The evolution of embarrassment: why parents embarrass their children

Posted on December 14, 2011



Happy birthday pookumsWelcome to this week’s WTF Wednesday where you ask questions and I don’t.

Today’s question comes anonymously through the magic of the internet.

Dear IBMP,

Why do parents embarrass their children?

We recently answered a question about why children feel the need to embarrass their parents. It seems it’s time to tackle the other half of the equation.

To truly understand our species and why we are the way we are, it is sometimes valuable to review where we’ve been. Let’s take a brief look at the history of human embarrassment.

The first known incidence of embarrassment among humans was when one unfortunately absent-minded caveman left his cave without fully securing his loincloth.  While attempting to impress a group of caveladies by juggling two saber-tooth tigers and a large porcupine, his loincloth dropped unceremoniously to the ground. The entire clan took immediate notice and the caveman grabbed the nearest thing available to cover his exposed cavemanly bits. That thing, unfortunately for the caveman, was the porcupine. Even if he had been able to remove all the quills, no cavelady wanted to have anything to do with the poor humiliated caveman.

Cavemen soon learned that embarrassing other cavemen was an effective way of getting the cavegirls for themselves. The ability to embarrass other members of the species became an important trait for being able to outcompete other males for mates.

Once the club was invented, early humans found that smashing a competitor’s brains in was a far more efficient means of getting the girls than giving him wedgies and posting “Kick Me” signs on his back. By this time, however, embarrassing others was deeply programmed in human DNA.

It was around this time in human history that language first appeared. This was a big step for early human parents as it was the beginning of such uniquely human characteristics as whining and pleading. For the first time, parents were being bombarded with high-pitched squeals about needing the new CaveBabe Barbie or Lego Star Wars Episode Negative 17,126.

While very tempting, tossing one’s child to the tigers is not a great evolutionary strategy and early cavegrown-ups were desperate for a way to threaten their children into behaving. Using their recently evolved embarrassment skills on their children proved largely ineffective at controlling their behavior but it sure as hell felt good.

It’s thought that if cavekids had not learned to speak, this parental embarrassment of children would not have been nearly as satisfying and may not have survived as a dominant trait. But they did, and it did.

Modern humans retain this trait. We see it in our parents and insist that we won’t be that way, but it’s in our DNA.

The answer to your question, then, is that we embarrass our children because we’re wired that way.

So kids, I suggest you just get over it; it’s not our fault.

Problem solved. You’re welcome!

Do you have a parenting question?  Ask it in the comments section below.  I’ll be giving away a free copy of the brand-new ebook, The I’ve Become My Parents Dictionary of Parenting Terms, every week to the person whose question we answer. If yours doesn’t get answered the first week you submit it, it might in future weeks so there’s no need to ask it twice.

Posted in: Advice (bad)