Picture a child of 8 or so. He wakes up and carefully makes his bed before going downstairs and emptying the dishwasher. He fixes himself a bowl of cereal and calmly eats it at the table, then clears his place, rinses the bowl and spoon, and places them both in the now-empty dishwasher.Share
If this seems like some sort of mythical youngster from a faraway culture or a bygone age, you may be in the market for one of the parenting books smartly reviewed by Elizabeth Kolbert in this week’s New Yorker. Summing up the point of both the books and the review, she 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 describes an anthropologist’s encounter with 6-year-old Yanira, part of a remote Peruvian tribe. On a leaf-gathering expedition with another family, Yanira constantly makes herself useful—she sweeps the sleeping mats twice a day; she fishes for crustaceans, cooks them up and serves them to the others. “Calm and self-possessed, Yanira ‘asked for nothing,’ ” Kolbert writes of the anthropologist’s impressions.
The same anthropologist was part of a family study in Los Angeles as well, with very different results. In those families, “no child routinely performed household chores without being instructed to. Often, the kids had to be begged to attempt the simplest tasks; often, they still refused. …In [one] representative encounter, an eight-year-old girl sat down at the dining table. Finding that no silverware had been laid out for her, she demanded, ‘How am I supposed to eat?’ Although the girl clearly knew where the silverware was kept, her father got up to get it for her.”
Madeline Levine’s “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success” places much of the blame on parents’ keen desire that their children be special in all things, Kolbert says. “Being special takes hard work and can’t be trusted to children,” writes Levine. “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.” (Read entire article.)