The New, New Thing Parents Are Doing Wrong

The title of Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece in The New Yorker — “Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?” was too close to the bone to pass up. My husband and I had just finished our nightly post-dinner bedtime routine, an embarrassing set of maneuvers in which we first try reasoning with our kids about the merits of bathing, brushing teeth, going to bed on time, not threatening to pinch one’s sister’s nose in the middle of the night because you allege her to snore, not convulsing in tears when one’s brother threatens to pinch your nose because he has alleged you to snore, and so on.

As usual, our reasoning tone went unheeded, and so we launched into cajoling, which gave way to threats of punishment, which finally climaxed in gruffly shouted commands, which achieved the desired result, but then caused us to come back around with gentle hugs to make up for it all. In 10 years of parenting, have we learned nothing?

I was totally spent, and I thought, collapsing into bed with my laptop, this New Yorker piece sounds like just the right story to read. If I could answer any question this summer it wouldn’t be “Why Can’t Women Have it All?” It would be “Why Can’t My Kids Brush Their Teeth When I Ask Them To?” Come to think of it, that, to me, would be having it all.

So I dove right into Kolbert’s roundup of books and films documenting the peculiar behaviors of American-bred Helicopter Spawn. She admits her own participation in what she considers epidemic parental overindulgence, describing a particularly poor attempt to get her sons to help her take in the groceries, and sums up the whole problem this way:

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 percent a year.) They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority.

The backlash against helicopter parents has been growing at about the same clip as those Burberry Baby stores, and it’s not news that overindulgence keeps kids from learning how to take care of themselves. But then she tries to make her point by setting the American kids against the children portrayed in a documentary, the Matsigenka tribe of the Peruvian Amazon:

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.

My heart sank as I read this. Three-year-olds cutting wood with machetes? I was thrilled when my kids finally learned how to operate the On Demand function on the remote. I bet those Matsigenka moms don’t have three-hour-long bedtime rituals. We’re all doomed. And then my more rational self chimed in: If you lived in the Peruvian Amazon, you’d better believe your kids would know how to wield a machete and cook over an open fire. But you live in Cambridge and buy your food at Shaw’s. Stick to brushing teeth and sibling relations.

Last week, we were all feeling bad because we weren’t juggling a Princeton professorship, appointment to the State Department, national speaking tour, and motherhood. This week, it’s machetes and open fires. It all just seemed too much. So I told myself the same thing I’d told my daughter earlier in the evening when her brother threatened to pinch her nose as she slept: “He’s just trying to rattle you. Ignore it.”