Animals Are Basically… Millennials?
It Turns Out Nature's Way Involves a Lot of Living With Your Parents
For the past decade in the United States and other countries, parents have been criticized not only for helicopter parenting—hovering over their kids’ every activity and mood—but also for raising so-called boomerang kids: children who return home after an initial period of independence in the work world or at college.
In fact, in the United States, this has become the norm. As of 2016, 18- to 34-year-olds were more likely to be living with their parents than with a romantic partner. More than 60 percent of Polish, Slovenian, Croatian, Hungarian, and Italian 18- to 34-year-olds live at home with parents, as do two-thirds of 22- to 29-year-olds in China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, and Australia.
And in most countries in the Middle East, the custom is for young adults to live at home until marriage. Humans are notable for the long time we spend in dependent childhood and adolescence compared with some other species. But this may not make us such outliers after all. Many wild animal parents do not cut off support the minute their offspring leave home. In fact, many dial up the help and the training. If a youngster is having trouble getting enough to eat, animal parents will often feed them. If a youngster isn’t meeting peers, parents will sometimes provide introductions. Like prudent parents finally spending a college fund, they bequeath territory and offer access to food larders they’ve been stocking away for this exact moment.
The ecological term for these boosts that come after dispersal is “extended parental care.” Conditions that lead human and animal parents to offer their grown offspring extended parental care are remarkably similar across species. Dangerous environments, food shortages, competition for territory, and pressure to find mates keep young adults living at home.
If boomerang kids were birds being observed by ornithologists instead of humans being critiqued by social scientists, a supportive parent-offspring relationship might be called the more bird-specific “post-fledging care.” And maybe instead of bemoaning it, critics would recognize, as biologists do, that it can improve the future success and survival of offspring.
It’s useful, and perhaps reassuring, to put the human versions of extended parental care into a larger historical and cultural context. Steven Mintz, a historian of the human life cycle, writes that in America, “a protracted transition into adulthood is not a new phenomenon,” and “the decade stretching from the late teens to the late twenties has long been a period of uncertainty, hesitation, and indecision.” He tells the story of a young man who after graduating from Harvard in 1837 at the age of 19 was “hired as a school teacher only to resign two weeks later. He then intermittently worked in his parents’ pencil factory, served as a tutor, and shoveled manure.” The young man also worked for a while as an editorial assistant. Eventually Henry David Thoreau found footing as a writer and land surveyor, although he continued to be involved with and supported by the family pencil business.
“Contrary to what many people assume,” Mintz writes, in the early United States, “the overwhelming majority of young people in the past did not enter adulthood at a very young age . . . During the early 19th century young men in their teens and even twenties tended to swing between periods of relative independence and phases of dependence when they returned to the parental home.”
It’s been like that during most of the history of the United States. With the sole exception of a brief period at the end of the Second World War, marriage, what we often think of as a traditional dispersal demarcation line, didn’t happen for most young people until their mid- or even late twenties or early thirties. Even in the pre-United States colonial era, “young men generally had to delay marriage until they received an inheritance, which usually took place after a father’s death,” according to Mintz. He describes the transition to the adult world as having been traumatic throughout American history. Parents died early, education was often intermittent, and living arrangements were uncertain. Young immigrants, often female, traveled alone to find work.
In many species of birds and mammals, young adults old enough to be “ready” to move out are sometimes allowed—even encouraged—to stay in the home territory and help out. Occasionally these maiden aunts, and more often uncles, stay in their birth home for life. The arrangement is win-win-win for parents, offspring, and any new younger siblings. The young adults care for siblings by bringing food and acting as babysitters and mentors. They help the group by adding vigilance and security and extra numbers for mobs. Rarely are they freeloaders.
Staying in the home nest for extra time before dispersing is also not a sign of failure to launch. The benefits for these lingering young adults are many. If the environment has too many predators, young adults may be physically safer staying on longer with parents. If it’s a year with a lot of peer competition, waiting a season can boost a young bird’s chances at finding food, territory, and mates. Another boon of hanging around is that they’re on-site in the event a parent dies and succession is up for grabs. They might inherit territory. For a low-ranking female meerkat, for example, the best strategy for getting her own territory is to stay close to home and wait for Mom to go. This strategy is also seen in chimpanzees, although males tend to be the siblings to inherit the territory.
Western bluebird sons who stay home over winter with at least one parent not only are more likely to survive the season, but they also tend to inherit some of their parents’ territory come spring. The territory often comes with what Cornell scientists call “mistletoe wealth,” stocks of the plant that serve as shelter and food for these birds.
Humans are not the only animals to bequeath their worldly possessions to their young. Any given plot of land may already have many “owners.” North American red squirrel mothers leave their territories to offspring, usually adolescents, and, if they can, parcel in as much nearby vacant territory as they can manage. The mothers don’t only give the gift of real estate. They can also stock the land with extra food, hiding larders all over it before relinquishing the whole package to their offspring. For these squirrel mothers, death doesn’t mark the transfer of the estate.
Instead, it’s during middle age that a mother bestows this gift, packs up, and goes off on her own new journey just as her adult children are ready to take over the property. One of the most powerful ways for animal parents to help their offspring with dispersal is to point them in the right direction before they actually leave. Parental excursions, a behavior seen in some mammals and many birds, involves a parent traveling out into the world with an adolescent offspring, scouting out sources of food, securing territory, and introducing the offspring into society. Like the social-climbing mothers of Jane Austen novels, a songbird called the Parus major takes her eligible bird offspring on visits to other flocks to introduce them to the best and highest-status potential mates to produce her future grand- and great-grand-chicks.
It’s clear from many studies of a range of species that extended parental care saves lives—preventing newly independent young animals lacking in life skills from dying in the first dangerous days and weeks after leaving the nest. But the benefit of extended parental care comes at a cost: a delay in learning to feed yourself. A study of white-winged choughs, an Australian bird, showed that youngsters who stayed at home with lots of adults got more food and emerged from winter in better physical condition. But the trade-off came once they were on their own. Lacking experience, they were poorer foragers than birds who’d gotten no help.
Birds who receive extended parental care also show delayed antipredation behaviors. Young Mexican jays who spend extended periods with mature adults don’t learn crucial mobbing skills. Young animals must ultimately strike a balance between receiving care to keep them safe and fed in dangerous environments and honing the life skills they will need when they are truly independent. In this context of extended parental care in animals, it’s interesting to think about the criticism leveled at contemporary parents who remain involved in their kids’ lives through adolescence and young adulthood.
A report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education noted that “especially in affluent communities, their parents are hyper-involved in their academic and social lives, so it’s unusual for teenagers to study, arrange a meeting about a bad grade, or even resolve a disagreement with a friend without parental help.”
The excesses of some parents are easy to mock, and robbing young adults of opportunities to practice resolving their own conflicts is clearly misguided. Yet amid the criticisms of millennials moving home with their parents, the clear importance of continued parental involvement gets muddied. Mintz puts it like this: parents “have good reason to be standing by with a rescue rope as their children try to make their way through the overgrown and traditional paths to adulthood that may no longer secure employment. The twenties have replaced the teens as the most risk-filled decade. Problematic behavior—binge drinking, illicit drug use, unprotected sex that leads to disease or unplanned pregnancies, and violent crime—peaks during this age, and missteps during these years can impose lifelong penalties.”
In the rush to criticize parental over-involvement, a larger problem gets lost: the lack of sufficient parenting for many. For young adult humans without parents or parent-like mentors, dispersing into the adult world can be exceedingly dangerous. According to an analysis by social scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, young people aging out of foster care in the United States—the 18-year-olds without family to provide financial or emotional support—show increased rates of unemployment and reliance on public assistance. Their physical and behavioral health is worse than same-age peers; they’ve often reached only lower levels of education; and they’ve had more brushes with the criminal justice system.
Mentorship—what you might call a human version of “post-fledging” social care—vastly improves the lives of this vulnerable population. The report found that dispersing foster children who had a relationship with a competent, caring adult mentor fared much better during adolescence and the transition to adulthood. The best outcomes were for adolescents who found a “natural” mentor, which the researchers defined as “a very important, nonparental adult that exists in a youth’s social network, like a teacher, extended family member, service provider, community member, or coach.” These familiar adult mentors, chosen by the foster children themselves, as opposed to unfamiliar adults chosen for them by state or nonprofit groups, became “a protective factor” for foster kids in transition, providing “ongoing guidance, instruction, and encouragement aimed at developing the competence and character of a young person.”
Extended parental care is seen all over human societies, at all levels of wealth. It may come in the form of a place to live, food, and direct financial support. But it can also come without a price tag, such as career advice, teaching a skill, moral support, social introductions, and companionship. How much extended care is given depends on the parents’ resources and the needs of the offspring. But it is widely, if not universally, seen throughout nature. And with good evolutionary reason: a parent’s genetic legacy lives in their offspring but persists in their grand-offspring. So why wouldn’t parents do everything they can to help? You can think of that behavior as motivated by personal selfishness or evolutionary fitness, or you can think of it as motivated by love. Either way, it is irrefutable that parents all over the planet are invested in the safety, health, and, yes, happiness, of their children.
Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages of extending parental care in the animal world can help humans develop a more realistic and perhaps even compassionate understanding of how and when to continue to support their older and adult children. It is true that white-winged choughs and scrub jays who stayed on with their parents might not have learned to forage or chase off predators as well as those who left. But if the world outside is dangerous and a young animal lacks the skills to protect itself, it may be safer to stay at home. Ecology may be at least as influential as psychology in determining behavior that favors continued dependence. Mintz puts it even more bluntly: “Parental support can play a crucial role in preventing their offspring’s lives from going severely off track.” Examples in the animal world suggest that extended parental care is as much an evolutionary strategy as an indulgence.
Excerpted from Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers. Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Sylvester Bowers. Excerpted with permission by Scribner.
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