My Tricky Parents

I’d like to add something to the ongoing conversation about shame and social stigma. As Ross tells it, stigmatizing behavior is useful as a deterrent. “Having your mother kick you out of the house if you get pregnant out of wedlock probably isn’t going to improve your life chances,” he writes, “but the fear that your mother might kick you out stands a good chance of deterring you from making a bad decision in the first place.”

He goes on:

… humans being what they are, social stigmas are usually effective precisely because they create suffering, and exclusion, and cautionary tales…. Many lives really were improved as American society became more tolerant of unwed motherhood – just as many lives were improved when divorce became easier to obtain, and bad marriages easier to walk away from, and so on.

But many other lives were not. And so the battle between social conservatism and social liberalism at the moment isn’t a battle between competing utopias, but a battle over which tragic choice is worse: The choice to stigmatize, which can damage and even ruin lives, or the choice to destigmatize, which can damage and ruin countless lives as well. It’s a hard enough call that I can safely say I would have sided with the social liberals in a different time and place. But we’ve come a long way down their road, and I think we know enough about the consequences to say that there would be real gains to human welfare available – for downscale Americans, especially, but not only for them – if we were to go some distance in a more conservative direction.

I’m afraid there’s no getting around that tension, or even knowing when the right balance is struck, but pondering this topic always makes me think of my parents, whose intuitive ability to get the best of both worlds never ceases to amaze me. As a high school student, for example, I stayed sober, though most of my friends were drinking, not so much because I feared being ticketed by police, or grounded, but because the idea of disappointing my parents horrified me. I don’t even think they ever told me not to drink alcohol. Merely imagining that they’d be called down to the police station to fetch me proved incentive enough, and my first beer, a Coors Light sipped in a dorm room at UC Berkeley when I visited as a prospective student, owed much to my perception that they wouldn’t be nearly as disappointed were I caught drinking at a college visit.

Or to address teen pregnancy, I am certain that were I to have impregnated a girlfriend during my freshman year of college, my parents would’ve been superlatively loving and supportive. I’d surely have been guilt ridden about all the help they were offering and the sacrifices they were making due to my mistake. I’d have certainly felt ashamed to tell them, “Mom, dad, there’s a classmate of mine you’ve never met, she lives in my dorm, and we’re having a baby together.” But I doubt my parents would’ve punished me, or shamed me, and I cannot remember them ever stigmatizing anyone for giving birth at a young age out of wedlock (though obviously a societal stigma did some of their work for them, and I grew up going to a Catholic high school where pregnancies were rare, hushed up when they happened, and decidedly phenomenon occurring outside my circle of friends). Nevertheless, I easily enough dismissed all sorts of societal conventions, and rebelled against being confirmed a Catholic — it’s always been the values imbued by my parents that mattered most.

Summing up, my parents somehow managed to get all the benefits of shame, without ever having to threaten any actual suffering or exclusion (beyond the awful way I’d feel were I to disappoint them by behaving badly). How did they do that?! Will I be able to manage the same trick when I have kids? I’m certainly going to try.