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August 10, 2006

More Kids

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Speaking about kids, families, and kid-centricity ... Thanks to Dave Lull, who points out a thoughtful and amusing Joseph Epstein essay in the Wall Street Journal. Epstein wonders about something that has struck many of us too:

When was it first decided that children had to perform brilliantly at school and right out of the gate, that everything was riding on it, that not taking that physics course AP could affect one in a decisive and adverse way?

He toys with a couple of possible answers to his question, then settles on one:

Perhaps it set in with a vengeance when America became the insanely child-centered country it is.

And child-centered we indubitably are, like no other people at no other time in history. A major enticement for parents to move, for example, is good schools. Private schools, meanwhile, flourish as never before, heavy though the expense usually is. Parents slavishly follow their children around to their every game: soccer, little league, tennis. Camcorders whirl; digital cameras click. Any child who has not been either to Disneyland or Disney World by the age of seven is considered deprived. Serious phone calls are interrupted because Jen or Tyler needs Mom or Dad now ...

It's in the air, the culture: Children, in America, now rule.

I admire the way Epstein allows himself to assert something as grand as "child-centered we indubitably are, like no other people at no other time in history." No scholarship, no evidence -- nothing behind what he says but a lot of impressions and confidence. That's how I like to write too!

I'm especially eager to hear the reactions of our Desi visitors to Epstein's piece.



posted by Michael at August 10, 2006


Not necessarily for Indian men, but for Indian women, the entire purpose of life is raising your kids. It goes hand in with arranged marriage...there is no notion of a romantic bond between husband and wife, everything is about making sure that the families match for the sake of the children.

Note that I am referring to the traditional Indian system, which still applies to the non-Westernized masses. Things are changing with respect to arranged marriage and attitudes towards sex. There may be a day when America would indeed be the most child-centric nation (i.e. if in the future India loses those old traditions), but to assert that Americans are child-centric "like no other people at no other time in history" is ridiculous.

Posted by: J on August 10, 2006 6:41 PM

Chinese families (here and in Taiwan) are child-centered and education-centered, but not in an indulgent way at all. Children doing well in school are treated better than those who are not. A child doing well in school will be catered to as long as he is doing well, and if the family can swing it he won't be expected to do any other work.

The expectation is that if the child does well financially he will repay his parents generously, and it's a reasonable expectation. Many families make enormous sacrifices for their kids, but it's not a free gift.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 10, 2006 7:50 PM

I think John is right about Chinese families, but here in Hong Kong I wonder how long the ties of traditional filial piety are going to hold, at least for many families. There are so many families here with only one or two kids, and there's so much pressure put on children to excel -- the stage seems set for some serious rebellion and resentment in years to come.

I thought Epstein's line

What if all the promise they were told they had seems to come to nothing? The pressure now is on them, poor privileged kids, and I don't envy them.

sums it up nicely for American kids, though. Look hey, kids -- you're all geniuses!! Or you're told you're going to be, even though you already know deep down that there are just a few genuinely smart kids in your school class, and the rest of you are average or below. This is another facet of that 'child-centred' educational philosophy I was griping about a couple days ago. Not only are children naturally good, they're naturally creative. Problem is, true originality -- I don't much believe in 'creativity' -- is rare.

It's interesting seeing schools and universities here in HK try to adopt western educational philosophies. They talk a good game, but a lot of the evidence on the ground is of waves of progressive theory breaking on the shoals of Chinese traditional culture. But that may be changing, as I suggested above.

Posted by: mr tall on August 10, 2006 9:07 PM

As a person who has been raised in the aforementioned Chinese family and been exposed to Chinese American culture, I'd say the Chinese are less child-centered. It is, after all, all about respecting the elders. Instead, they view their kids more like status symbols--not only between different families but also within the same family. How many times have I heard people tell me their little Johnny or Harry or Jenny won some piano competition or got into Harvard just as snobs would flash their new BMWs? Probably too many.

Posted by: sya on August 10, 2006 9:56 PM

I think that's a bit funny, because few of the immense number of black, hispanic, and lower class whites I have ever run across do this--its the upper middle class, or even middle class of white collegians (also monority collegians too, black, hispanic, especially asian) who do this. The reason why they do this is manifold--their firm belief in credentialism (degrees, advanced or not, big-name schools, resume burnishing, etc.), their uber-busy lifestyles of both spouses working, their obsession with having the best, or at least as much as the next guy, and whatever else you can think of along this vein. How deprived I was only playing football in the fall ( I don't really care much about that now!).

Posted by: s on August 10, 2006 10:31 PM

"Child-centered" can mean two things, one "letting the child do whatever he wants and making sacrifices so he can do so" and the other "organizing the whole family around the child's education and upward mobility". Chinese parents do the latter -- one guy told me that he didn't like his own life much but was doing everything for his children and grandchildren.

Blacks, hispanics, and lower class whites who are not child-centered or education-centered are, in most contexts, looked on as problems rather than solutions. Increasingly uneducated kids will do less well than their uneducated parents -- no more good jobs at the mill.

Haven't actually read it, but before the American Revolution a French writer named Crevecoeur wrote a book about the American colonies, and noted the same indulgence of children.

The medical students I used to meet seemed simultaneously spoiled and sheltered, and on the other hand terribly driven by ambition and their parents' and their own expectations.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 11, 2006 7:26 AM

No wonder art's in a slump. In today's environment if you're a dreamy type of kid you go right to the bottom of the barrel.
(Said only half in jest).

Posted by: ricpic on August 11, 2006 1:08 PM

Look, this is a rational development for people from poor societies with a limited meritocracy. In the US, being lower middle class does not destroy one's life. In many countries, the lifestyle difference between being lower middle class and upper middle class is quite significant. Schooling and credentials are the one, nearly sure way of keeping one's family above the line. They are also less reliant on the family having pre-existing social contacts than most other forms of advancement.

Even in the US, the kind of kids who can get into an Ivy or near-Ivy, coast in an easy Humanities Major with a 3.5, go bum around for a year, and then use family friends to get a good job are confined to a small elite.

Going to Princeton in Math then Yale for Law is one of the ways that an immigrant family with no connections can boost their kid's chances.

Furthermore, as some econ work has suggested there is a big winner take all payoff at the very top end of the rat race. Average hours of work have fallen over the last 40 years, but I think hours worked for top doctors and lawyers are UP rather than down -- at least in the first few years. This is consistent with the race for talent at the very top of the distribution.

The only difference is that here in the USA, you can go to Community College, work as a clerk at a small bank and in most non-big cities have a decent life with your own home and car if you save and work hard.

Nonetheless, the social and financial payoffs for being at the very top of the professions are real and large.

Posted by: nn on August 11, 2006 8:42 PM

"In the US, being lower middle class does not destroy one's life.... here in the USA, you can go to Community College, work as a clerk at a small bank and in most non-big cities have a decent life with your own home and car if you save and work hard."

That's true but increasingly less so, at least for lower middle class white families. To them, below-median income means living in neighborhoods and going to schools that are becoming increasingly third world.

Posted by: hugh on August 12, 2006 5:02 AM

Let me say this: child-centered we indubitably are, like no other people at no other time in history.

Epstein agrees with me, so he's absolutely right, and good on him for going public with it. I'm sure he'll get plenty of hate mail.

I'll offer evidence, if not proof. Watch (if you're in a scientific-research or self-punishing mood) a dozen made-for-TV movies on the legacy channels (i.e., ABC, CBS, NBC) or Lifetime and others of that ilk. Pay special attention to the sound track.

When is the romantic, syrupy string music cued? When boy meets girl? When husband and wife are seen alone (although this is rarely shown)? No; I'll give you good odds that it's during a two-shot of mother and child, or maybe just as often these days, of father and child.

I rest my case, as we all trudge on the road to pediocracy.

Posted by: Rick Darby on August 12, 2006 9:12 AM

Are "child-centered" symptoms another manifestation of "self-centered" adults? I see an increasing and ugly willingness to sexualize and exploit younger and younger persons. I wish this obsessing on one's own kids were more generalized to include kids in general.

Posted by: Bradamante on August 12, 2006 9:19 AM

"generalized to include kids in general" Yikes! I really need to preview my posts!

Posted by: Bradamante on August 12, 2006 11:54 AM

The situation-comedy thing where the husband is whipped by both his wife and his smart-mouth kids is fully-developed in some of WC Fields' movies. He's well worth a look, and as a grumpy old man should appeal to many here.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 12, 2006 2:08 PM


I noted that one should live in NON-big cities. If you choose to remain in NYC, LA, Chicago, DC, you may have these problems. But if you are willing to relocate to small town USA this is less of an issue. If you insist on a decent standard of living with low education in a highly desirable city, you have no right to assume you should be able to do so. This is no more reasonable than saying that it used to be cheap to live in Paris in the 1920s and it should remain that way.

Granted crime and third-world problems are on the rise, but consider: IF the big cities were LESS third-world and more problem-free than today, then it would be even more expensive to live in the well-known metropolitan centers.

Posted by: nn on August 13, 2006 9:37 AM

As for child-centeredness. The US is extreme only if you define it by a peculiar mix of spoiling and pushiness. But with respect to academics, upper class Americans are not even in the same league as middle class Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Koreans. Only a handful of high schools provide a really rigorous education and most colleges have grading curves that make foreigners laugh. Required coursework -- especially in math and english -- is watered down from what it was in the 60s and 70s and it's easier than ever to get by with a B minus. So, speaking as an immigrant, I would much prefer it if Americans were to push their kids even harder. The one major difference is that the Ivies have a preference for "social" accomplishments such as sports or so-called community service. Frankly the US would be a better place if the US had really serious testing (none of this sub-standard SAT garbage) and pure test-based college admissions.

Posted by: nn on August 13, 2006 9:46 AM

I can't speak for anyone else, but what I'm thinking about when I'm thinking "child-centricity" is the way so many US adults seem to organize their lives almost completely around their kids and their kids' schedules and (supposed) needs these days. They live where they live "for the kids." They drive the cars they drive "for the kids." They travel where they travel "for the kids." They see only kiddie movies. Their free time runs according to the kids' schedules.

Even granting that raising kids is an exhausting big deal, it seems to have gone a little far in many cases. Some parents seem over-devoted to the "kids" thing -- and (to my mind anyway) that hint of religiosity in "devoted" helps explain it. They've given themselves to the kids thang in lieu of (or as a kind of replacement for) religion. Their kids give them a sense of purpose in life, I guess. Which is nice, I suppose .... Though (at least where I live) I do see a lot of parents really overdoing it, in ways that don't seem to me to have anything to do with the actual well-being of the kid and an awful lot to do with the parents' dreams and narcissism ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 13, 2006 1:36 PM

Let me toss one other issue into the mix: the growth in modern societies of a new aristocracy: to wit, the managerial-professional elite (senior corporate managers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, government bureaucrats, academics at research universities, etc.). These people live in a bizarre sweet spot, in which without taking an iota of personal risk they enjoy very high levels of compensation, prestige and sexual opportunities. (I have argued that the only way such a large group of people can float above the risk-reward curve of the rest of capitalist society is because of government intervention on their behalf, hence my dubbing them "aristocrats" in analogy to ancien regime France, but you don't have to buy my theory to note that something strange is going on here.)

Clearly, lots of people have noted that these people have a really, really sweet deal going on and are sensibly eager for their children to get a chance to float above the ground as members of the new aristocracy, too. So they push the children educationally and socially, hoping that they will join the modern noblesse de la robe.

In short, a lot of what strikes you as parental dreams and narcissism may be actually quite hardheaded and rational, given the nature of contemporary society. Just as wealthy families in 18th century France would pay outlandish fees to buy government offices for their children...

I think the French even have a saying about the more things changing, the more they stay the same, no?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 14, 2006 12:33 AM

Sounds plausible to me. I'm buyin' it!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 14, 2006 12:47 AM

As for desis, here are some of the ways in which kid-centricity is seen. By kids, I include adolescent or even adult (early 20s) children.

- A person is not considered complete unless s/he is a parent. One of the four stages in a person's life is that of the householder (grihastha) where the duty of the couple is to raise kids.

- A house is said to be lively and nice only if it is full of kids running around and causing havoc.

- The whole institution of caste and arranged marriage can be argued as kid-related.

- It is not uncommon for parents to spend their entire life savings on their daughters' weddings and end up almost penniless. If it is not their daughters' weddings, it could be their sons' education expenses ("donation" or "capitation" fees), especially entry into a presitigious college. Funny that they call it "capitation" - presumably the dad that paid it will become decapitated. :)

Posted by: JM on August 15, 2006 1:09 AM

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