Yesterday I spent nearly the whole day cleaning my kids’ bedroom. It had gotten pretty out of control, with piles of broken toys and too-small clothes taking over corners and this year’s fashions spilling out of drawers to cover every remaining flat surface. Something had to be done.
And I had to do it. My kids, ages 8 and 4, are not really capable of taking on a big mess like that by themselves. This is my fault: I am barely capable of cleaning up that mess, and can’t teach skills I don’t have. So my daughters, like many of their peers, are the kind of kids who drag their feet on chores. They spend too much time playing video games and too little time being self-sufficient. They are not at all like the children of the Matsigenka tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. Those kids can totes use a machete by the time they’re three. Or so the New Yorker tells me.
In a strange take on a well-worn subject, the New Yorker puts forward a long article attempting to make the case that American kids are the most spoiled in world history. While there’s plenty to talk about in the research and writing being done here at home, they base a lot of their article on facile comparisons between middle class kids growing up in L.A. and the children of this small indigenous community in Peru.I’m not saying they’re wrong: I believe Matsigenka children really can use machetes by the time they’re three, and I won’t even let my 4-year-old handle a bread knife without supervision. These kids are growing up with very different lives. But the whole narrative of the noble savages whose simple culture thrives unplagued by the problems our opulent one struggles with smacks of, well, racism. Elizabeth Kolbert romanticizes “the other” in a way that robs these people of the fullness of their identity, making “them” merely a narrative foil for “us.” The Matsigenka haven’t magically solved the problems of American parenting by being simple, virtuous and uncorrupted by modern society. Please.
Nor have the French, who the article also unfavorably compares my parenting to, got it all worked out. In Kolbert’s narrative, French women are all fit, relaxed and well-rested, while their well-behaved children are independent and quiet. The secret: a little benign neglect. Don’t pick the baby up right away when she cries, and by the time she’s three she’ll be making cupcakes all by herself. Who knew parenting could be so easy?
No one, because it isn’t. We all have to make complex, difficult choices about parenting all the time. I’m not an expert, but I suspect that is true in every culture and in every family.
Not only does the author of this article engage in weird primitivism about the “other” people whose parenting is just naturally better than “ours,” she sweeps the vast diversity of American cultures under the rug into one monolithic, affluent, mostly white, educated, helicopter-parenting approach. In her imagining of America, every child in the country is being raised in a parody of Park Slope, cruising around in a designer stroller and being tutored for Harvard while still in preschool, but never learning to tie their own shoes.
Yes, my standards for the work children are expected to do at home and the way they relate to their adults are different from a lot of other times and places. But that’s just me. “Contemporary American culture” varies a lot within itself. Even in the socio-cultural demographic arena being considered, there are attachment parents and disciplinarians and free-range devotees and all sorts of differing approaches to being a parent.
I see a lot of myself in the overeducated attachment parenting approach being skewered here. You could say my kids are “spoiled” and I’d find it hard to argue. I prefer to think of them as “nurtured” and “respected.” If an adult was crying for comfort, I wouldn’t wait five minutes before offering it, just to toughen them up. Why would I do that to a newborn?
I don’t think I’m overdoing it on parenting my kids. My stepson has a great work ethic and will be starting college in the fall at his top choice school. He’s organized, academically driven, and does the dishes without being asked. All this without ever having deployed a chore chart. If my girls grow up anything like their brother, I feel pretty good about their prospects.
Sure, not every kid makes a smooth transition to adulthood. That’s true in every culture as well. The machete-wielding toddlers the New Yorker describes aren’t all self-sufficient prodigies of good behavior; according to a passing comment in the article, some don’t live up to expectations and are rubbed with an itchy plant. Some French kids don’t sit quietly in restaurants and some “spoiled” American kids (like mine) tie their own shoes.
Maybe the notion of “spoiled” isn’t really useful here at all. The core of the article seems to be comparing how competent and autonomous young children typically are in different cultures, and there is quite a range. That doesn’t mean the most autonomous kids are the ones being raised right. In the article, Kolbert sardonically remarks that being unable to tie your shoes doesn’t stop you from getting into Brown. She’s right: they’re different skill sets, and being able to use sharp objects at three doesn’t guarantee a stable successful adulthood.
Ultimately, these finely detailed parenting choices come down to personal preference: do what’s comfortable for you. I’m siding with Bryan Kaplan on this one, whose core argument about parenting is that these details we sweat over matter less than we think. Whether you let your baby cry or pick her up, teach your toddler to cook or tie her shoes for her, odds are good your kids will turn our pretty well. Most people do.