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Innocent parental activities become more and more embarrassing to their children as they get older.
Corbis -
Innocent parental activities become more and more embarrassing to their children as they get older.

The cringe factor

Parenting Why do children of a certain age find their parents' actions so mortifying?

A sad day has arrived. Even my nine-year-old now finds me embarrassing. This depressing realisation hit me when he begged me not to come in to his school office to sort out a problem about a club. "I'll do it. Just give me the money," he pleaded. I doubt if embezzlement was on his mind, just a desperate urge to prevent either his friends or the staff meeting someone who has long been officially dubbed The Most Embarrassing Woman in the World.

If I went around in thigh boots with pink hair and sang at the top of my voice at the school gates, I would understand. When I was a child I used to feel sorry for a friend whose mother was huge, flamboyant and provided her with a packed lunch containing olives and avocado in an era when everyone else had jam on white bread. But, honestly, I am pretty much indistinguishable from all the other mums who drop their children off, arrange play dates, put pizzas in the oven and make polite conversation with their children's friends.

One by one even those innocent maternal activities have been banned by my older children. "Please don't speak to my friends," my 14-year-old recently asked, almost nicely. "It's so embarrassing." When I pick them up from someone else's home, I am invariably given the instructions: "Text me when you are outside. Don't ring the bell." A look of horror crosses their faces if I ever actually knock on the door: I might smile at their friend's parent, I might even swap notes.

If my teenagers had their way, all the outside world would ever see of me would be a ghostly hand opening a purse to give them something to fritter away with their friends, or a disembodied pair of chauffeur's gloves behind the wheel of a car. Fortunately, I don't take this personally. Whenever I happen to be in earshot, I often hear them competing with their friends as to whose parents are the most cringe-inducing. The current champion is the mother who calls her teenage sons "baby" in public. Now that is embarrassing, but many lesser talents also manage to make their children's faces turn puce and their insides liquefy simply because the teenage brain is built that way.

Sarah Jayne Blakemore, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, has just published research that will make many parents feel reassured that their children are not uniquely thin-skinned. She asked 19 young women (ages 10 to 20) and 10 adult women to imagine a series of embarrassing situations - and gave their brains an MRI scan as they did so. While they were thinking about how they would feel if their father was dancing in the supermarket or if they were dribbling food down their tops while eating with a friend, she found that the part of the brain involved in social emotions - the medial prefrontal cortex - was more active in the teenagers than in the adults. "It might explain why teenagers are more susceptible to embarrassment," she concluded.

She could not tell, of course, whether the feverish activity in this developing part of the teenage brain was a cause or an effect of sensitivity to embarrassment, but at least - like a lot of psychological research - it confirmed what any parent of a teenager already knows. To illustrate the lowering of the embarrassment threshold in teenagers, she tells an anecdote about a man she knows who has daughters of that age. "Before they reached puberty, if they were messing around in a shop, he'd get them to stop by promising to sing their favourite song. After puberty, he'd get them to stop by threatening to sing their favourite song."

I'm with the teenagers on that one. I remember well the agony of the time when, at about my son's age, I suddenly realised that my parents were hideously embarrassing. With my father it was on the beach. The rest of the time he was a conservatively dressed, rather formal figure, but when it came to swimming he would strip off down to a tiny, revealing swimming costume - closer to a thong than boxer shorts - simply because he hated shopping and had once bought it in an airport. On family holidays I used to stand behind a rock whenever there was a danger he might stand up.

As for my mother, she had a horrible habit of discussing the finer points of my school reports and quizzing other parents on how their children had done. At such moments, I wanted to drop her off a cliff. Perhaps parents are subliminally exacting revenge for all the times their small children have been devastatingly embarrassing to them. At the time there's nothing to be done but squirm when your toddler asks loudly in a shop, "Why is that lady so fat?" or says "yuck" and requests a chocolate mousse when faced with a delicious risotto that some kind hostess has slaved over.

Teenagers are often justified in trying to rein us in. While children are small and - generally - adoring, we parents can lose our inhibitions over all kinds of behaviour that are essentially mortifying. I have often checked my son's head for nits in public, without even noticing I am doing so. I have also administered the appalling "spit wash": vigorously wiping the faces of grimy or ketchup-covered children without a thought to their dignity.

I hope that I have never proceeded from embarrassment to actual humiliation, but I have observed other parents wonder aloud in front of their children whether Sophie will ever lose her puppy fat or if Jake is bright enough to get into the best school in the area. Until our children pull us up, I have noticed that we get more abrasive, rather than more sensitive to their feelings, perhaps because we sense that as they get older they are psychologically slipping out of our grasp. "Is he your boyfriend?" I caught myself asking one of my teenage daughters. I shouldn't have been surprised when the girl rushed from the room.

My children can find some crumbs of comfort in my inability to dance. At least I don't take to the dance floor doing my Madonna imitation. Nor do I rate my figure so highly that I dress in short skirts or low-cut tops. As I flipped through websites in which teenagers talk about how their parents embarrass them, I found that the worst offenders are those parents who kid themselves that they are still teenagers, ranting along to their children's rap heroes, and those who tell their children off in front of their friends.

But a certain amount of embarrassment is necessary. It serves an evolutionary purpose, helping teenagers put distance between themselves and those who shaped their early lives. Hurtful though the requests to remain silent and invisible may be, they are part of establishing a distinct identity. The key for parents is to keep their nerve and continue - with a little self-censorship - to be themselves. In moments when your clothes/voice/small talk are being slammed, it may be helpful to remember that it's the eccentricities that children will eventually look back on with pride and affection.

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