I’m being terrorized by a machete-wielding, three-year-old child: There are pictures of him in my head, working in his Amazon habitat, helping around the house, practicing cutting wood. His six-year-old neighbor is there too. She’s on an expedition away from her own family; cleaning camp, fishing for dinner, and preparing meals for an entire group of people.
These accomplished children are the latest images of childhood competing with my own family, leaving me breathless as I discover what parenting mistakes I’m making today. Should I be a Chinese Tiger Mom? Or more Français? Am I overparenting and being overprotective? Depriving my kids of nature, a dog, or just sunscreen?
All are topics covered in the latest health and parenting news, much of it based on science. I’m not resentful of the barrage of books, magazine articles, and blog posts – I’m just trying to keep up.
For this summer, the dominant message has been to just open the door and give kids the freedom to play. But since we live on a major thoroughfare in the city and don’t have a real yard, I’m concentrating on the word of the moment – that our spoiled kids “rule the roost.”
The tool-using Peruvian Amazon children were part of an study titled “Responsibility in Childhood,” published in 2009 but highlighted in a New Yorker magazine story this month called “Spoiled Rotten.” Writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece has garnered a lot of attention because of the vivid imagery of toddlers handling knives, and of the contrast American children provide. In their research, UCLA anthropologists Elinor Ochs and Carolina Izquierdo also studied Samoan children, plus 30 middle-class families in Los Angeles. Need I tell you which culture looks inferior in this context?
In one detailed example of American family dynamics, a father’s prolonged negotiation with his eight-year-old finds the adult nearly tying the boy’s shoes and fetching his jacket, in an everyday attempt to leave the house. You are the better parent if you haven’t been there, done that.
The researchers write: “Participation in practical tasks is not the only medium for becoming a morally responsible person, but we hypothesize that it is an important one, in that it nurtures social awareness, social responsiveness, and self–reliance integral to hearth and home and the fabric of family life.”
Plainly speaking, in the Los Angeles homes, parents served and kids played their privileged part. It’s not that Americans don’t value self-reliance and respectfulness, or that school takes up so much time, or that the families observed couldn’t use a hand from children who are developmentally capable of it, according to the study. But expectations of the L.A. children were inconsistent, and “It is reasonable to infer that Matsigenka and Samoan caregivers place a higher value on children’s practical competence at home than do U.S. caregivers,” wrote Drs. Ochs and Izquierdo.
So this week, with visions of highly skilled, independent children in other cultures on the brain, we’ve been haphazardly directing our kids toward various tasks. One child broke a bowl carrying her dinner dishes to the kitchen. One burned herself in three places with that first-world, post-Martha Stewart version of a necessary household tool, the hot-glue gun.
For the most part, our mistake was in not instructing carefully, and not reminding of rules taken for granted (don’t touch the hot glue). We need to remember both to not be overprotective, and to make sure we’re not teaching halfway.
Actually, the clearing-the-table exercise is one I’ve been trying to reinforce at every meal for a few months. And the lesson is starting to kick in; I don’t always need to remind everyone every time. Grumbling sometimes ensues when a child is directed away from the computer and toward something less fun. I often resist the urge to pick up those scraps of paper scattered on the floor, in favor of the person who made the mess doing it. With the kids' input, we still need to decide what chores to put on a chart (and make the chart).
But, it’s a start.