The XX Factor

A Fresh Crop of Parental Guilt Inducers

Guilt is the ever-present companion of the modern parent, a nagging voice so familiar that most of us simply think it’s our own, constantly detailing our failures: to get our kids to eat right, to provide the perfect balance of activity and free time, or monitor the homework and responsibilties without taking them over. But you might have noticed that voice getting a little louder of late. There’s a new kind of guilt in town, and it’s not just a fear that we’ll raise kids who’ll fail socially or financially, or just never call. It’s the fear that we’ll raise kids who are destined to die.

We’re all destined to die, of course, but most of us would prefer to put off that day as long as possible, and for our children, even longer. Until now, our influence over that precise date (once we’d done our best with car seats and healthful diets) appeared limited, but our perception of life-span as final sphere of fate over which we as parents can have little impact is in danger. Studies that lead to headlines like ” Childhood Stress Shortens Telomeres, Affecting Future Health ” and subheads like “parental divorce in childhood was the strongest predictor of early death in adulthood ” suggest that some behaviors-and, by extension, the behaviors we do or don’t impose on our children-affect us right down to our DNA. Specifically, the caps on the ends of chromosomes called telomeres, whose length appears to reflect our biological age. Grossly simplified, longer telomeres correspond with youth, shorter telomeres with age. But shorter telomeres also correspond with certain environmental and behavioral stressors, like (in adults) full-time work schedules , and (in children) time spent in an institutional rather than a family situation .

When I make the leap from a serious stress like life in a Romanian orphanage to the kinds of stress my children experience-like not getting enough sleep , I’m completely theorizing ahead of the data. No one has really shown anything of the sort. As for the correlation between divorce during childhood and death in early adulthood, it remains unexplained (and there’s nothing to suggest a link to telomeres-yet). But what I can see from all of this is the newest trend in parental stressors. My review copy of Richard Francis’ Epigenetics , a book on the ways environmental or external factors (such as a famine or a father who began smoking before puberty) can leave “biological scars” on the next generations lays it out right on the back cover: “Time to worry again-our lifestyle choices do impact our genetic code and that of our children.” Even if that particular tagline doesn’t make the final publication, the next generation of fear is plain to see. As hard as we’ll try to see that these broad findings say more about societal or popluation trends than they do about our individual families, we’ll worry. I feel my telomeres shortening already.

Photograph courtesy of Thinkstock.