For the sake of argument, let's explore the possibility that spoiling our children -- creating "brats" who are very comfortable being waited and doted upon -- is good for them.
Hear me out. Then you can protest.
Start with the premise that parenting is done in context. What in other species is instinctive -- meerkat parents assigning their pups mentors to teach them foraging skills; rhino mothers rarely leaving their calf's side while nursing; panda mothers abandoning one cub to better care for the the other one -- in humans is subject to timing, and research, and trends.
True, we seem to be basically hardwired to care about infants and to respond to their smiles and cries. But if most, or even more, of human parenting were instinctive, then the way we parent wouldn't vary by era (think Spartans leaving weak babies on the hillside to die) or by culture (Japanese families stressing conformity, Americans stressing individuality) and there certainly wouldn't be a subcategory of publishing about how parents in other countries (ie China, France) are doing this better than you.
In this week's New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert concludes that the American parenting style of the moment is "Spoiled Rotten" -- which is what her review of a recent spate of parenting books is titled. "With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-revolutionary France," she writes, "contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world."
Her central anecdote -- her example of What American Kids Aren't before she gets to What American Kids Are -- comes from the observations of UCLA anthropologist Carolina Izquierdo during her stay with the Matsigenka tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. Izquierdo tells of a family who left their village for five days to gather leaves for the roof of their home. A 6-year-old neighbor came along on the journey and, although no one ever told her to, "twice a day she swept the sand off the sleeping mates, and she helped stack the kapashi leaves for transport back to the village. In the evening, she fished for crustaceans, which she cleaned, boiled and served to others" Kolbert writes.
Contrast that with work of another anthropological study, this one of families in Los Angeles who were videotaped essentially round the clock by colleagues of Izquierdo's. In the LA subject group, Kolbert summarizes, "no child routinely performed household chores without being instructed to. Often, the kids had to be begged to attempt the simplest tasks; often, they still refused. In one typical encounter, a father asked his eight-year-old son five times to please go take a bath or a shower. After the fifth plea went unheeded, the father picked the boy up and carried him to the bathroom. A few minutes later, the kid, still unwashed, wandered into another room to play a videogame."
And then there was the boy who "was supposed to leave the house with his parents. But he couldn't get his feet into his sneakers, because the laces were tied. He handed one of the shoes to his father: 'Untie it!' His father suggested that he ask nicely. 'Can you untie it?' Ben replied. After more back-and-forth, his father untied Ben's sneakers. Ben put them on, then asked his father to retie them. "You tie your shoes and let's go,'' his father finally exploded. Ben was unfazed. "I'm just asking,'' he said.
How to respond to these differences -- other than tell yourself that maybe the little Amazonian girl was just being polite to the neighbors and was not nearly so helpful back home?
Kolbert's response was to decide her own sons need to become "a little more Matisgenka." (You can read her article for the details here. Let's just say it didn't end as she'd hoped.)
My response, in turn, much to my own surprise, was to think, Isn't each child in this story doing exactly what is demanded by his or her culture? And isn't that what parents are supposed to raise children to do?
That 6-year-old's parents had trained her to survive. What use, though, would the LA children have had for her skills? I am not just talking about the specifics -- of course it would serve no purpose to teach a child from the American suburbs to stack kapashi leaves or search for crustaceans. What I am wondering, instead, is whether we should bemoan the fact that our own 6-year-olds (or 10-year-olds, or 15-year-olds) don't mow the lawn or make dinner either, at least not without much, ummm, negotiation.
After all, American society as configured in this second decade of this second millenium has sent the very clear message that what our kids need to succeed as adults has little to do with chores and self-sufficiency and everything to do with a college diploma. Kolbert cites Hara Estroff Marano's argument in "A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting," and summarizes as follows: "College rankings are ultimately to blame for what ails the American family...High-powered parents worry that the economic opportunities for their children are shrinking. They see a degree from a top-tier school as one of the few ways to give their kids a jump on the competition. In order to secure this advantage, they will do pretty much anything, which means not just taking care of all the cooking and cleaning but also helping their children with math homework, hiring them S.A.T. tutors..."
And to whom is college admission granted? To those who do their chores? Or to those who fill their after-school with so many "enrichment" activity that there is no time to make dinner? To those who unquestionably obey, or those who argue and challenge? And when kids are under such pressure (parents, too, what with a lousy economy and a more demanding workplace and a world that seems scarier) who wants to add to rare moments of family time with orders and obligations?
Add to that the parallel shift in the kind of relationship parents want to have with children. Each of us responds to this "job" in the context of how we ourselves were raised. You either do as your own parents did, or exactly the opposite -- but either way that is the baseline because your parents are the only close-up example you have ever known. Today's child-centric parenting has consequences, but so did the latch-key parenting of an earlier generation (something that is returning of late) or the quality-not-quantity approach.
The culture changes. Parenting responds. I agree it isn't always pretty. I cringed at the descriptions in Kolbert's piece of LA parents at the beck and call of their kids. I also question whether the logic holds. Is college really the finish line for good parenting? But I find it instructive -- and just a little reassuring -- to see it not as the end of civilization, but as an adaptation; not as the failure of parenting and the creation of a monstrous generation, but rather an attempt to do the best we can with a moment in time.
Because the relevant question here is not whether kids can cook crustaceans at age six, or get into the shower on command at eight, but rather what they are like several decades on. And to answer that one has to ask whether other generations and other cultures do better in THAT department than we do.
Other cultures? When Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" was published last year, many a young adult raised by such parents stepped forward to talk of their resulting depression and anxiety. When Pamela Druckerman's "Bringing Up Bebe" appeared earlier this year, in turn, my inbox filled with more than a few emails saying "sure, French kids may be obedient, but most of the French adults I know are self-centered jerks."
As far as other generations go, I don't believe that kids of yore were really as perfect as we paint them. Those clean cut and respectful children in the era of Father Knows Best? Wasn't that also the era of the greasers and the generation gap? Doesn't every generation think that the next one is rude, lazy and doomed? Isn't that, in part, the JOB of each generation -- to horrify, or at least, confound, their parents?
I am not discounting the concerns. They are real. I share them. I have them myself with my own kids. But it is useful to remember that these are simply the latest in a constant line of concerns about what the heck is wrong with kids today. It also helps to remember that there's a lot that is right. This latest crop, I would proffer, is more tolerant, less racist, more social and has more access to information than any in history. All that time spent with technology means they are fluent in the language that they will need in the world they will inherit. They are more likely to be obese, but also less likely to drink, smoke or use drugs. They are more likely to live with their parents or depend on them financially into what we used to call adulthood, but they are also more likely as adults to consider their parents confidantes and friends.
And they will raise their children to be just like them -- or to be entirely different. Only time will tell. In fact time may have measurably changed things already. The LA videos were made a decade ago. That 8-year-old boy is now 18. And I bet he is taking showers alone, and tying his own shoes.