Friday, July 13, 2012

Adultescence: Why Do We Raise Spoiled Children?

We are all familiar with disruptive, unruly children who refuse to obey their parents. Tales of children who never quite seem to be able to become self-sufficient are common. This latter condition has been referred to as "adultescence." Many families seem to be organized around serving the needs of the children rather than insuring that children become functional members of the household. Elizabeth Kolbert produced a wonderful article in The New Yorker: Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost? She discusses the reasons why we might have fallen into such an unacceptable mode of raising children, illustrates why such a result need not be inevitable, and suggests that the problem may be even more serious than we think.

Kolbert touches on a number of books and theories that have emerged in order to explain our inability to raise children properly. We are said to have granted so much entitlement to our children that they assume the role of the privileged rather than that of the responsible. We are told that we worry too much about what effect our actions might have on our children. Madeline Levine, a psychologist, provides this insight:

"....she argues that we do too much for our kids because we overestimate our influence. ‘Never before have parents been so (mistakenly) convinced that their every move has a ripple effect into their child’s future success,’ she writes. Paradoxically, Levine maintains, by working so hard to help our kids we end up holding them back."

"'Most parents today were brought up in a culture that put a strong emphasis on being special,’ she observes. ‘Being special takes hard work and can’t be trusted to children. Hence the exhausting cycle of constantly monitoring their work and performance, which in turn makes children feel less competent and confident, so that they need even more oversight'."

This notion that parents err in worrying about whether their children will be "special" is discussed in the context of the welfare of the children. One has to wonder how much of this over-indulgence in their children comes from parents who are concerned more for their own image. A person who wishes to be viewed in their community as successful is under great pressure to produce successful children

There was not a lot that is new or especially revealing in the relating of childrearing gone wrong. More interesting were the counterexamples Kolbert presented, and the manner in which she invoked evolution in the discussion.

Kolbert begins her article by relating an event experienced in 2004 by an anthropologist, Carolina Izquierdo, while studying a Peruvian tribe of hunters and subsistence farmers named the Matsigenka. Izquierdo accompanied a family on a leaf gathering expedition down a local river.

"A member of another family, Yanira, asked if she could come along. Izquierdo and the others spent five days on the river. Although Yanira had no clear role in the group, she quickly found ways to make herself useful. Twice a day, she swept the sand off the sleeping mats, and she helped stack the kapashi leaves for transport back to the village. In the evening, she fished for crustaceans, which she cleaned, boiled, and served to the others. Calm and self-possessed, Yanira ‘asked for nothing,’ Izquierdo later recalled. The girl’s behavior made a strong impression on the anthropologist because at the time of the trip Yanira was just six years old."

It would be impossible for us to read this passage and not assume that Yanira was an adult. To make sure we do not falsely assume that Yanira was an exception, Kolbert provides additional insight from Izquierdo.

"....Izquierdo early the Matsigenka begin encouraging their children to be useful. 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. Their competence encourages autonomy, which fosters further competence—a virtuous cycle that continues to adulthood."

Matsigenka children are entrusted with a machete years before we even begin pleading with our children to learn how to tie a shoelace. Clearly evolution has endowed our children with the ability to develop skills and responsibility at a much earlier age than is currently assumed in our societies.

Evolution is often invoked to explain a long adolescence that seems to grow ever longer. Of the great apes, humans mature most slowly. It is argued that this extended period of immaturity is necessary in order to attain the more complex skills required by human society.

"Evolutionarily speaking, this added delay makes a certain amount of sense. In an increasingly complex and unstable world, it may be adaptive to put off maturity as long as possible."

Clearly it takes much longer to become a skilled engineer or mathematician than to learn how to wield a machete. However, evolution and the complexity of society cannot explain why the Matsigenkas can entrust a three-year-old with a machete and we cannot. We have chosen, inadvertently or not, to demand less responsible behavior from our children. Any reliance on evolution to justify our children’s behavior has been proven false by the Matsigenkas.

Kolbert provides another perspective on delayed maturity.

"....adultesence might be just the opposite: not evidence of progress but another sign of a generalized regression. Letting things slide is always the easiest thing to do, in parenting no less than in banking, public education, and environmental protection. A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just about every aspect of American society."

Teaching responsibility and teaching skills are two different things. Instilling a sense of responsibility can—and should—begin immediately. It seems absurd to assume that a child who is given license to act irresponsibly will grow up to be a responsible adult and citizen.

Kolbert’s suggestion that we are seeing the fruits of our childrearing in our dysfunctional politics and in our greed-driven society is worthy of additional consideration.

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