Will Parents Pardon the Bad Boyfriend?

Haven’t we all had a boyfriend or girlfriend we brought home to mom or dad, only to sense the chilly response – or overly effusive welcome?

Some of us may be relieved when our parents like the person we’re falling for. We see them smile, and we know all is good.

Then again, when my mother cozied up to one of my gentleman callers, it set off warning bells that I was headed down the wrong path.

Sure, as we get older and more experienced, we’re likelier to pick up on problem behaviors than our adult children. Maybe. And we trust our intuition, as a matter of experience. But the assumption that we as parents know better about everything, especially who will be good for our sons or daughters is, in my opinion, a faulty one.

In “The Evolution of Bad Boyfriends,” The New York Times offers food for thought on the disconnect between Father Knows Best and Little Janie’s pick for introductions and approval.

The article presents a seemingly simple premise:

You think your daughter’s boyfriend isn’t good enough? It may be evolution’s fault.

Your Feedback on Your (Grown) Child’s Dates?

Hmm. Once upon a time, if a young woman brought home anyone who had a few tats, unless in the military, that was an immediate “nyet” on any future. Skin styles seem to have changed that one, though I can’t say that I’m pleased on that score, personally.

In some families, anything less than doctor or lawyer was unacceptable, though semi-slackers were fine if they “came from a good family” or had an ivy-education. The realities of the cost of college not to mention the job market may have altered those expectations as well.

In my twenties, my mother hated everyone I brought home, so I stopped bringing anyone around, even when the relationship was serious, as sitting through a Siberian exchange was simply too distasteful. The only man she ever liked? The one I married (and yes, I’m divorced)… What should I glean from that bit of personal data?

Biology, Evolutionary Psychology, Money…

The article turns to both biology and social psychology, taking up issues of sexual selection (by the young adults) and the theoretical desire of parents for their children to do well – and reproduce:

It is in parents’ evolutionary interests to distribute their resources — money, support, etc. — in such a way that leads to as many surviving grandchildren as possible…

That seems logical. Don’t we all care about survival of the species? Don’t we find ourselves fighting our own sense of mortality by taking solace in the generations to come? Don’t we enjoy the feeling of family – and practically speaking – hope for some level of reciprocal care as we grow older?

My father-in-law liked me a good deal.

He wanted smart grandchildren and apparently I got the thumbs up on that score, as a possible mother to the next generation. Then again, in my husband’s family, sibling were already married with children. Would this have eased the burden (and interference factor) for any one of the kids? Is it easier as a parent to give a thumbs up – or at least no thumbs down – when you have a houseful of children, some of whom will marry and reproduce while some will not?

Modeling Human Behavior

Naturally, the scientists involved in studying the ways in which we mate rely on models, and in this instance, the model used explicitly allowed parents to interfere in the selection of their offspring’s mates. The conclusion?

… over time, parents in our model evolved to invest more resources in daughters who chose mates with few resources…  a daughter with an unsupportive partner would profit more from extra help than her more fortunate sisters… By helping their needier daughters, parents maximized their total number of surviving grandchildren.

But this unequal investment created an incentive for daughters to “exploit” their parents’ generosity by choosing a partner who was less supportive… As a result, the choosiness of females gradually declined over evolutionary time…

I’m not quite sure what to make of this, as it flies in the face of prevailing (pop culture) wisdom that we should all “hold out” for as  perfect specimens as possible, certainly in our childbearing years – physically, as well as in the “provider” department.

Your Money or Your Wife?

As I consider this research, it presumes that parents have the financial resources to “pick up the slack” so daughters can be less picky and choose lesser providers. All cultural issues aside, doesn’t this theory depend on economic reality?

I think back to the approval or disapproval of potential husbands and wives that I have seen from peers with children older than mine. We are a culture that values independent thought and choice, yet we are also increasingly dependent on one another as family units – financially. That in itself isn’t a reflection on the ability to provide.

Moreover, women contributing to the household income is no longer an aberration. Sure, some mothers will still advise to “marry a doctor, marry a dentist, marry a person who can ‘take care of you’” – but women are also the doctors, the dentists, and the providers now – breadwinning is no longer a purely male pursuit.

I do find the concept of interference interesting – this notion that interfering (supportive?) parents results in less independent young adults – that’s my interpretation, not explicitly something stated in the article. My this not be the legacy of helicoptering – combined with a challenging economy?