For almost a week now I’ve been wrestling with Elizabeth Kolbert’s article for The New Yorker entitled, “Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost?”. There are so many examples like this one in the media that make me want to declare civilization a failed experiment, grab the kids and a bag of rice to hold us over until we have constructed our primitive weapons, and head for a deserted Caribbean island where we can contemplate important questions like, “are Truth and Beauty one and the same?” and “what makes us Human?” without the deafening roar of “WHAT ARE THOSE PARENTS THINKING?” and “WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND LETS THEIR KIDS DO THAT?” and the more somber, “What sort of future adults are we raising?”.
Kolbert paints a picture of the worst of the worst when it comes to bratty and enabling behavior: eight year olds who refuse to tie or untie their own shoes, parents who can’t get their kids in the bathtub, and college students who make A’s but can’t make their own beds. More often than not, I stick to the tactful “your kids, your business” mantra. But if I am being really honest, I guess I do think its my business. If I require my kids to learn to pick up and pitch in, to share, to maintain an acceptable standard of hygiene, to be accountable for their behavior, to get a healthy regimen of sleep and nutrition, if I tow this line long and hard everyday (btw deciding between “no” and “yes” for three little people all day long is the hardest labor I’ve ever done) then I think other parents should, too. If you already find yourself beginning to bristle just take a listen to the generalization Kolbert makes about all of us who are sitting at the parenting roulette table right now:
“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.”
Translation: “Your generation is a bunch of immoral slackers and your punk kids are going to be even worse.”
Come on! I mean, I feel fairly confident about the basics at the moment but the finer points are elusive when you live in a toddler fishbowl and you answer-on-demand questions that run the gamut from ‘when is supper going to be ready?’ to ‘what’s a soul?’ to ‘why can I tee tee in the ocean but not in the pool?’. Maybe I found Kolbert’s article both insulting and frightening because as I read, I could hear that little voice in my head every paragraph or so saying, “ooh. that’s you. why haven’t you thought of that yet? you’ve got to work on that. that’s you, too. oh boy. maybe you need to ship the kids to peru so that the matsigenka tribe can raise them up right.” But before I hire indigenous surrogate parents for my brood, there are a few things I’d like to try.
CHALLENGE #1: Encouraging my kids to be more independent. I will not continue to do things for them just because its faster, or easier, or more efficient. Even though they are a bunch of small fries, I will actively look for the things that they can contribute to our household that will lead to better cooperation later down the road. Cooking for themselves, keeping a clean house, changing lightbulbs, filling out their own paperwork- these are simple things in such a complex world and if they are so simple, then our kids should be able to do them, right?
CHALLENGE #2: I will not “overestimate” my influence on my kids. I will not over-think the future or how they will remember me or whether or not something has the potential to become a bad habit in adulthood. I will keep my eyes on the horizon between protection and overindulgence and try not to squeeze my eyes shut too tight in fear of the disappointment, sorrow, and pain that I will watch them endure.
CHALLENGE #3: My family will draw a hard line between ‘need’ and ‘want’ so as not become over- ‘stuffed’. We will continue to minimalize our stuff by buying and giving only on special occasions, de-cluttering routinely, and finding ways to receive-through-giving. I pledge not to fail in CHALLENGE #2 so that I can complete CHALLENGE #3 more effectively. I shudder to think about becoming one of the families whose homes are displayed in the book, “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” as exemplary of “the crap-strewn core of American culture”. Just re-reading that quote makes me a shudder all over again.
The common thread between these three is the ability to discern between the temporal and the eternal, what lasts forever and what turns to dust and is forgotten, the reason, the truth, and the beauty that transcends the routine, the mundane, and the difficult. And I’ve arrived back at those questions I mentioned earlier but I probably won’t have time to ponder them on a deserted island. I’ll have to do it in the real world but hopefully not, as Kolbert predicts, while I am tying my teenagers’ shoes and making their beds. I would really like to go to Peru one day, though, to see how those Matsigenka’s teach their three-year olds to cut grass with a machete.
If you want to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s article “Spoiled Rotten”, you will find it here.