An article in this week’s New Yorker called “Spoiled Rotten” is a shot across the bow of American parents. Contrasting the well-behaved, self sufficient children of a tribe of Peruvian Indians with their over-indulged, lazy, and narcissistic counterparts in American culture, the author wonders why on earth American parents have gone so far astray. Why are Americans raising a generation of children who can’t (or won’t) tie their own shoes, take out the garbage, or help carry in the grocery bags without setting off a nuclear devastation on the way from car to kitchen? In short, why can’t American kids be more like the children of the Matsigenka, who help their parents with the cooking, cleaning and other chores with not so much as a flicker of an eyelash?
The article contains many questions of this ilk, and writer Elizabeth Kolbert also offers a few answers. For one thing, as every parent knows, it’s more difficult to get a child to cooperate in doing household chores than for the parents to do the task themselves. American kids learn early on that if they put up a fuss and drag their feet about taking out the garbage, a parent will eventually do it for them before collection day.
Kolbert also suggests that American parents are keep theiring eyes on a higher goal than teaching their kids the skills of everyday living. The thinking goes like this—As long as Junior gets into Yale or Brown, what does it matter if he learns to take out the trash? Along these lines, one of the books mentioned in the article is a book by our own Psychology Today editor Hara Estroff Marano, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. Since parents are worried about the shrinking economic opportunities for their offspring, they will do just about anything to ensure that their child gets a degree from a top-tier school. Marano says that the helicopter parent has morphed into a “jet powered turbo attack model” who will take over all household responsibilities to make sure their kid has time to study for his S.A.T.’s and meet with his math tutor.
Since our culture is not a culture of agrarian subsistence, American parents prefer that their kid have a 4.4 GPA than high powered skills with the food processor or vacuum cleaner. What’s the harm that this kind of thinking produces a culture of “adultescents,” who need their food prepared for them in bite size pieces and their laundry done for them until the age of eighteen or even beyond?
The adultescence of American youth may not be a bad thing either. After all, according to anthropologist and psychiatrist Melvin Konner, one of the defining characteristics of homo sapiens is a prolonged juvenile period. It might even be adaptive in an evolutionary sense to put off mature adulthood as long as possible. At least an adultescent is ready to seize upon the “next big thing,” when it makes its unexpected appearance.
Or, on the other hand, the prolonged refusal — or indeed inability — to grow up might be a cultural “regression”. Adultescent kids may merely be reflecting a lack of discipline in a generation of parents who prefer to let the larger, more difficult to tackle issues (like global climate change) slide in their frantic search for the perfect cappuccino.