A Pervasive Issue in Parenting

From Elizabeth Kolbert:

It’s a fact. American children are not as responsible as children elsewhere, and even more not as responsible as they need to be to enter into the work force as adults.

What are we doing about this? What’s the #1 suggestion for you?

Ochs and Izquierdo noted, in their paper on the differences between the family lives of the Matsigenka and the Angelenos, how early the Matsigenka begin encouraging their children to be useful. Toddlers routinely heat their own food over an open fire, they observed, while “three-year-olds frequently practice cutting wood and grass with machetes and knives.” Boys, when they are six or seven, start to accompany their fathers on fishing and hunting trips, and girls learn to help their mothers with the cooking. As a consequence, by the time they reach puberty Matsigenka kids have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival. Their competence encourages autonomy, which fosters further competence—a virtuous cycle that continues to adulthood.

The cycle in American households seems mostly to run in the opposite direction. So little is expected of kids that even adolescents may not know how to operate the many labor-saving devices their homes are filled with. Their incompetence begets exasperation, which results in still less being asked of them (which leaves them more time for video games). Referring to the Los Angeles families, Ochs and Izquierdo wrote, “Many parents remarked that it takes more effort to get children to collaborate than to do the tasks themselves.”

One way to interpret these contrary cycles is to infer that Americans have a lower opinion of their kids’ capacities. And, in a certain sense, this is probably true: how many parents in Park Slope or Brentwood would trust their three-year-olds to cut the grass with a machete? But in another sense, of course, it’s ridiculous. Contemporary American parents—particularly the upscale sort that “unparenting” books are aimed at—tend to take a highly expansive view of their kids’ abilities. Little Ben may not be able to tie his shoes, but that shouldn’t preclude his going to Brown….

When anthropologists study cultures like the Matsigenkas’, they tend to see patterns. The Matsigenka prize hard work and self-sufficiency. Their daily rituals, their child-rearing practices, and even their folktales reinforce these values, which have an obvious utility for subsistence farmers. Matsigenka stories often feature characters undone by laziness; kids who still don’t get the message are rubbed with an itch-inducing plant.

In contemporary American culture, the patterns are more elusive. What values do we convey by turning our homes into warehouses for dolls? By assigning our kids chores and then rewarding them when they screw up? By untying and then retying their shoes for them? It almost seems as if we’re actively trying to raise a nation of “adultescents.” And, perhaps without realizing it, we are….

The same trend that appears in human prehistory shows up in history as well. The farther back you look, the faster kids grew up. In medieval Europe, children from seven on were initiated into adult work. Compulsory schooling, introduced in the nineteenth century, pushed back the age of maturity to sixteen or so. By the middle of the twentieth century, college graduation seemed, at least in this country, to be the new dividing line. Now, if Judd Apatow is to be trusted, it’s possible to close in on forty without coming of age.

Evolutionarily speaking, this added delay makes a certain amount of sense. In an increasingly complex and unstable world, it may be adaptive to put off maturity as long as possible. According to this way of thinking, staying forever young means always being ready for the next big thing (whatever that might be).

Or adultesence might be just the opposite: not evidence of progress but another sign of a generalized regression. Letting things slide is always the easiest thing to do, in parenting no less than in banking, public education, and environmental protection. A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just about every aspect of American society. Why this should be is a much larger question, one to ponder as we take out the garbage and tie our kids’ shoes.

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  • Jinny

    I don’t think this was a scientific study of parenting styles across cultures. That’s one American parent who didn’t do his job well and was getting frustrated with his child and then doing things for him because it’s faster.

    I would say it’s not a fact that American children are less responsible. It’s cultural differences. My pediatrician friend says Pakistani parents she encounters are often hand-feeding children until they are 6, sometimes even in public. A common critique of American culture is that we make our children too independent too young. Going to preschool at 2 or 3 and sleeping in their own beds, while in other cultures, they might still be breast-feeding at that age. I watch kids as part of my work. I’m warned by parents not to give in to learned helplessness. If a child is non-compliant, they get one warning from me that their behavior is unacceptable, and they’re about to earn a time-out. The key to making time-out discipline work is the follow-through. The kids I work with know I will put them in time-out after that warning. No second or third warnings. It’s announced that they’re going into time-out for a specific behavior and then they will go there, whether under their own power or by being put there (I have some kids who hate time-outs and throw tantrums).

    Time-outs work wonderfully when done correctly. Supernanny and similar shows offer excellent advice on child behavior management. The key is consistency and keeping calm as the adult. Children can be stubborn, and the show is honest about that, showing time lapses of hours of bad behavior when time-out is first implemented.

  • I actually posted some brief thoughts about this last night, and I would agree with Elizabeth’s article. Last year, I moved from a tech job into being a Houseparent at a christian school / residential care facility for teens who either are making poor decisions or come from troubled homes. It has been a wild year, but I’ve noticed that many of the kids that come here are skilled at texting or identifying drugs or know tons of music lyrics and movie quotes , but they don’t have any basic living skills like cooking, or doing laundry, or cleaning. Many don’t want to move beyond American youth culture into adulthood, they do want their version of freedom (hang out with friends, party, text, drive) on their parents dime without parental interference. Here we do try our best to change that paradigm, but often we just get them too late.

  • DRT

    I believe that people live up to the expectation placed before then, and child independence is no exception. If we expect them to do things then they will.

    But I also see this as a outgrowth of a cyclic change in society. The baby boom generation has an intrinsic co-dependency about them when it comes to the kids and that is where a bunch of this is coming from.

    Perhaps their kids will realize that they should not (or perhaps will be unable because the don’t know how) to coddle their kids.

  • Joe Canner

    I agree with Jinny in #1, and would add that this is a classic case of misguided sentimentalism. Every child should be able to the things necessary to survive in their own culture, not Medieval Europe or present-day Amazon jungle. Do we really want to go there?

    Certainly there are deficiencies in American discipline practices and in the ways we coddle our children, and these should be rightly called out and addressed. But using the Matsigenka as a model is not getting us any closer to that.

  • Jenny #1 and Joe #4, I think you may be focusing too much on the 3 year old with a machete thing, instead of how the age of maturity has been pushed back all the way to college graduation — which is simply too far, by that time their work ethic (or lack thereof), the idea of responsibility, etc. has already been set.

  • Robert

    My younger girl arrived from West Africa aged five, and promptly put herself in charge of the housework. She did a superb job. Over here (Britain) kids aren’t allowed responsibility, so of course they grow up unable to handle it.

  • As a public school teacher, I can agree with the article. Nobody wants to admit it, but we are not teaching kids the basic life skills they need to become independent adults. I cannot tell you how many teenagers have no idea how to do their own laundry.

    It isn’t just a young people phenomenon too. As adults, we constantly see “rewarding people for messing up.” In my world it involves teachers who don’t follow directions during state mandated testing. They cause some kind of discrepancy and instead of being reprimanded and forced to do it correctly, the next time they are given a hall or restroom duty where they can sit, chat, read a book, or use their laptop. If that is how we treat adults that can’t follow directions, how can we expect our young people to show initiative or responsibility?

  • Joe Canner

    Rick #5: I agree, the 3-year-old with a machete is a distraction, which was partly my point. The question is: at what age should a child be “mature” and able to operate more-or-less independently from his/her parents? Having (rightly) outlawed child labor, it seems that we as a society have put some lower limits on that number. So, instead of looking to the Amazon, we as a society should be looking at what a sensible upper limit (or range) would be and what can or should be done to get there.

  • RobS

    This is good think about. I have to be conscious of it when I’m making breakfast for the kids. The 7-year old needs to get his own frozen waffle on a plate. I help get down the plate, but he can open the microwave and things like that.

    The 2-year old… well, she just gets mad and has recently demanded her desire to eat the waffle frozen — despite my desire to want to at least microwave it!

    But I find that I need to remind myself that the 7-year old can do a handful of things and I need to make sure he has the chance to take them on himself.

  • Jacob Millwee

    There is more to the age of maturity than doing laundry. In many third world countries you can find young children driving cars. At what age do we allow them to drive? To marry? to drink, smoke, bear children? I think the issues and examples shown are a natural result of limitations we put on our youth. Can my child be trusted to cook on a stove? Because he is not allowed by law to be in possession of gasoline, at least on a public sidewalk.

    Also, for every spoilt lay-about college student there is a hard working mechanic’s apprentice. A teenager whose whole paycheck is split amongst his siblings for “allowance” – and of his own accord. I am friends with a gentleman who did all of the cooking, laundry, etc.. for his family from the age of 12 or so because his mother was too busy drinking and enjoying the company of men.

    I’m not saying the concerns raised by this article are unfounded, but they are not universal.
    Additionally, I believe the true root of the issues raised has to do with the natural values adjustment a capitalist society endures. It is the idle rich, and emphasis on the idle, that are held up as exemplars. The diligent hard working laborer is almost disrespected for not being able to advance out of having to work. It is important for me to note that I am describing a perspective issue – I know several millionaires who work long tense hours at “cushy” jobs.

    Finally, western culture has placed a high value on childhood, born out of nostalgia and cemented by media. I want my kids to have the Norman Rockwell/Calvin & Hobbes experience, and I do not think that I am alone. It is on us as parents to realize that 4 hours of video games does not contribute to the romantic childhood ideal we cherish, and to balance the magic of being a kid with the lessons that will serve us into adulthood.

    Research has proven time and again that the old adage “do as I say, not as I do” is patently false. How many times a week does the family eat out? That may play into a desire or need to learn to cook. Does Dad ever visibly do laundry? Our sons may feel emasculated if forced into doing any job that is exclusively Mom’s. Did mom and Dad suddenly read a thought provoking article on the internet (complete with valuable comments) and decide it was time for a crash course on laundry? Or was it presented in stages – putting clothes away for a time, then later folding clothes, and finally sorting and washing?

  • Beakerj

    I’m a youthworker who works with adolescents, & their parents. We used to run parental support groups & did a lot of work on trying to ensure that parents saw preparing their children for adult life as a large part of their task. We did a great exercise on ‘who can do what when?’ and discovered that many parents were happy to let their child babysit a baby at 14, but not cook a meal until they were 16. We really are breeding generations of little princes and princesses who think they are entitled to have everything done for them with no idea that this is either infantile or unfair to others. In my youth project I’ve taken to telling those who want adult privileges (once they get to 16 or 18) like having sex, drinking alcohol, staying out late, not telling parents where they are, that if they won’t shoulder adult responsibilties to earn a living for example, then I htink they should be treated like a younger child. It really provokes them to think, because this culture of ‘all the privileges and none of the responsibilities’ is perpetuated everywhere!

  • Beakerj

    P.S. I am English & working in a non-church setting for those puzzled by the ages/privileges mentioned.

  • loved reading this post and the comments–thanks for the thought to chew on

  • “Their competence encourages autonomy, which fosters further competence—a virtuous cycle that continues to adulthood.”

    “Autonomy” seems like the wrong word, that is a western virtue. Their competence is a result of community and no doubt they will pass their competence back into the community.

    I understand what Kolbert is saying here I just think the use of the word “autonomy” throws the reader off–at least me…

  • Paul

    “Matsigenka stories often feature characters undone by laziness; kids who still don’t get the message are rubbed with an itch-inducing plant.”

    I imagine this would get me off my rear and working too…

  • Holly

    It’s hard for me to relate.

    Three of my nine kids are out working this week in 106 temps. Two (16 and 17) in a corn field, and one (19) sound-recording a music festival for PBS.

    I think that’s one of the beautiful things about home-education. Maybe even being a part of a large family. It starts at birth, and gets practiced every single day:

    You aren’t a star. You’re one of the gang. You pull your own weight. You share what you have. You have compassion on your parents. You get a job. You pay your way thru college *by working hard.* You make good grades, because they are expected of you.

    It’s not rocket science – but it is hard as a parent to get to the place where you understand that you have the right and responsibility to expect things from your children – for their good and for the good of those around them. It’s hard to see that from toddler-hood, your job is to teach them how to become independent.

    (No machetes for my three year olds, though. Wonder what the child mortality rates are in that country?)

  • JohnM

    My first thought when I read of three-year-olds with machetes was the time recently when I saw an approximately three-year-old suburbanite wearing a saftey helmut…to ride a big wheel! Are the Matsigenka abusive and neglectful parents…or are we a bunch of weenies?

    Number one suggestion from me? Machetes aside – break the kids out of the bubble wrap and have them do some actual work around the house. Not for a special reward, but because the house keeps them warm and dry just like everyone else living there. Unless of course putting the kids to work would get you arrested. This being America and all.

  • Adam Legler

    Let’s be honest. These observations about parenting and what kind of kids are being produced have been occuring for a long time. But there won’t be much that changes until something big happens to our culture, sadly. It will take more than just one parent here and one parent there deciding to raise responsible kids. It will take a massive number of parents deciding at the same time to do that. And there are not many at the top pushing for that. I see this from as a parent and a high school teacher. It’s a cultural breakdown of our parenting skills and the awareness of how it’s affecting our youth.

  • Fish

    I feel so sorry that my daughter is going to inherit a world battling global warming and a nation with so little upward mobility that I gladly spoil her now.

    I do think responsibility is a function of income. Plenty of my daughter’s friends are not even allowed to have summer jobs because their parents want them “to enjoy being a teenager.” I didn’t have that luxury nor do I know any poor people who do.

    And not to pick on the church, but youth group is a part of that. I hit the ceiling when I discovered my kid had cancelled some well-paying babysitting jobs — where she was very much needed — in order to attend church activities. “But Dad, it’s a MINISTRY.” It’s a sad thing when dad has to forbid church activities, but there I was. There is a constant pressure from the church to pull children away from the secular world, which unfortunately also contains chores, work and other duties that aren’t near as much fun as lock-ins or pizza parties.

  • Kristin

    For some reason, adolescence is treated like a disease that needs to be managed until they grow up and snap out of it.

    Alas, adulthood is not a magical age number; it is a process that in reality takes several years. A teenager won’t “snap out of it” and magically become a responsible adult without some training, guidance, and real life practice. It’s unfortunate that teenagers are not encouraged to begin this process early in the safety of their parents’ household and help.

    I’m not a parent but I personally believe that adolescence should be viewed as “practice adulthood”. Of course it’s not my place to lecture parents on how to do this, but I’m more interested on how the church body can help with this as well. I really feel for the kids who are coddled in youth group only to be dumped when they graduate. And we wonder why so many young people walk away from the church.