Notification and the Life Course

We’ve become so aware of our embeddedness in networks that it’s easy to forget that you have to learn how to be a node. Competent execution of one’s responsibilities as a part of social information networks is a learned skill. A lot of early childhood socialization is informational; kids need to learn what needs to be reported to whom. What kinds of things you tell everybody and what kinds of things you say only at home? Which things need to be reported to adults immediately and which not? They learn that it’s not nice to tattle, never to cry wolf, always to tell the truth, etc. And such informational socialization is a life-long process.

Perhaps the network in which we all spend the greatest share of our social time is the family. It turns out that there’s a neat evolution of notification expectations and practices across the life course. First we teach kids to notify us if they feel sick, see something dangerous, get approached by strangers, etc. Then they have to learn that some things are not disclosed to people outside the family, that it’s not nice to tattle, and that they should never cry wolf. As our roles in the family change, it is a continuing challenge to “get notification right.”

For several pre-adolescent years kids are pretty much informational open books. Parents are either in on or let in on much if not almost everything that happens in their lives.

Then, as the teenage years approach, parents have to ask and prod and they start receiving “none of your business” type responses. As kids get the use of the car and gain other access to spatial independence, parents become more and more dependent on what the child elects to notify them about. They have to invest more and more in notificational oversight: “call me when you get there,” “tell me who you are with,” “let us know when you are leaving.” This is notificational socialization round three, training the kid in the notificational expectations that attach to their new status as semi-autonomous semi-adult. Rules and norms are called on to replace more direct information channels previously supplied by first-hand surveillance.

A big source of emotional conflict around notification at this stage is the growing contradiction of informational asymmetry experienced by the teenager. They know the parent can ask “where, when, with who, how long,” and they know well that they have no hope of extracting similar information from the parent.

But then the kids go off to college and their entire life is suddenly out of view. We switch to phone calls and emails and spend out time exhorting them to call or write more often and to have more to say when they do.

And around this time, we see emerging an interesting conflict between parents as one forgets to mention right away, news received in a phone call or email. You know the response when in the company of friends one parent says “Our oldest just the other day said she was having an interesting time in her math class” and the other parent thinks “Hmmmm, that’s news to me….” The classic notificational rebuke will follow: you should have told me that sooner!

Those same parents have parents of their own, of course, and will soon experience the notificational conflicts that go on between older adults and adult children. They get a phone call from mom describing a medical or financial emergency that occured a week or two before: “Ma! I can’t believe you are just telling me this now!” It’s quite possibly a vain attempt at late life socialization, but the adult children will work this angle just the same. The comeback is standard: “We didn’t want to worry you.”

The adult child is robbed of the ultimate informational comfort: no news is good news. They have to worry all the time and they say this makes them feel like they are dealing with a child. And it does, of course. But it’s different too. Parents often withhold information from kids because they are too young to be told or because they don’t need to worry about something. As older adults with adult children, there are vestiges of these sentiments – our adult problems are ours – and to yield to their adult children’s “you should tell me right away” is to give up some of the relational adultness they have earned. And for the adult children to demand it is, in a way, an attempt, innocent as it may be, at replacing the adult-adult relationship by adopting the adult role and tilting their informational relationship with their adult parents toward notificational asymmetry.