When a friend passed long a link to this recent New Yorker article, dear readers, we knew it was right up our alley. In Spoiled Rotten: why do kids rule the roost? Elizabeth Kolbert makes a case that today’s parents are bringing up the most spoiled bunch of children in history and the experience is leaving parents frustrated and overworked, spawning a new genre of “tough parenting” books, like Mean Moms Rule, or The Price of Privilege.
Sadly, the story was not unfamiliar to this modern mother. Kolbert describes children who cannot and will not tie their own shoes at age 8, children who do not know how to turn on a washing machine, children who are completely incapable of setting the table for dinner. While some of her examples are extreme, she does have a point: most children today have few domestic duties, leaving their parents to clean up, pick up, tidy up, in addition to actual parenting. And feeling more like a maid than a parent is deeply frustrating.
Kolbert contrasts these typical American children with anthropological studies of indigenous cultures in which children make meaningful contributions to their own care and the economy of their family unit by age 5 or 6. Nevermind that those children might be considered adults at age 13, married with their own children by 20 and have a life expectancy of 45. The point is that even young children can contribute meaningfully to a household, and most of us are doing a miserable job of teaching them that.
How did this happen? Kolbert does not offer much on that front. Nor can I, except to say it clearly wasn’t always so. Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy with my 6 year old left me with a new respect for hard work. After cajoling my son through bedroom tidying, clothes changing, tooth brushing, I read to him about how Almanzo Wilder, age 8, cleans barn stalls with a pitchfork, fills mangers with hay, milks cows, plants seeds, trains a pair of young oxen, weeds a field of carrots, and repeatedly says “I mustn’t contradict mother/father.” Sigh.
Time to re-double the efforts to teach household chores and self-sufficiency. No, unloading the dishwasher, cleaning out backpacks, and putting away laundry is no longer enough. After all, if this were the 1870's in upstate New York, they'd be putting in 12 hour days in the fields right now. Twelve additional minutes at dinner time is not too much to require.