How Not to Raise a Snowflake

What r/K Theory can teach us about parenting

Photo by Zachary Kadolph on Unsplash

Why is it that so many young people have such fragile egos? They are easily offended. They run from confrontation. They lack confidence and some will cry at the slightest disapproval. Their communication skills and knowledge about life are often limited. Their inability to cope with the bumps in that road of life can be debilitating. In the extreme it has led to higher rates of depression and suicide. These growing character flaws occur so often that a new “snowflake” meme has evolved in our culture.

So how have we come to this?

Many would say it’s soft parenting. Many would say it’s the lack of role models or broken families or the general decline of virtue. Some would say it’s the lack of suffering or hardships in our modern culture, the absence of real challenges. And they would all be right. But there’s another reason, a biological reason, and it comes from a theory in evolutionary biology called r/K Theory.

r/K Theory is usually applied to the animal kingdom and it relates to the resources in the environment, but it also applies to people and the raising of our children. It provides an explanation for the changes in our culture and why some of our children have become snowflakes. But we can do something about it. Let me explain….

Let’s start with animals: The “r” represents reproductive rate. The “K” represents the Capacity of the environment to support a species. (Don’t ask why it’s not ‘C’, it’s probably something to do with the original language, as it often is with science.)

When resources in the environment are plentiful, “r” tends to be high, that is, the species will evolve in a way that promotes many offspring. Likewise, these species develop particular behaviors and psychology to support the high-r mechanism for passing on their DNA.

These behaviors include: avoiding competition, early sexual activity, promiscuous mating, and investing little time or energy in raising offspring. They also tend to be less intelligent herbivores with few social skills. Almost everything they do promotes and supports an increase in offspring; they’re all about Quantity and that’s the way the species survives.

An excellent example of an “r” species is a bunch of rabbits in a field of clover. In this environment, resources are plentiful, so no rabbit goes hungry. Since they don’t have to think about food they spend more time mating because they have developed the high r-selected strategy for survival, having about 20–30 offspring per year. They care for their young only a few weeks before sending them out to graze on their own. If other rabbits invade their space, there’s no fight. They just move over because there’s plenty of clover and no need to compete. If a fox or a hawk threatens them, they’ll run, but it’s every bunny for itself because there’s no social order or strategy for defending against predators. They just run. Yes, in an environment of plentiful resources, life is easy for dumb rabbits except for the individuals who get carried off in raptor talons.

On the other hand, when resources are scarce, animals develop a different set of behaviors and psychology that are completely opposite.

An excellent example of a “K” species is the wolf. Wolves are monogamous for life and only the alpha male and female get to mate. They will only have one litter of typically 4–6 pups per year and they invest more than a year, sometimes two, in rearing the pups before they find their rank in the pack or move on. They’re an intelligent species who hunt in coordination with other pack members. They will defend a territory and they know who is in the pack and who is not. They have rank and rules and communicate thru’ growling, howling and posturing.

For example, when two male wolves battle over mating rights, the loser (beta) will often role over to bare its neck to the alpha in surrender. Does the alpha male go in for the kill? No, because they live by rules and every member in the pack is valuable and needed for survival of the group. But the rank will be established and only the strongest and smartest will get to pass on their DNA. This is the way “K” species behave and they’re all about Quality, because only the best can survive in an environment with limited resources.

Now rabbits and wolves are great examples of species on either end of the r-K spectrum. Most animals land somewhere in between, but they will lean toward “r” or “K”. Two examples: though elephants are herbivores (typically an “r” trait), they are highly intelligent, care for their young and are highly social. So they’re more “K”.

Elk may compete (typically a “K” trait) for social rank during mating season, but the males are also promiscuous and for an animal that big, they spend relatively little time raising their young and they’re not very smart. Even a small brain can eat grass. So elk are more r-selected.

collage created by author

Consider these other animals and which ones are more r-selected or K-selected in terms of number of offspring, time invested in raising offspring, competitiveness, sexual activity, intelligence, and social skills.

Now let’s apply this to people. What kind of people are these?

archive image from unknown source, public domain

Darn right! These are definitely “K” type people walking into a wilderness of limited, untapped resources. Oh, the resources are sometimes abundant, but it will take generations of pioneers to dig wells, cut timber, till the land, mine the ore, invent machines, and built factories and towns. With their intelligence they will engineer the railroads and water ways and connect the power grid as they established rules and order along the way. Then they will replace horse power with engine power and pave roads that bring everything you need to your doorstep. They will even invent machines that defy gravity. Yes, these K-selected people have built everything we call civilization.

At the same time, they have changed our environment so that today we have plentiful resources at our fingertips, making our lives very easy. If r/K Theory is correct we should start to behave and think more like r-selected rabbits.

So let’s assume r-K theory is true and we now live with abundant resources, how would our attitudes toward competition change (think children’s sports, commerce, or war)? How would our attitudes about children change? How about Parenting, Divorce or Education? How might politicians change laws to favor the non-competitive culture they might prefer? Are you connecting some dots?

So why does this happen? Well, we all have a small section in our brain called the amygdala, which, among other things, is responsible for receiving input and stimulus from our surroundings to determine if there is a threat. This “threat meter,” I call it, then signals other parts of the brain so we respond appropriately the next time we’re in a similar situation.

The more threats that it responds to — the more developed the amygdala becomes, like a muscle getting exercise.

Even in normal, everyday situations our amygdala is perceiving and gauging possible threats as we navigate through each experience. When a toddler trips on the edge of a carpet or touches a hot stove or pulls the cat’s tail, the resulting consequences train their amygdala to do things differently next time, but more like a reflex than cognitive learning.

If a car honked at them when they were in the street, that blast of sound trained their threat meter to behave differently the next time they go in the street. Every fall, every skinned knee, every event that made them cry, even emotional teenage heartbreaks, were training and developing their amygdala to deal differently in similar situations in the future.

If our amygdala is not stimulated and developed by challenges in life, then we will have problems assessing and managing threats in the future.

Here’s how it works in the real world.

Jack and Mary are going to have a baby. They’re reading lots of books and articles that extol the benefits of protective parenting. These articles always discourage spanking for misbehavior; they endorse self-esteem building over correction, equality of the individual, opinion over truth, and “helicopter parenting” to protect their child from ANY harm. Jack and Mary don’t know about r-K Theory, but they are convinced that if anyone loves their child, this is the way they should parent. It just feels right because they too grew up in a bountiful culture where life was easy and hardships were few.

So little Billy is born and raised in an ultra-safe environment. He is seldom told “No” and he is allowed to eat (or not eat) whatever he wishes because every opinion is valid. If his parents threaten punishment, they seldom follow thru’. Self-control is not encouraged, so the tantrums are many. Delayed gratification is foreign to him, so he gets what he wants whenever he wants it. Other than a kitty scratch, he never suffers personal injury. Billy never saw a fire cracker, a skateboard, or a trampoline and the training wheels stayed on for years. In their house there is a ban on little plastic army men and water pistols because they inspire competition and violence, and Mom and Dad just want little Billy to get along with everyone. Some childhood sports are acceptable as long as the team focuses on self-esteem, not skills. And Mom and Dad are afraid that Billy might suffer failure in school, so they help with homework a little too much. Getting the picture?

In this environment, Billy grows up in a world of plentiful resources AND he has very few experiences from which his amygdala could teach him how to cope in real-life, difficult situations. Therefore his amygdala is smaller and less developed.

So now Billy is in college and we find him whimpering in his safe space because he never learned how to cope with hardship. He doesn’t know how to discern good from evil. He was taught that everyone is wonderful, just like him, so he can’t comprehend threats. He never even experienced something as trivial as losing a soccer match because some tender-footed, non-competitive rabbit parent felt it was mean to keep score and thought everyone deserved a trophy. But it doesn’t end there….

Now, kids like Billy are growing up to enforce rules that protect people’s feelings and distribute everything fairly while they vote for Socialism.

They restrict freedom of speech by shouting down conservative speakers at their colleges because they can’t compete in the arena of ideas.

They try to limit our right to defend ourselves because they don’t understand real threats and they feel that everyone should just be equal. Don’t bring up real data and facts on how unfair life can be. That’s a trigger that will just make them walk away because they literally can’t cope. If they’re having a really tough day, college professors will coddle them further by canceling classes so they can have a cry-in over Trump’s election. And that’s where half this country is today.

That is how r-K Theory explains the changes in our children, and thus, the changes in our culture. Plentiful resources have led to biological changes in our brains, which has led to r-selected behavior and psychology.

Now, some of you are going to be offended and conclude that this means we shouldn’t help our children at all, and we should just let them do dangerous things. No, that swings the pendulum too far the other way. But if my example with little Billy kind of hits home, then perhaps your pendulum is too far on the protective side.

One more quick example to demonstrate K-type behavior:

Have you ever noticed how most farm kids are more mature? This is because they grow up with responsibility and they live in an environment that isn’t so sterile. They grow up doing big chores and dealing with unpredictable farm animals and fixing broken machinery, and getting hurt more than most kids. They experience moderate dangers of country living with animal predators, snakes, and poison ivy. They typically spend more time playing outdoors than sitting on the the couch playing video games. They hunt and fish, and walk on gravel roads instead of smooth sidewalks. They learn how to use tools, grow food, and they have to work for most everything they want. While growing up, they make lots of small bad decisions that trained their amygdala to make better decisions later on. And that’s why their maturity comes earlier.

Here’s what we need to do to not raise snowflakes.

If you’re parenting like Billy’s parents, then loosen your protective strangle hold. Stop doing everything for your kids. Let them make mistakes. Let them suffer natural consequences for bad decisions. Let them be adventurous. Give them more chores and responsibilities. Ask for their help when planting the garden or fixing the car. Teach them how to make dinner so they learn about hot stoves and sharp knives and how to feed themselves. Turn the power off to the TV for a few hours and make them play outside. Seriously, simple things like this will train the amygdala in their little brains to respond appropriately in real-life situations later on.

Getting their hands dirty or getting pinched a few times will literally help them grow up to be more functional, well-adjusted citizens, because not only did their minds learn, their amygdala got wired to react appropriately to threats and challenging situations.

It’s not always a good thing that our children live in a modern world where life is so easy. But if we intentionally build up K-selected behavior by having rules and order and welcoming competition and teaching sexual morality and spending more time with them, then their amygdala will be stimulated and wired to react more appropriately in adulthood. Also, children who are raised to have more K-selective behavior and psychology will be the ones who grow up to be the competent leaders our culture desperately needs.

If the environment won’t do it, it’s up to us to teach our children about life so it will lead to smarter decisions, better jobs, better mates, and knowing better how to raise the next generation.

Editor of That Ain’t Right and Our Thorium Future. jimwest533@gmail.com

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