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.

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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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