Why parents "spoil" their kids

Spoiling our kids is the latest hot topic. An article in the July 2 New Yorker by writer Elizabeth Kolbert concludes that American children are "spoiled rotten." Kolbert writes: "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." Kolbert wonders why this might be, speculating on our various attitudes towards our children (Do we expect too little? Want too much approval?) and bringing up one anthropologist's theory that a long juvenile/ maturation period is necessary in order to handle the complexities of the modern world.

Related: 5 things parents should never say to their kids


A response by Lisa Belkin in the Huffington Post retorts defensively that maybe spoiling is good for us, or at least not so bad. Our kids, Belkin says, don't need to be obedient, they need to get into college. They're focusing on grades and extracurricular instead of chores. And anyway, she writes, we all have so little time together, let's enjoy it instead of enforcing discipline.

Any parent with common sense knows that "spoiling" is bad--it's bad for kids, primarily. Kids aren't ready to be in charge yet; that's what the parent is for. Or, as Robert J. MacKenzie, a family therapist, educational psychologist and creator of the "Setting Limits" program told Yahoo! Shine, indulging children, "decreases their sensitivity and respect for the rights, feelings and boundaries of others. That creates a 'me first' generation that believes 'rules are for other people.'" Not a good result, even if they do get into college.

The lead anecdote in the Kolbert piece compares contemporary middle-class children in Los Angeles with children in the Peruvian Andes, and is taken from an article in the journal Ethos by the UCLA anthropologists Elinor Ochs and Carolina Izquierdo. The American children had to be nagged mercilessly to do even the smallest chore (as no parent will be surprised to hear). In the Peruvian Andes, however, six-year-olds routinely make themselves useful by sweeping sand off of sleeping mats and catching and cooking crustaceans for the adults' dinner.

This is funny, but it's unhelpful in that it makes child-discipline feel mysterious and wishful. If only times were simpler and we all lived hunter-gatherer existences in the Amazon, our kids would behave! No wonder Lisa Belkin just gives up and embraces the positives about spoiling.

However, Allison Pugh, a sociologist who has studied family life and the author of Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture made a different suggestion to Yahoo! Shine. "The New Yorker piece exemplifies the trend in our culture; we blame children for the symptoms without doing a lot of self examination," she says. "We marvel at the six-year-old [in the Peruvian Andes] who just chipped in. That six-year-old wasn't born chipping in; she was taught."

A similar view comes from Babble writer and mother of five Meagan Francis, whose essay "Why Household Chores Mean Happier Kids," up now in At Home section of Shine, put it a different way: "Frankly, expecting kids to pull their weight--and enforcing those rules day in and day out--is tough. When I had 'just' the two kids, the daily trade-off hardly seemed worth it: It was better to just do it myself than try to oversee a pair of rambunctious, clumsy, pint-sized employees."

Sociologist Pugh cautions against concluding, however, that American parents are just lazy or American children are just bad--what she calls the "individual vice" argument--and instead suggests we look to our culture, specifically the demands of the American workplace.

"Americans work more hours than anyone else in the universe," she says. "There's a drive for efficiency. It's just more efficient to do chores yourself or outsource them rather than teaching children to contribute. That's a shame, but I don't think it's a children's shame, and it's not just the parents' fault. There are only so many hours in the workday."

This seems like a practical, rational conclusion: We don't discipline our kids because it takes time, and we often quite literally don't have the time. That is a relatively clear, and a particularly American issue. And if we identify the source of the problem, our chances of solving it-i.e. spoiling our kids less, which, yes, needs to be done-might improve, with or without the crustacean dinner.





Also on Shine:
Can kids be raised in a gender-neutral society? Sweden thinks so.
9 ways to maximize family time
The scoop on children's vitamins

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