Are U.S. Kids Spoiled Rotten?

In an article in the July 2 edition of New Yorker magazine titled, “Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost?”, anthropologist Elizabeth Kolbert takes a critical look at the “rules of engagement” between young people and their parents, based on studying everyday life for a group of middle class Los Angeles families. Kolbert’s conclusion is that the conventional approach to parenting among the studied families shows a permissive attitude that leads to young people being more dependent on their parents even well into young adulthood, a dependency she labels “adultesence”. Though this longer period of dependency could in theory be an indicator of a longer period of time needed to become functional in an increasingly complex society, Kolbert posits that…

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.

Numerous examples are cited of kids in the study ignoring repeated directions from their parents to do various chores and demanding that parents do routine tasks for them like tying their shoes. Also examples of young adults returning to live with their families after college and exhibiting similar irresponsible behaviors, what Kolbert coins as “adultesence”.

All this is characterized as a reaction to permissive parenting practices that amount to parents ceding “unprecedented authority” to their kids, because…

“Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call. This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults fear that it isn’t working out so well: according to one poll, commissioned by Time and CNN, two-thirds of American parents think that their children are spoiled.

Kolbert contrasts all this entitlement and irresponsibility among middle class American youth and young adults with a portrait of a very functional and responsible child named Yanira in a hunter-gatherer society as documented by anthropologist Carolina Izquierdo…

In 2004, Carolina Izquierdo, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, spent several months with the Matsigenka, a tribe of about twelve thousand people who live in the Peruvian Amazon. The Matsigenka hunt for monkeys and parrots, grow yucca and bananas, and build houses that they roof with the leaves of a particular kind of palm tree, known as a kapashi. At one point, Izquierdo decided to accompany a local family on a leaf-gathering expedition down the Urubamba River.

A member of another family, Yanira, asked if she could come along. Izquierdo and the others spent five days on the river. Although Yanira had no clear role in the group, she quickly found ways to make herself useful. Twice a day, she swept the sand off the sleeping mats, 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 the others. Calm and self-possessed, Yanira “asked for nothing,” Izquierdo later recalled. The girl’s behavior made a strong impression on the anthropologist because at the time of the trip Yanira was just six years old.

Just six years old but, ironically, exhibiting more of a sense of capability and responsibility than most U.S. teens! The obvious implication is that our parenting practices (at least among the moderately economically privileged of the “left coast”) are dysfunctional and we need to reexamine and change them significantly.

As a parent (and actually I think of myself more as a “former parent” since my own young adult kids run their own lives) I would agree that a profound examination of those “rules of engagement” between parents and their kids, and between adults and young people generally, is needed! The key is the paradigm or context one is going to use to identify the “problem statement”, the proposed solution, and the path forward toward that solution.

Historian and futurist Riane Eisler has in my opinion brilliantly called out two very different paradigms for imagining and organizing human society, which she refers to as the “dominator” and “partnership” models.

The dominator model is built around the question, “Who’s the boss?”, the answer defining hierarchies of control with persons in the higher positions responsible for those below them while the persons in the lower positions expected to show deference to their “superiors”. Human society is an amalgam of institutions, each with its own hierarchy. Ranking in any given hierarchy can be based on one or more factors including family of birth, race, gender, age, wealth, education or merit. So aristocrats controlling commoners, masters controlling slaves, owners controlling workers, men controlling women, experts controlling non-experts, and adults controlling children. As one hierarchy is deemed unethical or otherwise inappropriate it is replaced by another.

The partnership model is built around a different question, “Who are my peers?”, the answer defining circles of equals or a flattened “org chart” for humanity and its institutions (what writer Thomas Friedman is referring to metaphorically in his book The World is Flat). This model is all about facilitation rather than control, and the circle (and its collective governance model) wields the authority. Leadership is still be exercised by individuals within those circles but it is generally granted by the collective (rather than seized by the individual) and is intended to be facilitative rather than directive – there are no “bosses”.

So if we view the problem of the rules of engagement between youth and adults within the dominator model, the problem statement is that adults have lost control of children, who are no longer properly recognizing adults superior position in the hierarchy. The solution becomes the reassertion of that (hopefully) loving control through thoughtful reason if possible, or coercive action if necessary, and the acceptance of this external authority by its recipients. American parents and other adult authority figures (like teachers) need to reassert their natural authority and demand that kids acknowledge that authority. If adults are resolute and consistent in this effort kids will eventually come around and understand “who’s boss” and be able to better function within the safe space of that external control by their superiors.

Viewing the same problem within the partnership model, the failure in our culture is to not acknowledge the full personhood of our young people as new “junior” partners in the circle of equals. Further, we mistake our soft-peddled control over their behavior with oodles of carrots (rather than sticks) as true respect. The solution is to leverage their natural urge to participate from the youngest possible ages and make the effort to grant them as much autonomy and agency as possible. As parents will tell you, this is much easier said than done in our very complex and busy lives, where we are always behind schedule. Easier to quickly cut the vegetables for the salad yourself rather than suffer through assisting your child as they perhaps slowly and painstakingly develop that same mastery.

As a person firmly rooted in that partnership model (and not knowing enough about the youth vs adult dynamic in her hunter-farmer culture) I would say that young Yanira is being raised in a much more egalitarian paradigm as a junior partner rather than a incompetent dependent. Though only six years old, she has developed at least a couple skills that are actually useful in real life, and is happy to contribute those skills to her circle in their endeavors. Perhaps a less compartmentalized hunter-farmer society that does not separate young people from the adult world of “work” makes Yanira’s participation easier, but there is still a lesson here for American parents, teachers and other adults in our rules of engagement with our young people.

Where I think the article author and anthropologist Kolbert may be falling short in her analysis, is that beyond suggesting that we have lost our way, she does not manage to crystallize an affirming bit of wisdom to guide us forward. I keep thinking of Margaret Mead, perhaps the most celebrated practitioner of Kolbert’s profession, who famously advised …

Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

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