Sunday, August 19, 2012

But ARE they spoiled?

You hear it constantly.  American children are spoiled.  There's no question about that.  The question asked is always WHY they are so spoiled.  And then book after book is written that is supposed to "cure" your child of being spoiled.  French parenting, tiger mothering, Biblical discipline, whatever it is, the goal is to stop your child from being spoiled like "all the other kids nowadays."

But I think that before answering that question, we first need to figure out what exactly we mean by the word "spoiled," and perhaps consider what factors contribute to kids being spoiled -- if, in fact, they are spoiled at all.

The other day I read an article in the New Yorker called Why Are American Children So Spoiled? It compared American children with children of primitive tribes.  The big stand-out point was that the primitive children were, at the age of six, capable of taking care of themselves and contributing to the tribe, whereas American children are constantly needing their shoes tied or snacks to be prepared for them.  We wouldn't imagine making a six-year-old responsible for taking care of himself.

But as I read through it more carefully, it seemed to be conflating two completely different things: children who lack the ability to do certain tasks, and children who are spoiled by parents "giving in to them."  The author seemed to think that "just saying no" more often would help.  But a mother quoted in the article was talking about how she had made her son take out the trash.  He had done it, but not fastened the lid back on tightly afterward.  A bear got into the trash and strewed it all over the yard.  The mother cleaned it up and reflected that having him do the work was much harder than just doing it herself.

Saying "no" more often isn't going to teach an eight-year-old how to take out the trash.  You have to actually teach the child to do the task.  Like tying shoes.  Most children reach an age where they really want to dress themselves.  But parents don't want to let them do it.  What they want is a child who is completely ready to get dressed with no input, in a short amount of time.  What they don't want is a child who is learning to dress himself and takes forever tying and retying his shoes, to get it right.  So they swoop in and "help," over the objections of the child, because they'll be late if they wait for the child to tie his own shoes.  Then a few years down the line we wonder why our kids can't tie their own shoes.

I don't think incapacity to do simple tasks is the same thing as being spoiled.  I just think the skills and habits necessary haven't been taught.  Teaching those things takes time, and it's much easier to do it ourselves ... until we find our kids are totally dependent on us, at an age where we'd rather be having them contribute a little.

I recently struggled with this issue with Marko.  He wanted something to eat, so he came to me and asked me for "summin deet," as he puts it.  I said, "Not right now, I can't get up to get it for you."  Well, he walked right into the kitchen, opened the fridge (what?! he can open the fridge?), got out a package of baloney (yeah, I know, I'm not as all-natural as I make myself sound), and brought it to me to open.  I had two opposing impulses at that point.  The first one was, "Oh, no, I can't have him opening the fridge.  I need to put a lock on it or teach him not to open it."  But the second was, "He can get his own snack all by himself!  I should encourage this!"

I chose the second.  Sure, I often have to get him to shut the fridge when he just holds it open and stares inside, like some new delicious thing is going to materialize if he waits long enough.  But don't teenage boys do that too?  And occasionally I have to keep sending him back to put the ketchup, the mustard, or the mayo back in the fridge.  But if I am careful about arranging my fridge with the Marko snacks on the bottom, and I make it a point not to buy things I'm not willing to share, I really can let him get his own snacks.  That's huge.  If at two he can get a piece of cheese or some baloney, maybe in another year or two I can teach him to pour his own milk and make his own sandwich, and I can wash my hands of making him snacks for good.  Since I want to have a lot of kids, this is definitely a goal I'd like to reach sooner rather than later.

I've mentioned before that, as parents, we tend to look for a way to train our children to do something, when really what they need is to be taught.  We struggle over getting kids to put away their toys, for instance, when the fact is they really don't know how and aren't being stubborn.  (Marko's getting there, but it's far from easy for him still.  He has to be directed the whole time.  But it's an investment.)

I'm not saying there's no such thing as a spoiled child.  There probably is.  I think I would define spoiled as "trained to expect something that society does not find it acceptable to expect."  Some cultures would think that a child wanting to be hugged or held is "spoiled," because their culture does not believe in hugging children.  But I don't consider this spoiled, because I think it's a reasonable expectation that I don't mind satisfying.  However, expecting me to buy a toy on every shopping trip, or provide candy at every meal, would be evidence of a spoiled child, because I do not intend to fulfill that expectation. 

Children expect what we teach them to expect.  If we make ourselves the one to do everything for a child, he expects that.  If we always make a special meal for a picky child, he expects that.  None of these things are really a problem if it's what you actually want to be doing.  "Spoiling" is relative to what you think a child should be expecting.  But if you, as the parent, expect a child who is completely independent and asks for nothing, when you've spent the child's whole life doing everything for him and never teaching him how to do more ... it's possible that you're the one with the wrong expectation.


Meredith said...

This post is full of win. American babies are not genetically different from tribal babies; it's the parenting that's different. The mom in the article gave up too easily when her son messed up the trash - why didn't she have him clean it up? And say "next time you'll remember about the lid?"

You have to teach kids these things. I remember my mom teaching me how to clean the bathroom according to her standards, and she walked through the whole process several times. Then when she was satisfied she turned me loose on the house.

As for those French moms, they sound an awful lot like American moms from the 50s, who tossed their kids outdoors and let them play on their own, didn't give them snacks, etc.

The Sojourner said...

I wondered the same thing as Meredith...why was the mom picking up the trash? Maybe her kid was at school or something and she didn't want it to sit out until he got home, but it sounded like it never occurred to her to have him work on fixing his mistake. (If that were me, I imagine I'd have helped him, but I wouldn't have totally insulated him from the reality of gross trash littered all over the driveway.)

But your points are also very good. If she just said, "Take out the trash" and didn't walk him through the steps, I can see how he wouldn't realize that he needed to fasten the lids or whatever. (I'm 22 and I can be painfully clueless when it comes to basic tasks like that, though I've gotten better through sheer trial and error since I've been out on my own.)

Sheila said...

Yes, both of you have a real point. I think my approach would be to say, "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't warn you about this. Let's clean it up together, and then I'll show you how to make sure the lid is on tight."

The trouble is taking the time to put up with half right for a little while, while our kids learn how to do all right. No matter how you do it, child-raising takes some input from the parents and some work! There's no easy way to change a child from a baby that knows nothing but how to nurse into an adult who takes care of you when you're old. You have to put up with actual childhood in between, which means slow learning and development and mistakes.

The Sojourner said...

Incidentally, it would never have occurred to me to secure trash can lids in case there are bears. And my parents live in a pretty rural area; I guess we just don't get bears? The biggest problem my family has had is the wind blowing over empty garbage cans so they roll down the street.

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