“Most descriptions of troubled marriages don’t seem to fit my situation,” Priya insists. “Colin and I have a wonderful relationship. Great kids, no financial stresses, careers we love, great friends. He is a phenom at work, fucking handsome, attentive lover, fit, and generous to everyone, including my parents. My life is good.” Yet Priya is having an affair. “Not someone I would ever date—ever, ever, ever. He drives a truck and has tattoos. It’s so clichéd, it pains me to say it out loud. It could ruin everything I’ve built.”
Priya is right. Few events in the life of a couple, except illness and death, carry such devastating force. For years, I have worked as a therapist with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. And my conversations about affairs have not been confined within the cloistered walls of my therapy practice; they’ve happened on airplanes, at dinner parties, at conferences, at the nail salon, with colleagues, with the cable guy, and of course, on social media. From Pittsburgh to Buenos Aires, Delhi to Paris, I have been conducting an open-ended survey about infidelity.
Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, yet this extremely common act remains poorly understood. Around the globe, the responses I get when I mention infidelity range from bitter condemnation to resigned acceptance to cautious compassion to outright enthusiasm. In Paris, the topic brings an immediate frisson to a dinner conversation, and I note how many people have been on both sides of the story. In Bulgaria, a group of women I met seem to view their husbands’ philandering as unfortunate but inevitable. In Mexico, women I spoke with proudly see the rise of female affairs as a form of social rebellion against a chauvinistic culture that has long made room for men to have “two homes,” la casa grande y la casa chica—one for the family, and one for the mistress. Infidelity may be ubiquitous, but the way we make meaning of it—how we define it, experience it, and talk about it—is ultimately linked to the particular time and place where the drama unfolds.
In contemporary discourse in the United States, affairs are primarily described in terms of the damage caused. Generally, there is much concern for the agony suffered by the betrayed. And agony it is—infidelity today isn’t just a violation of trust; it’s a shattering of the grand ambition of romantic love. It is a shock that makes us question our past, our future, and even our very identity. Indeed, the maelstrom of emotions unleashed in the wake of an affair can be so overwhelming that many psychologists turn to the field of trauma to explain the symptoms: obsessive rumination, hypervigilance, numbness and dissociation, inexplicable rages, uncontrollable panic.
Intimate betrayal hurts. It hurts badly. If Priya’s husband, Colin, were to stumble upon a text, a photo, or an email that revealed his wife’s dalliance, he would be devastated. And thanks to modern technology, his pain would likely be magnified by an archive of electronic evidence of her duplicity. (I am using pseudonyms to protect the privacy of my clients and their families.)
The damage that infidelity causes the aggrieved partner is one side of the story. For centuries, when affairs were tacitly condoned for men, this pain was overlooked, since it was mostly experienced by women. Contemporary culture, to its credit, is more compassionate toward the jilted. But if we are to shed new light on one of our oldest behaviors, we need to examine it from all sides. In the focus on trauma and recovery, too little attention is given to the meanings and motives of affairs, to what we can learn from them. Strange as it may seem, affairs have a lot to teach us about marriage—what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. They reveal our personal and cultural attitudes about love, lust, and commitment—attitudes that have changed dramatically over the past 100 years.
Affairs are not what they used to be because marriage is not what it used to be. For much of history, and in many parts of the world today, marriage was a pragmatic alliance that ensured economic stability and social cohesion. A child of immigrants, Priya surely has relatives whose marital options were limited at best. For her and Colin, however, as for most modern Western couples, marriage is no longer an economic enterprise but rather a companionate one—a free-choice engagement between two individuals, based not on duty and obligation but on love and affection.
Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.
Contained within the small circle of the wedding band are vastly contradictory ideals. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.
We also live in an age of entitlement; personal fulfillment, we believe, is our due. In the West, sex is a right linked to our individuality, our self-actualization, and our freedom. Thus, most of us now arrive at the altar after years of sexual nomadism. By the time we tie the knot, we’ve hooked up, dated, cohabited, and broken up. We used to get married and have sex for the first time. Now we get married and stop having sex with others. The conscious choice we make to rein in our sexual freedom is a testament to the seriousness of our commitment. By turning our back on other loves, we confirm the uniqueness of our “significant other”: “I have found The One. I can stop looking.” Our desire for others is supposed to miraculously evaporate, vanquished by the power of this singular attraction.
In session after session, I meet people who assure me, “I love my wife/my husband. We are best friends and happy together,” and then say: “But I am having an affair.”
At so many weddings, starry-eyed dreamers recite a list of vows, swearing to be everything to each other, from soul mate to lover to teacher to therapist. “I promise to be your greatest fan and your toughest adversary, your partner in crime, and your consolation in disappointment,” says the groom, with a tremble in his voice. Through her tears, the bride replies, “I promise faithfulness, respect, and self-improvement. I will not only celebrate your triumphs, I will love you all the more for your failures.” Smiling, she adds, “And I promise to never wear heels, so you won’t feel short.”
In such a blissful partnership, why would we ever stray? The evolution of committed relationships has brought us to a place where we believe infidelity shouldn’t happen, since all the reasons have been removed; the perfect balance of freedom and security has been achieved.
And yet, it does. Infidelity happens in bad marriages and in good marriages. It happens even in open relationships where extramarital sex is carefully negotiated beforehand. The freedom to leave or divorce has not made cheating obsolete. So why do people cheat? And why do happy people cheat?
Priya can’t explain it. She vaunts the merits of her conjugal life, and assures me that Colin is everything she always dreamed of in a husband. Clearly she subscribes to the conventional wisdom when it comes to affairs—that diversions happen only when something is missing in the marriage. If you have everything you need at home—as modern marriage promises—you should have no reason to go elsewhere. Hence, infidelity must be a symptom of a relationship gone awry.
The symptom theory has several problems. First, it reinforces the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect marriage that will inoculate us against wanderlust. But our new marital ideal has not curbed the number of men and women who wander. In fact, in a cruel twist of fate, it is precisely the expectation of domestic bliss that may set us up for infidelity. Once, we strayed because marriage was not supposed to deliver love and passion. Today, we stray because marriage fails to deliver the love and passion it promised. It’s not our desires that are different today, but the fact that we feel entitled—even obligated—to pursue them.
Second, infidelity does not always correlate neatly with marital dysfunction. Yes, in plenty of cases an affair compensates for a lack or sets up an exit. Insecure attachment, conflict avoidance, prolonged lack of sex, loneliness, or just years of rehashing the same old arguments—many adulterers are motivated by domestic discord. And then there are the repeat offenders, the narcissists who cheat with impunity simply because they can.
However, therapists are confronted on a daily basis with situations that defy these well-documented reasons. In session after session, I meet people like Priya—people who assure me, “I love my wife/my husband. We are best friends and happy together,” and then say: “But I am having an affair.”
Many of these individuals were faithful for years, sometimes decades. They seem to be well balanced, mature, caring, and deeply invested in their relationship. Yet one day, they crossed a line they never imagined they would cross. For a glimmer of what?
The more I’ve listened to these tales of improbable transgression—from one-night stands to passionate love affairs—the more I’ve sought alternate explanations. Once the initial crisis subsides, it’s important to make space for exploring the subjective experience of an affair alongside the pain it can inflict. To this end, I’ve encouraged renegade lovers to tell me their story. I want to understand what the affair means for them. Why did you do it? Why him? Why her? Why now? Was this the first time? Did you initiate? Did you try to resist? How did it feel? Were you looking for something? What did you find?
One of the most uncomfortable truths about an affair is that what for Partner A may be an agonizing betrayal may be transformative for Partner B. Extramarital adventures are painful and destabilizing, but they can also be liberating and empowering. Understanding both sides is crucial, whether a couple chooses to end the relationship or intends to stay together, to rebuild and revitalize.
In taking a dual perspective on such an inflammatory subject, I’m aware that I risk being labeled “pro-affair,” or accused of possessing a compromised moral compass. Let me assure you that I do not approve of deception or take betrayal lightly. I sit with the devastation in my office every day. But the intricacies of love and desire don’t yield to simple categorizations of good and bad, victim and perpetrator. Not condemning does not mean condoning, and there is a world of difference between understanding and justifying. My role as a therapist is to create a space where the diversity of experiences can be explored with compassion. People stray for a multitude of reasons, I have discovered, and every time I think I have heard them all, a new variation emerges.
Half-fascinated and half-horrified, Priya tells me about her steamy assignations with her lover: “We have nowhere to go, so we are always hiding in his truck or my car, in movie theaters, on park benches—his hands down my pants. I feel like a teenager with a boyfriend.” She can’t emphasize enough the high-school quality of it all. They have had sex only half a dozen times during the whole relationship; it’s more about feeling sexy than having sex. Unaware that she is giving voice to one of the most common experiences of the unfaithful, she tells me, “It makes me feel alive.”
As I listen to her, I start to suspect that her affair is about neither her husband nor their relationship. Her story echoes a theme that has come up repeatedly in my work: affairs as a form of self-discovery, a quest for a new (or lost) identity. For these seekers, infidelity is less likely to be a symptom of a problem, and more likely an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation.
“Expansive?!,” I can hear some people exclaiming. “Self-discovery?! Cheating is cheating, whatever fancy New Age labels you want to put on it. It’s cruel, it’s selfish, it’s dishonest, and it’s abusive.” Indeed, to the one who has been betrayed, it can be all these things. Intimate betrayal feels intensely personal—a direct attack in the most vulnerable place. And yet I often find myself asking jilted lovers to consider a question that seems ludicrous to them: What if the affair had nothing to do with you?
Sometimes when we seek the gaze of another, it’s not our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves. The Mexican essayist Octavio Paz described eroticism as a “thirst for otherness.” So often, the most intoxicating “other” that people discover in an affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.
To doggedly look for marital flaws in order to understand cases like Priya’s is an example of what’s known as the “streetlight effect”: A drunk man searches for his missing keys not where he dropped them but where the light is. Human beings have a tendency to look for the truth in the places where it is easiest to search rather than the places where it’s likely to be.
Perhaps this explains why so many people subscribe to the symptom theory. Blaming a failed marriage is easier than grappling with our existential conundrums, our longings, our ennui. The problem is that, unlike the drunk, whose search is futile, we can always find problems in a marriage. They just may not be the right keys to unlock the meaning of the affair.
A forensic examination of Priya’s marriage would surely yield something—her disempowered position as the partner who earns less; her tendency to repress anger and avoid conflict; the claustrophobia she sometimes feels; the gradual merging of two individuals into a “we,” as in, Did we like that restaurant? If she and I had taken that route, we may have had an interesting chat, but not the one we needed to have. The fact that a couple has “issues” doesn’t mean that those issues led to the affair.
“I think this is about you, not your marriage,” I suggest to Priya. “So tell me about yourself.”
“I’ve always been good. Good daughter, good wife, good mother. Dutiful. Straight A’s.” Coming from a traditional family of modest means, for Priya, What do I want? has never been separated from What do they want from me? She never partied, drank, or stayed out late, and she smoked her first joint at 22. After college, she married the right guy, and helped to support her family, as so many children of immigrant parents do. Now she is left with a nagging question: If I’m not perfect, will they still love me? A voice in her head wonders what life is like for those who are not so “good.” Are they more lonely? More free? Do they have more fun?
Priya’s affair is neither a symptom nor a pathology; it’s a crisis of identity, an internal rearrangement of her personality. In our sessions, we talk about duty and desire, about age and youth. Her daughters are becoming teenagers and enjoying a freedom she never knew. Priya is at once supportive and envious. As she nears the mid-century mark, she is having her own belated adolescent rebellion.
These explanations may seem superficial—petty First World problems, or rationalizations for immature, selfish, hurtful behavior. Priya has said as much herself. We both agree that her life is enviable. And yet, she is risking it all. That’s enough to convince me not to make light of her behavior. If I can help her make sense of her actions, maybe we can figure out how she can end the affair for good—since that’s the outcome she says she wants. It’s clear this is not a love story that was meant to become a life story (which some affairs truly are). This started as an affair and will end as such—hopefully without destroying Priya’s marriage in the process.
Secluded from the responsibilities of everyday life, the parallel universe of the affair is often idealized, infused with the promise of transcendence. For some people, like Priya, it is a world of possibility—an alternate reality in which they can reimagine and reinvent themselves. Then again, it is experienced as limitless precisely because it is contained within the limits of its clandestine structure. It is a poetic interlude in a prosaic life.
Forbidden-love stories are utopian by nature, especially in contrast with the mundane constraints of marriage and family. A prime characteristic of this liminal universe—and the key to its irresistible power—is that it is unattainable. Affairs are by definition precarious, elusive, and ambiguous. The indeterminacy, the uncertainty, the not knowing when we’ll see each other again—feelings we would never tolerate in our primary relationship—become kindling for anticipation in a hidden romance. Because we cannot have our lover, we keep wanting. It is this just-out-of-reach quality that lends affairs their erotic mystique and keeps the flame of desire burning. Reinforcing this segregation of the affair from reality is the fact that many, like Priya, choose lovers who either could not or would not become a life partner. By falling for someone from a very different class, culture, or generation, we play with possibilities that we would not entertain as actualities.
Few of these types of affairs withstand discovery. One would think that a relationship for which so much was risked would survive the transition into daylight. Under the spell of passion, lovers speak longingly of all the things they will be able to do when they are finally together. Yet when the prohibition is lifted, when the divorce comes through, when the sublime mixes with the ordinary and the affair enters the real world, what then? Some settle into happy legitimacy, but many more do not. In my experience, most affairs end, even if the marriage ends as well. However authentic the feelings of love, the dalliance was only ever meant to be a beautiful fiction.
The affair lives in the shadow of the marriage, but the marriage also lives in the center of the affair. Without its delicious illegitimacy, can the relationship with the lover remain enticing? If Priya and her tattooed beau had their own bedroom, would they be as giddy as they are in the back of his truck?
The quest for the unexplored self is a powerful theme of the adulterous narrative, with many variations. Priya’s parallel universe has transported her to the teenager she never was. Others find themselves drawn by the memory of the person they once were. And then there are those whose reveries take them back to the missed opportunity, the one that got away, and the person they could have been. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote that in modern life,
there is always a suspicion … that one is living a lie or a mistake; that something crucially important has been overlooked, missed, neglected, left untried and unexplored; that a vital obligation to one’s own authentic self has not been met, or that some chances of unknown happiness completely different from any happiness experienced before have not been taken up in time and are bound to be lost forever.
Bauman speaks to our nostalgia for unlived lives, unexplored identities, and roads not taken. As children, we have the opportunity to play at other roles; as adults, we often find ourselves confined by the ones we’ve been assigned or the ones we have chosen. When we select a partner, we commit to a story. Yet we remain forever curious: What other stories could we have been part of? Affairs offer us a view of those other lives, a peek at the stranger within. Adultery is the revenge of the deserted possibilities.
Dwayne had always cherished memories of his college sweetheart, Keisha. She was the best sex he’d ever had, and she still featured prominently in his fantasy life. They’d both known they were too young to commit, and parted reluctantly. Over the years, he had often asked himself what would have happened had their timing been different.
Enter Facebook. The digital universe offers unprecedented opportunities to reconnect with people who exited our lives long ago. Never before have we had so much access to our exes, and so much fodder for our curiosity. “Whatever happened to so-and-so?” “I wonder if she ever got married?” “Is it true he’s having difficulties in his relationship?” “Is she still as cute as I remember?” The answers are a click away. One day, Dwayne searched for Keisha’s profile. Lo and behold, they were both in the same city. She, still hot, was divorced. He, on the other hand, was happily married, but his curiosity got the better of him and “Add Friend” soon turned into a secret girlfriend.
It seems to me that in the past decade, affairs with exes have proliferated, thanks to social media. These retrospective encounters occur somewhere between the known and the unknown—bringing together the familiarity of someone you once knew with the freshness created by the passage of time. The flicker with an old flame offers a unique combination of built-in trust, risk taking, and vulnerability. In addition, it is a magnet for our lingering nostalgia. The person I once was, but lost, is the person you once knew.
Priya is mystified and mortified by how she is putting her marriage on the line. The constraints she is defying are also the commitments she cherishes. But that’s precisely where the power of transgression lies: in risking the very things that are most dear to us. No conversation about relationships can avoid the thorny topic of rules and our all-too-human desire to break them. Our relationship to the forbidden sheds a light on the darker and less straightforward aspects of our humanity. Bucking the rules is an assertion of freedom over convention, and of self over society. Acutely aware of the law of gravity, we dream of flying.
Priya often feels like she’s a walking contradiction—alternately dismayed by her reckless behavior and enchanted by her daredevil attitude; tormented by fear of discovery and unable (or unwilling) to put a stop to the affair. She is bewitched by this thought: What if just this once, I act as if the rules don’t apply to me?
Our conversations help Priya bring clarity to her confusing picture. She is relieved that we don’t have to pick apart her relationship with Colin. But having to assume full responsibility leaves her heavy with guilt: “The last thing I’ve ever wanted to do is hurt him. If he knew, he would be crushed. And knowing that it had nothing to do with him wouldn’t make a difference. He would never believe it.”
She may be right. Perhaps knowing what motivated his wife’s duplicity would do nothing to alleviate Colin’s pain. Or perhaps it would. Even after decades of this work, I still cannot predict what people will do when they discover a partner’s infidelity. Some relationships collapse upon the discovery of a fleeting hookup. Others exhibit a surprisingly robust capacity to bounce back even after extensive treachery.
I often say to my patients that if they could bring into their marriage one-tenth of the boldness and the playfulness that they bring to their affair, their home life would feel quite different.
Priya has tried to end her affair several times. She deletes her lover’s phone number, drives a different route home from dropping the kids off at school, tells herself how wrong this entire thing is. But the self-imposed cutoffs become new and electrifying rules to break. Three days later, the fake name is back in her phone. Yet her torment is mounting in proportion to the risks she is taking. She’s beginning to feel the corroding effects of the secret, and getting sloppier by the day. Danger follows her to every movie theater and secluded parking lot.
It is not my place to tell Priya what she should do. Besides, she has already made it clear that for her, the right thing is to end the affair. She’s also telling me, however, that she doesn’t really want to. What I can see, and what she has not yet grasped, is that the thing she is really afraid to lose is not her lover—it’s the part of herself that he awakened. This distinction between the person and the experience is crucial. She needs to know that if she lets Truck Man go, she isn’t doomed to lose herself as well.
“You think you had a relationship with Truck Man,” I tell her. “Actually, you had an intimate encounter with yourself, mediated by him. I don’t expect you to believe me right now, but you can terminate your relationship and keep some of what it gave you. You reconnected with an energy, a youthfulness. I know that it feels as if, in leaving him, you are severing a lifeline to all of that, but I want you to know that over time you will find that the otherness you crave also lives inside you.”
I often say to my patients that if they could bring into their marriage even one-tenth of the boldness, the playfulness, and the verve that they bring to their affair, their home life would feel quite different. Our creative imagination seems to be richer when it comes to our transgressions than to our commitments. Yet while I say this, I also think back to a poignant scene in the movie A Walk on the Moon. Diane Lane’s character has been having an affair with a free-spirited blouse salesman. Her teenage daughter asks, “You love [him] more than all of us?” “No,” the mother replies, but “sometimes it’s easier to be different with a different person.”
If Priya succeeds in ending the affair, and doing so with finality, a new dilemma will arise: Should she tell her husband, or should she keep her secret to herself? Could her marriage survive the pain of revelation? Could it continue with a lie undisclosed? I have no tidy answer to offer. I don’t condone deception, but I’ve also seen too many carelessly divulged secrets leave unfading scars. In many instances, however, I have helped couples work toward revelation, hopeful that it will open up new channels of communication for them.
Catastrophe has a way of propelling us into the essence of things. In the wake of devastating betrayals, so many couples tell me that they are having some of the deepest, most honest conversations of their entire relationship. Their history is laid bare—unfulfilled expectations, unspoken resentments, and unmet longings. Love is messy; infidelity, more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.
The revelation of an affair forces couples to grapple with unsettling questions: What does fidelity mean to us and why is it important? Is it possible to love more than one person at once? Can we learn to trust each other again? How do we negotiate the elusive balance between our emotional needs and our erotic desires? Does passion have a finite shelf life? And are there fulfillments that a marriage, even a happy one, can never provide?
For me, these conversations should be part and parcel of any adult, intimate relationship from the beginning. It’s far better to address these issues before a storm hits. Talking about what draws us outside our fences, in an atmosphere of trust, can actually foster intimacy and commitment. But for many couples, unfortunately, the crisis of an affair is the first time they talk about any of this. Priya and Colin will have to negotiate these questions while also dealing with the ravages of betrayal, dishonesty, and broken trust.
Every affair will redefine a marriage, and every marriage will determine what the legacy of the affair will be. Although infidelity has become one of the prime motives for divorce in the West, I’ve seen many couples stay together after the revelation of an affair. I believe the odds are in favor of Priya and Colin’s marriage surviving, but the quality of their future connection will depend on how they metabolize her transgression. Will they emerge stronger as a result? Or will they bury the affair under a mountain of shame and mistrust? Can Priya step out of her self-absorption and face the pain she caused? Can Colin find solace in knowing that the affair was not meant to be a rejection of him? And will he get to meet the carefree, youthful woman Priya became in her parallel life?
These days, many of us are going to have two or three significant long-term relationships or marriages. Often when a couple comes to me in the wake of an affair, it is clear to me that their first marriage is over. So I ask them: Would you like to create a second one together?
“We have to check the browser history,” I said to my husband, as soon as our dinner guests left. He grimaced. I knew what he was thinking: I cannot believe we have to do this so soon.
“You deal with the kids, and I’ll handle the computer,” he said.
I was relieved that my duties involved the familiar, if tedious, task of shepherding the kids through their bedtime ritual, rather than the novel undertaking of reviewing what they’d searched on the computer during a playdate with a family we’d recently met.
Up to this point, my 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter had been interested only in playing games and watching kids’ shows on the ancient tablet we bought five years ago. I routinely left my computer running on my desk, never dreaming they would use it, much less for nefarious purposes.
Suddenly we were thrust into the reality that our kids are savvy enough to find things on the computer that we are not ready for them to see.
We knew something was up when my son called down from my office, “Mommy, how do you spell ‘naked?’ ” I immediately went to investigate. As I took the stairs two at a time, I had the naive thought that the boys were writing notes to the girls about a clubhouse, or making a map to a secret Pokémon treasure.
But as soon as I saw my daughter sitting at my desk and the other kids huddled around her, I knew they weren’t playing post office.
I shooed them away from the computer. “We don’t do screen time during a playdate,” I growled at my kids. “We certainly don’t search the word ‘naked.’ ” I didn’t even know my kids knew how to use a search engine.
They were subdued as they got ready for bed, no doubt worried about the looming punishment. I stood in the bathroom doorway and toggled between drafting my speech about Internet safety and berating myself for not having parental controls on the computer. How many articles had I read about getting ahead of this? Did I think my kids would never venture beyond “family programming” and Angry Birds?
And I held out hope that my husband’s forensics would reveal that the kids’ searches yielded nothing more objectionable than pictures of epic Lego towers or birthday cakes shaped like purses.
After a few minutes, my husband announced, “There’s good news and bad news.” The good news was that they spent most of their time looking at pictures of candy bars.
“The bad news is that they also searched the word ‘butt.’ ” He swiveled the screen so I could see the search results. I fought the urge to squeeze my eyes shut and preserve the illusion of my children’s everlasting innocence. Instead, I saw dozens of images of a well-known celebrity’s amply chronicled backside.
It could have been much worse. None of the pictures were fully naked or involved risqué acts. But regardless of what my kids turned up, we were facing a big parenting moment, and I wanted to get it right. My anxiety spiked when I realized I had 60 seconds to prepare for our first conversation about the dangers of the Internet. My goal was to set clear boundaries without stigmatizing sex or stoking a curiosity that would only fuel future secret searches.
If given more lead time, I would have talked to other parents, my therapist and the school counselor. Maybe I would have read the latest research about how to talk to school-age kids about Internet safety. But this moment, like so many others, was thrust upon us before we had the chance to nail down our talking points.
We gathered the kids for a family meeting. “It’s okay to be curious about bodies and wonder what they look like. And you’re right that the Internet is a place to find those kinds of pictures. But our family rule is that you can’t do Internet searches without an adult.”
In their chastened eyes, I could see the question they were too afraid to ask: Why?
They deserved an answer, and we told them the truth.
“The Internet has pictures that are upsetting, scary and confusing for young kids. And worse, many of the pictures are harmful to girls.”
Both kids’ eyes grew wide. I turned to my daughter and told her that a search on the Internet might bring up images of only one type of body. “If your body doesn’t look like the bodies you see — if it’s smaller or bigger or a different shape — then you may start to feel shame about how your body looks.” While this was our first conversation about Internet safety, we’ve had many conversations about body image. She knows how seriously I take this issue.
My husband assured them that when they are older, they can make their own decisions about what kind of pictures to view. “But for now, we believe you are too young to look at pictures of naked people on the computer, and we are going to fix the computer so you won’t be able to see them.”
The following morning, I dove into the research, which suggested that in addition to enabling restrictions on all our devices, parents should also block YouTube. While most of the articles I found concerned teens and technology, Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive in Their Digital World,” confirms that parents “can talk about potential issues as early as third grade, because even the youngest children can pretty easily find things like pornography online.”
My impulse was to keep this incident a secret because of the shame I felt, both about the kids’ search and my lapse that enabled it. But as I became willing to talk to other parents of school-age kids, I learned I am not alone. There were plenty of parents who had similar stories with whom I could commiserate, and others were grateful for the warning. My secrecy would have kept me isolated and wouldn’t have helped anyone.
Yes, I’m sad we’ve crossed into the unfamiliar world of talking to kids about Internet pornography, but this new land is filled with people just like us, and the more conversations we have about keeping our kids’ relationship to technology healthy, the better off we all are.
Good parents want their kids to stay out of trouble, do well in school and go on to do awesome things as adults.
And while there isn’t a set recipe for raising successful children, psychology research has pointed to a handful of factors that predict success.
Unsurprisingly, much of it comes down to the parents. Here’s what parents of successful kids have in common:
1. They make their kids do chores.“If kids aren’t doing the dishes, it means someone else is doing that for them,” Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult” said during a TED Talks Live event.
“And so they’re absolved of not only the work, but of learning that work has to be done and that each one of us must contribute for the betterment of the whole,” she said.
Lythcott-Haims believes kids raised on chores go on to become employees who collaborate well with their coworkers, are more empathetic because they know firsthand what struggling looks like and are able to take on tasks independently.
She bases this on the “Harvard Grant Study,” the longest longitudinal study ever conducted.
“By making them do chores — taking out the garbage, doing their own laundry — they realize I have to do the work of life in order to be part of life,” she tells Tech Insider.
The 20-year study showed that socially competent children who could cooperate with their peers without prompting, be helpful to others, understand their feelings and resolve problems on their own were far more likely to earn a college degree and have a full-time job by age 25 than those with limited social skills.
Those with limited social skills also had a higher chance of getting arrested, binge drinking, and applying for public housing.
4. They have healthy relationships with each other.Children in high-conflict families, whether intact or divorced, tend to fare worse than children of parents that get along, according to a University of Illinois study review.
Robert Hughes Jr., professor and head of the Department of Human and Community Development at the University of Illinois and the study review author, also notes that some studies have found children in nonconflictual single-parent families fare better than children in conflictual two-parent families.
The conflict between parents prior to divorce also affects children negatively, while post-divorce conflict has a strong influence on children’s adjustment, Hughes says.
One study found that, after divorce, when a father without custody has frequent contact with his kids and there is minimal conflict, children fare better. But when there is conflict, frequent visits from the father are related to poorer adjustment of children.
Yet another study found that 20-somethings who experienced divorce of their parents as children still report pain and distress over their parent’s divorce ten years later. Young people who reported high conflict between their parents were far more likely to have feelings of loss and regret.
5. They’ve attained higher educational levels.A 2014 study lead by University of Michigan psychologist Sandra Tang found that mothers who finished high school or college were more likely to raise kids that did the same.
Pulling from a group of over 14,000 children who entered kindergarten from 1998 to 2007, the study found that children born to teen moms (18 years old or younger) were less likely to finish high school or go to college than their counterparts.
Aspiration is partially responsible. In a 2009 longitudinal study of 856 people in semirural New York, Bowling Green State University psychologist Eric Dubow found “parents’ educational level when the child was 8 years old significantly predicted educational and occupational success for the child 40 years later.”
6. They teach their kids math early on.A 2007 meta-analysis of 35,000 preschoolers across the US, Canada, and England found that developing math skills early can turn into a huge advantage.
“The paramount importance of early math skills — of beginning school with a knowledge of numbers, number order, and other rudimentary math concepts — is one of the puzzles coming out of the study,” coauthor and Northwestern University researcher Greg Duncan said in a press release. “Mastery of early math skills predicts not only future math achievement, it also predicts future reading achievement.”
7. They develop a relationship with their kids.A 2014 study of 243 people born into poverty found that children who received “sensitive caregiving” in their first three years not only did better in academic tests in childhood but also had healthier relationships and greater academic attainment in their 30s.
As reported on PsyBlog, parents who are sensitive caregivers “respond to their child’s signals promptly and appropriately” and “provide a secure base” for children to explore the world.
8. They’re less stressed.According to recent research cited by Brigid Schulte at The Washington Post, the number of hours that moms spend with kids between ages 3 and 11 does little to predict the child’s behavior, well-being, or achievement. What’s more, the “intensive mothering” or “helicopter parenting” approach can backfire.”Mothers’ stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, that may actually be affecting their kids poorly,” study coauthor and Bowling Green State University sociologist Kei Nomaguchi told The Post.
Emotional contagion — or the psychological phenomenon where people “catch” feelings from one another like they would a cold — helps explain why. Research shows that if your friend is happy, that brightness will infect you; if she’s sad, that gloominess will transfer as well. So if a parent is exhausted or frustrated, that emotional state could transfer to the kids.
9. They value effort over avoiding failure.Where kids think success comes from also predicts their attainment.
Over decades, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has discovered that children (and adults) think about success in one of two ways. Over at the always-fantastic Brain Pickings, Maria Popova says they go a little something like this:
A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens that we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.
A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of un-intelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.
At the core is a distinction in the way you assume your will affects your ability, and it has a powerful effect on kids. If kids are told that they aced a test because of their innate intelligence, that creates a “fixed” mindset. If they succeeded because of effort, that teaches a “growth” mindset.
10. The moms work.According to research out of Harvard Business School, there are significant benefits for children growing up with mothers who work outside the home. The study found daughters of working mothers went to school longer were more likely to have a job in a supervisory role and earned more money — 23% more compared to peers raised by stay-at-home mothers.
The sons of working mothers also tended to pitch in more on household chores and childcare, the study found — they spent seven and a half more hours a week on childcare and 25 more minutes on housework.
“Role modeling is a way of signaling what’s appropriate in terms of how you behave, what you do, the activities you engage in, and what you believe,” the study’s lead author, Harvard Business School professor Kathleen L. McGinn, told Business Insider.
“There are very few things, that we know of, that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother,” she told Working Knowledge.