13.7: Cosmos And Culture
8:23 am
Thu August 15, 2013

College-Bound Kids And The Emotions of Primate Parents

Now that it's mid-August, thousands of families across the country are preparing for an emotional milestone: sending a child off to college for the first time.

So, this week's post is about the emotions parents of college-bound children feel, and what other primate parents may feel — or not — regarding separation from their children.

Complicated mammals that we are, moms, dads and other family members or caretakers react to this offspring dispersal (that's what we animal-behavior types call it) in a whole variety of ways. And college-going is only one example: it may be a child joining the military or moving to another state for a job.

Whatever the source of the separation, there is no "should feel" or "how to feel" about this kind of change in the family dynamic. But judging from my own experience two years ago, it's wrenching on the heart for some of us. It's a tightrope walk of emotions, balanced between feelings of loss and others of proud excitement as a young one ventures into new, more independent world.

I'm no helicopter parent, nor one who ever feared an "empty nest" syndrome; my own life is full. But two Augusts ago? I found it harder than I'd ever expected when our daughter left for college. And in that, I'm not alone.

Now, as Sarah prepares to leave next week for her junior year at James Madison University, I know the ropes, and the end-of-summer transition is easier. What I've learned is that the old, strong connections continue, just reformatted in fresh ways; my husband and I share our child's campus successes (and occasional setbacks); thrive on the new books, ideas, and passions she brings home on holidays and breaks; and enjoy travel getaways with her.

Because I am an anthropologist who studies the expression of emotion in non-human animals, I can't help but think about my experiences in an evolutionary context. We know that other animals, including close kin such as chimpanzees, gorillas and monkeys, may feel emotions ranging from joy to sorrow. Like other animals, too, they certainly may grieve when a family member or close friend dies.

What about when a young family member — hale and hearty — leaves home?

As a rule, in wild mammalian populations, one sex, sometimes both, transfers from the natal (birth) group at puberty to live and mate in a new group. The outcome of this pattern of dispersal is that groups are "open" to the transfer-in of new individuals and, thus, of new genes.

In chimpanzees, it's the daughters who leave. In many monkeys, like baboons and macaques, it's the sons. In gorillas, it is often both. There's even research to suggest, based on levels of strontium found in teeth, an indicator of local resources, that females in some early species of hominin primates — specifically Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus — left their families while males stayed home.

That primate kids leave home, then, is an evolutionarily favored pattern. Do the emigrating monkey and ape adolescents miss their families? Do they carry with them memories of home as they explore new territories and seek entrée into new groups? Do the moms (and sometimes other relatives) left behind visibly express sadness? It is such a clean break in non-human primates! No long-distance visiting back and forth, or communication, an evolutionary divergence noted 22 years ago in a Current Anthropology paper by a team of anthropologists led by Lars Rodseth.

Are field scientists looking for parental emotion, perhaps through a combination of observation and hormonal analysis, as Anne Engh and colleagues did regarding bereavement in wild baboons? Not to my knowledge — and if I'm missing something, I hope someone will let me know.

Some of the questions I've asked here, about what emigrating adolescents may miss or remember, for instance, probably aren't answerable. But, just as I know we can suss out grief in other animals by good scientific detective work, I believe we may discover something about primate emotions by contrasting apes' and monkeys' evident actions and affects before and after the kids emigrate.

Maybe there would be nothing to see. Perhaps this is just one of those areas where human emotions part ways completely with those of our closest kin. Every scientist must remain open to the possibility that the answer to her question — in this case whether our close kin feel it when their kids depart — is "No, no way!"

But wouldn't it be intriguing to find out?


Barbara's most recent book is How Animals Grieve. You can up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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