difference in the budget constraint we face for certain goods now compared to then. It’s now the conventional wisdom that people overeat and get today because it was once adaptive to eat as much as possible, and so we have a strong motivation to seek food. People didn’t overeat because they did not have access to that much food. The marginal evolutionary benefit of food decreases as we consume more of it, and eventually becomes negative. In the environment of adaptation, though, the peak of the food-fitness funtion was never relevant, and so evolution did not take it into account. Taking a good thing to excess was not specifically programmed out, since scarcity had already taken care of it.

I think there’s something similar going on with overprotective parents. My guess that the relationship between the evolutionary fitness (as well as personal lifetime wellbeing) of a child and the degree to which it is protected by its parents is, like that fitness-food function, positive and decreasing at first, but negative above some threshold. In the environment of adaptation, there were many dangers and protecting kids all the time would have been extremely costly. This could have meant that the peak of the fitness-protection function was similarly never reached, and evolution programmed us to simply protect our children whenever the costs are not overwhelmingly high. Since the world is now a much safer place, and it’s much cheaper (relative to our incomes) to keep an eye on our children with cellphones, GPS, nannies, and fortified backyards, we satiate ourselves with child-protection to a degree which ends up harming our children rather than helping them.

I’m not quite sure whether this explanation works. I don’t think it can explain the huge difference in parental behaviour between between now and twenty years ago, when child protection was almost as cheap as it is today. Wild evolutionary speculation, however, is its own reward.

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