The Hard Facts: Blame Mom

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“[When it came to popularity,] genetic factors were very important, accounting for about 46 percent of the variation in how popular the kids were. On average, a person with, say, five friends has a different genetic makeup than a person with one friend.” (Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler)

The nature vs. nurture debate is alive and well. In Christakis and Fowler’s book, which got a lot of attention last year for it’s claim that “your friends’ friends’ friends can make you fat—or thin,” they discuss how your genetic makeup might account for your number of friendships, or the importance you place on friendship.

My brother and I both have a good amount of friends. More than five close ones each, I’d say. According to the authors, this is, at least in part, an inherited trait. Going even further, the authors say “genes affect not just how many friends you have but also whether you are located in the center or the periphery of the network.”

Of course this makes me think about my parents. Growing up, my memory is of them having some close couple friends. But what I remember more than close friends is close family—my mother used to talk to her sister and mother every day. When I think about answering our landline as a kid, the one connected to the wall with a spiral cord, my recall tells me that approximately 90% of the time it was my aunt or Grandma, calling for Mom. Who knows if that’s true, but it’s how it plays in my mind.

The authors also say that the “diversity of feelings about being connected and sharing with others” is inherited. And while I don’t think my parents were big-time BFF people, they definitely felt strongly about being connected. They were always uber-supportive of my desire for time with friends, driving me the 45 minutes into NYC on weekends and picking me up the next day, so that I could have sleepovers with my besties. (Most of my classmates lived in Manhattan, while I was a suburbanite).

A reader wrote to me recently, pondering this influence in her own life. She wrote:  “When I was 12 my grandmother passed away. My mother was so affected by the loss that she became depressed. During this period, our house was unclean and my mom was reluctant to let me have friends over… As a young teen not able to reciprocate slumber parties and other ‘rituals,’ I felt left out. Even now, I feel like making friends is harder for me due to this gap in development. And, what if your parent doesn’t really value friendships? My very reserved father has nearly zero good friends (he prefers the company of immediate family). While he is okay with that, how do family members desiring external friendships build them under this influence?”

When it comes to friendships—making them and valuing them—I don’t think it’s black and white. For this reader, meeting new people may not come as naturally as it does to some. She (like me) might have to step outside her comfort zone a bit more than others. It might feel like scary work at first. But that doesn’t mean she can’t, or won’t, beat the biology.

Do you see your parents’ attitudes toward social connectedness—and their tendency toward popularity—in your own?

{Today’s “The Month of Friendship” post is from Irene at The Friendship Blog, who writes about mending broken friendships.  Also, MWF Seeking BFF readers get a 20% discount at this month with the code: MWFBFF.}


Filed under The Hard Facts

15 responses to “The Hard Facts: Blame Mom

  1. That’s really interesting. My parents had friends, but not a lot. My dad really didn’t enjoy social activities, but my mother did.

    I’m not sure about the genetic influence. I kind of hope that it’s not, because if so, my kids are screwed. I usually only have one or two friends at a time, although I am close to my parents.

    I sort of always saw it as a personality thing. My first-born, for instance, is highly social. In her view, the more the merrier. My second child is a little more selective in her playmates and prefers to keep a closer, smaller circle. Large groups of kids tend to overwhelm her.

    Interesting food for thought, Rachel.

  2. Ana

    Hmmm. Very interesting. I think my mom only had a couple of true friends in town, though we had lots of really really good family friends around the world, that we would visit as we would family. I don’t think my dad had any real BFF friends—but that seemed like the case for most dads I knew, so I just figured it was a “dad” thing.
    My husband and I are both shy & have a little trouble reaching out to people. We each have our collection of good friends, but wouldn’t say we were “social” or “popular” by any means—I’ll have to wait a few years to see if my son follows in our footsteps!

  3. Such an interesting post this morning on the scientific nature of our “friending.” I would have to say that my parents are better at maintaining and creating friendships than two out of their four daughters. I find their social outreach inspiring. I think a lot of it has to do with where they are in life, but I am positively challenged by their actions. 🙂

  4. megan

    Oh my goodness yes. I’m terribly conflicted because my dad is incredibly extroverted, easily making friends and keeping them. I got the desire and understanding of the importance of friendships from him. My mom is painfully introverted – I can’t name one of her friends – and I got my social anxiety and inability to make friends from her. This, to mean isn’t “genetic” so much as it is learned behavior, though…

  5. Now that you mention it, I do think I am a blend of my parents’ social tendencies. My dad was the extrovert, my mother the introvert. Their friends were couples–but all generated through Dad’s connections.

    I am a blend of Dad’s outgoingness and Mom’s shyness in that I tend to actively nurture my friendships but am much happier with a couple of close confidants than a hoard of friends. Give me a dinner party for six over a party for 20+ any day.

  6. My parents had a lot of good friends while I was growing up, but my mom was sort of the one who was connected to them and my father was the weird disconnected one off in another room by himself when everyone was hanging out.

    Perhaps that is why I have a lot of “close-ish” friends but still feel disconnected enough from them to feel very alone despite being a social butterfly, of sorts. This weird conflict inside has always left me wishing for closer friends, while having perfectly nice people around who I see all the time but just don’t quite connect with.

    Whoa. Perhaps I just had a deep realization about myself. Thanks Rachel!

  7. Very interesting… I never really stopped to think about this, but my parents definitely valued friendships and maintaining a network of people. They were friends w/ other couples but they also had friends of the same sex that they did things w/ socially. I don’t think that either of my parents has a ‘best friend’ but I think that was probably influenced by the fact that my dad entered the military when they first were married, so they relocated to Virigina for the first 4 years of their marriage… So they sort of relied on each other and other military friends. My mom does have a group of nursing classmates that she gets together w/ every year or so and she said the bonds have not changed, even though they don’t see each other very often. I feel the same way about many of my close friends that don’t live in close proximity. So maybe I take after my mom in that way?

    I am rambling, though… As usual, interesting post!

  8. Fanfan

    This kind of studies usually amuse me in various different ways. First of all, I would like to know how they define “being popular”. Does it depend on how many friends you have or how many close friends you have? Did the researchers use questionaires to assess the popularity of the sample or other methods? If self-report was used, then the number of friendships or close friendships are simply based on the person’s subjective views on people around him/her. It was even harder to assess the true quality of those relationships. I wouldn’t take this kind of studies too seriously. And how they get the number 46% may just be another statistic myth.

  9. Fanfan

    It was a very interesting entry overall, Rachel! I would like to see how you deal with flaky friends! I am troubled by these kind of people a lot in California.

  10. Thinking...

    Hmm…come to think of it my family has always been “family” centered. My mom and dad still hear from their parents/siblings/cousins at least once a week. Outside the family though, it’s a totally different story. Sometimes my mom was so involved with my life that she felt left out when Iwould leave to hang out with friends saying in a “joking” way “I guess everyone is just going to leave me here…all alone…but that’s alright, you go have fun.” As I got older the house was always “too dirty for company” (unless we sweeped and dusted the place within an inch of it’s life), so I came to believe that creating friendships wasn’t as important as family. Sorry this is getting long so I’ll just say thanks Rachel, you’ve really made me think! And I’m seeing some patterns I’d like to change for the next generation to come! 🙂 You continue to inspire me!

  11. wb

    I feel at a bit of a loss here because my mom died when I was 3 and my dad had friends, but of the bar type. I’ve always had one or two close friends but now that I’m in my 30s I feel extremely lonely. This could also be that my dad died in my 20’s and I’m an only child. I try to stay positive but I often feel disappointed in making new friends because it can be emotionally draining to keep reaching out and having it not work out the way I hope it would.

  12. My Mom has always been the social butterfly. She has many friends, while my Dad preferred to retreat into his space at home. He was social, but limited in his friendships.

    Both their families were overseas and so in a certain sense their new friends were their only family and these friendships were important because they were immigrants who were trying to feel as home as quickly as they could.

  13. Pingback: You’re Damned If You Do… « MWF Seeking BFF

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  15. Layla

    I only started really thinking about friends in junior high/end of elementary school. I was stuck with no way to figure out how to become closer with my friends – I didnt’ want to invite myself over, but my dad sort of discouraged having people over.

    I wanted to invite people over but there was so much inertia – I didn’t want them to have to get a ride all the way out to our house. My dad (works from home and finds it stressful to have “kids” over since that one time I kept saying we were bored and asking him what games to play) seems to be reluctant to let me invite people over.

    Anyway… when I moved away for university I managed to make friends and catch up on many social skills I missed out on 🙂

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