This week’s New Yorker contains “Spoiled Rotten,”an article written by Elizabeth Kolbert that is certain to instigate a lot of chatter online because it paints a very unflattering portrait of our kids. Kolbert writes that “…contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world,” and presents them as disobedient, incompetent at basic tasks, and lacking in direction. If she’s right about all of this there can only be one explanation: we’re doing a horrible job of raising our kids. Is she right? Are we horrible parents?
I don’t think so. I actually think American kids are pretty terrific overall, but they do leave a lot to be desired when judged against the children of the cultures Kolbert mentions. Kolbert praises the children of the Peruvian Matsigenka tribe for being able to perform adult responsibilities (like cooking or using machetes), and French children, who possess impeccable manners. No, I don’t know many American kids I would trust with a machete, and no, I would not say American children have “impeccable manners.”
Here’s the thing though. While I care about Annie being self-sufficient and well behaved, those aren’t the only qualities I’m trying to cultivate in her. I, like many American parents, put a premium on other qualities that are not nearly as developed in these cultures that put obedience and discipline first.
Despite negative portrayals in the media, the majority of American children I know are good kids who are in command of their emotions, understand ethics, and show empathy toward others. Developing these qualities isn’t easy. We give our kids more autonomy and make them more active participants in our family life. We rely less on the old school “us and them” style of parenting where kids do what they are told “because we said so.” Kids raised in those old school environments learn what they are supposed to do, but not why.
I am proud of involving Annie in our family life in a profound way and helping to develop her interpersonal skills. While the children of the Matsigenka tribe may be able to wield a machete at Annie’s age, I doubt they could understand as well as Annie why they should be nice to other people, or when to offer their Dad a hug when he feels blue. (Edited to add: Some commenters took exception to this part because they felt I was saying that the children of the Matsigenka tribe lack empathy. I absolutely think they have empathy, of course. But kids develop different skill sets depending on their location in the world. Annie doesn’t need to focus on learning basic survival at a young age as the children of the Matsigenka, so she has the luxury to hone other qualities like empathy. Kolbert’s article praises the children of Matisgenka for so quickly learning to work harmoniously in their tribe, and rightfully so, that is wonderful, but nowhere does she acknowledge that American children may have developed their own positive qualities. That is what I was trying to point out.)
As a very involved Dad who cares deeply about raising the best adult Annie possible, I’m tired of hearing so much criticism of American kids. Are our kids perfect? No. Are we perfect parents? Of course not. We are, however, the perfect parents for our kids, and have no reason to hang our heads in shame. We are creating good little people with skill sets that, if different from kids in other countries, are no less valuable.