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Lisa Belkin Headshot

Overindulgent Parenting? That's So Ten Years Ago

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What most struck me about the Wall Street Journal's much-read piece yesterday -- the one about the scientific analysis of what makes American children so self-centered -- might turn out to be the date of the research. How quickly does American parenting change? Are today's parents different than they were ten years ago?

Shirley Wang's article about researchers at UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families, or CELF, described how 32 California families agreed to have every moment of their day videotaped so that the anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and archeologists could study the American middle class in its native habitat. All the volunteer families had two working parents, and the scientific questions on the table included how they "balance child care, household duties and career, and how this balance affects their health and well-being," Wang reports.

The answers? Our kids are so "helpness and needy" that the Journal story led Libby Copeland over at Slate's Double X, to conclude, "Man, we are so screwed."

By "we" she meant the parents of these children, who, in one memorable moment of video provided by the researchers are observed doing things like this:

[O]ne exchange caught on video shows an 8-year-old named Ben sprawled out on a couch near the front door, lifting his white, high-top sneaker to his father, the shoe laced. "Dad, untie my shoe," he pleads. His father says Ben needs to say "please."

"Please untie my shoe," says the child in an identical tone as before. After his father hands the shoe back to him, Ben says, "Please put my shoe on and tie it," and his father obliges.

And by "screwed" Copeland suggests that we are raising a generation that will be incapable of functioning on their own.

But are we?

The videotapes that the CLEF has been studying to the point of memorization are about a decade old. The nearly 100 reports that researchers have produced from these tapes, and the many articles that have been written about the center's work (the Journal article is hardly the first -- the New York Times said exactly the same thing, quoting Ben throwing a similar tantrum, in 2010) are based on snapshots of fewer than three dozen homes, all in the Los Angeles area, in or about 2002.

This is valuable research, yes. And it is certainly fascinating. But could it be showing us how we were, or how we got here, rather than where we actually are? After all, we already measure generations by decades, each with its own identities and rules. The parents of the 1950s were a world removed from those of the 1960s, who, in turn, were starkly different from those of the 1970s. So why would the parents of 2002 not be equally different from those of 2012?

At the same time, we measure the children of those parents -- the "results" of that parenting -- by their differences, too, in clumps that average 15 years, and that are forged not just by the way they were parented, but also by the events that swirled around them. The Boomers (spanning the late 1940s to the early 1960s): team players, optimistic, spending now and worrying later, shaped by Vietnam, Civil Rights and taught to believe in the American Dream; Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980): self-reliant, skeptical, looking for balance, shaped by Watergate and recession and the dimming of The Dream; The Millennials (born between 1981 and 2000): turning out to be self-confident, achieving, tech-savvy, materialistic and attention-seeking, being shaped by terrorism, competitive parenting and the Great Recession.

When Ben demanded that his father tie his shoes ten years ago, then, was he a symbol of a moment that has already passed? We won't know for awhile, but think of all that had not yet happened in the ways of American parenting back in 2002. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan were new, and the grinding reality of terrorism had not set in. There had been no "opt-out revolution" (that magazine piece appeared in 2003), with women questioning the definition of success, and prodding companies to work with them, not against them. Judith Warner's Perfect Madness (2005) and Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) had not pointed out that there are other, possibly better, ways to raise children. "Mommy blog" was a term rarely used back then, and parents had not yet taken to the Internet to confess, share and learn.

All of which leads to two questions.

First, how are the children shaped by 2002's parents faring years later? After all, it is one thing to identify patterns, and another to measure their long-term effects. Ben is 18 now. I'm betting he doesn't insist that his dad fetch his coat and put on his shoes anymore. Did Ben's father's indulgence cripple his son or strengthen him? Make him one of those kids who can't "launch" or one of those secure ones who launched an Internet company in his spare time?

Second, what will the effect of the past ten years -- all the dissecting and discussion of parenting -- have on the parents who follow Ben's? Will it include an awareness of how we have created too "kid-centric" a society and lead to a new determination by parents to right the ratio? Or will things just get worse, as the "professionalization" of parenting becomes more of the norm and parents become less likely to spend their rare family time "raising" their children rather than just "hanging" with them?

Only time -- and researchers with video cameras -- will tell.

But predictions are welcome.