New Yorker: Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?
With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff—clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods. (The market for Burberry Baby and other forms of kiddie “couture” has reportedly been growing by ten per cent a year.) They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority. “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.
Druckerman talked to a lot of French mothers, all of them svelte and most apparently well rested. She learned that the French believe ignoring children is good for them. “French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them,” she writes. “To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration.” One mother, Martine, tells Druckerman that she always waited five minutes before picking up her infant daughter when she cried. While Druckerman and Martine are talking, in Martine’s suburban home, the daughter, now three, is baking cupcakes by herself. Bean is roughly the same age, “but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to let her do a complicated task like this all on her own,” Druckerman observes. “I’d be supervising, and she’d be resisting my supervision.”
Also key, Druckerman discovered, is just saying non. In contrast to American parents, French parents, when they say it, actually mean it. They “view learning to cope with ‘no’ as a crucial step in a child’s evolution,” Druckerman writes. “It forces them to understand that there are other people in the world, with needs as powerful as their own.”
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.
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.