Parenting Déjà Vu

Updated at 7:00 p.m. ET on May 12, 2023

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For many parents, the act of child-rearing can resemble déjà vu. Children can be an uncanny mirror of one’s particularities: your weird foot shape, the exact contours of your social anxiety. But even stranger is the way parents often find themselves manifesting their own parents’ tics in the process.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

The Reenactment Loop

Children are not blank slates. As my colleague Faith Hill wisely pointed out in a recent Atlantic article, a child is the unwitting embodiment of parental legacy before she even draws her first breath. Certain biological inheritances will shape who a person is and the sort of life she’ll lead, as will her parents’ material circumstances, social support, and values. Before long, her parents’ childhood baggage can also come home to roost, emerging like a GIF-ified Kim Kardashian from their existential foliage.

To put it less obliquely: Parents commonly repeat their own parents’ mistakes. Whether that’s a once-in-a-while type of thing or a perpetual-reenactment loop, the “intergenerational transmission of parenting” is an established phenomenon of child-rearing—for better and for worse. And the constraints of the nuclear family make this birthright all the more challenging to break free from.

Faith writes:

Elisabeth Stitt, a parenting coach and the author of Parenting as a Second Language, told me that people are especially likely to default to their parents’ behaviors—including negative ones—if they don’t have any other models to look to. In America, nuclear-family units are far more isolated than in the past; many of us grow up without seeing much child-rearing beyond what we’re subjected to ourselves.

As Faith indicates, things weren’t always this way. The marriage historian Stephanie Coontz has called the economically self-contained—and socially isolated—male-breadwinner family a “historical fluke” that crystallized in the public imagination within a short window after World War II. During this time, U.S. marriage ages dipped to new lows and the fertility rate surged, and briefly, the average (white) man could support his family without relying on at least some income-generating labor from his wife or children. This hastened a shift away from distributing child-caretaking tasks across a community of neighbors, relatives, and friends, a long-standing practice anthropologists call “cooperative breeding.”

The decline of collective child-rearing has had disproportionate effects on mothers. As the Atlantic contributor David Brooks noted in a 2020 article pointedly titled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” although women benefited from “the loosening of traditional family structures” by becoming able to determine the kind of life they want to live and gaining the freedom to plant new geographic roots, the decision to raise young children away from extended family can be “brutally hard and isolating” for women in particular. “The situation is exacerbated by the fact that women still spend significantly more time on housework and child care than men do, according to recent data,” Brooks continued. “Thus, the reality we see around us: stressed, tired mothers trying to balance work and parenting, and having to reschedule work when family life gets messy.” Simply, it’s hard to do it all with little support. That state of affairs became all the more apparent with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which brought the limitations of the nuclear-family model closer to the fore.

For these and other reasons, the nuclear family is on the outs. The proportion of Americans living in multigenerational households has climbed steadily since the 1970s, according to a Pew Research Center survey published last year. And although that increase is largely driven by practical considerations, such as caregiving requirements and finances, more than half of the survey’s respondents said that their housing arrangement has proved rewarding—if not always, most of the time.

It stands to reason that a continued departure from the nuclear family, and a move toward more cooperative systems of care, would help ensure future generations’ exposure to a wider array of child-rearing models. And, as Faith explains in her Atlantic story, witnessing a range of parenting techniques better equips individuals to build child-rearing tool kits that offset the particular flaws of their own parental inheritances. Parenting is learned behavior.

But hope is not lost for those raised in nuclear families who aim not to repeat their own parents’ mistakes. Even for those who were not afforded a childhood with diverse, or even positive, parenting models, Faith notes that opportunities abound for continuing education from grandparents, friends, kids’ sports coaches, and others. Rather than a rigid script hewn from the raw material of one’s childhood, parenting might more aptly be described as a creative practice: piecing together source materials and revising along the way, in a style all your own.


Today’s News

  1. The Congressional Budget Office warned of a “significant risk” that the U.S. will run out of cash in early June if the debt ceiling is not raised, an escalation of the previous projected timeline of July at the earliest.
  2. The U.S. public-health emergency for COVID-19 ended yesterday at midnight, affecting subsidized programs including free vaccines as well as work requirements for federal food assistance.
  3. Daniel Penny, the New York City subway passenger who choked and killed fellow rider Jordan Neely last week, was arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court on a charge of second-degree manslaughter.


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Evening Read

Chimamanda Adichie
Manny Jefferson

How I Became Black in America

America fascinated me as America fascinates every newcomer. Nineteen years old and fleeing the study of medicine at my Nigerian university, I longed to be a writer, to live a life of the mind. From my first days, I watched and read and learned. I was struck by the excess and the newness of America, by its flagrant contradictions, but mostly by how identity as an idea shaped so much of American life.

America is indeed unlike any other country in the world, not in the kind of triumphalist manner of those who speak of “exceptionalism,” but because, while it was created from violence like many other modern nations, it also claimed plurality, an unusual notion for founding a nation. This plurality, this churning mix of those voluntarily and involuntarily American, living on land that did not belong to them, magnified rather than diminished identity. In Nigeria, I had often thought about who I was—writer, dreamer, thinker—but only in America did I consider what I was.

I became Black in America.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Michael J Fox
Apple TV+

Read. The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, a new book that argues in favor of honoring our material desires rather than feeling ashamed of them.

Watch. Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (streaming on Apple TV+), a documentary about Fox’s battle with Parkinson’s disease that is, perhaps surprisingly, not a downer.

Play our daily crossword.


The historian Stephanie Coontz, whom I cited earlier, has been at the forefront of scholarship on marriage and the family in American life for decades—chances are, if you’ve read parenting columns or family-related op-eds in the past few years, you’ve run into her name. I discovered Coontz’s work while researching my first book, a feminist history of romantic breakups, and can’t imagine what the book would have been if I hadn’t. Coontz’s research continues to inform my understanding of the material incentives, plus political and social factors, that establish family-structure norms. I recommend Coontz’s books to anyone with even a passing interest in these subjects. You can’t really go wrong with any of her books, but Marriage, a History and The Social Origins of Private Life are two great titles to start with.

— Kelli

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

This article has been updated to clarify that, according to the available research, parents are not destined to repeat the mistakes of their own parents.

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