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« When Did U.S. Music Peak? | Main | Annals of Illegibility 1 »

December 06, 2006

More on Kid-Centricity

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've noted a few times before my impression that the U.S. is amazingly kid-centric. Although (at least where middle-class people are concerned) some of our big cities are places where narcissistic singles indulge in endless rounds of Ecstasy-gobbling self-pleasure, the rest of the country amazes me by the degree to which life there is arranged around children. Choices in housing and activities, recreation, and travel are often dictated by the kids, or by what the parents imagine would be good for the kids. Schools, playdates (whatever "playdates" are), and coaching sessions take precedence over adult activities and pursuits. To this big-city boy, Life Out There often looks like one big day-care center.

My own experience with other countries and cultures is modest, and visitors have informed me that India is at least as kid-centric as the U.S. is. So I guess I can't say that the U.S. is "uniquely" kid-centric. Still, the degree to which many here arrange their lives around their kids is striking.

How far back in time does this let-the-kids-show-the-way tendency go? I'm no history buff, to say the least. But I've suspected Americans of kid-centricity for at least a few decades. When I spent a teenaged year in France in the early '70s, for instance, I was shocked by how non-kid-centric France was. Most people raised children, of course, and perpetuating the population was generally thought to be a good thing. But it wouldn't have occurred to the adults I encountered to organize their lives around their kids. Kids were instead expected to fit into adults' lives.

No one went on vacation to any place like Disneyland, and camps, soccer leagues, and music lessons didn't dictate family decisions for anyone. Kids may have had their own entertainments -- their own books, music, and tv. But parents made no effort to share them. Come to think of it, French parents didn't show any urge whatsoever to use their kids as vehicles for re-living their own childhoods. Childhood, once lived through, was left behind.

Kids weren't seen as the be-all and end-all of life, in other words, as they often are in much of America. Kids also weren't felt to be a boundless source of deep wisdom, let alone the redemption of anything. Adult life had its own allures, and adults treated themselves to the food, travel, and art that suited them. They did this even during their kids' infant years, a time when many American parents seem to consider it a sacred obligation to set aside all personal pleasure.

Still, historical perspective that relies on evidence rather than dim impressions is appreciated too. I discussed an Edward Shorter book about medieval European attitudes towards children here. But how about America's long-term history with kids? Were our attitudes always as distinctive as they are today?

Recently, I scribbled down an a propos passage from an excellent Patrick Allitt American history lecture series from the Teaching Company. Here it is:

European visitors to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries were surprised at Americans' commitment to equality and democracy. Many of them were even more surprised by Americans' method of bringing up children, which seemed to them excessively permissive, encouraging too much precocity too early in life. They often found American children noisy and boisterous and badly behaved. Others noted the simultaneous American tendency to idealize children and childhood.

Interesting, no? I can see the upside of our attitude: We're kinder towards kids than Europeans are. I can see the downside too: We let kids run our lives. And -- these days anyway -- much of our culture too, which tends ever more in the direction of immediate gratification, reach-and-grab, bright colors, and whizzy gestures. Have we become so kid-centric that we've forgotten how to grow up? Have we lost track of the fact that grownup life offers rewards of its own? Aside from (or in addition to) raising kids, of course.

But I'm less interested in discussing whether our attitude towards kids is a good thing or a bad thing than I am in puzzling out where it may have come from, and why it's ours at all. I assume that the long-standing attitude that Allitt notes was exaggerated by the Rousseau-ian '60s, and then pushed into total absurdity by prosperity and by the self-esteem movement. Did America, in breaking off from Europe, imagine itself to be re-opening the possibilities of childhood and thus identify with childhood? But I'm eager to hear corrections and alternative theories. As noted, facts are always appreciated around here too.

The thing that strikes me as slightly tragic about our current situation is that it's so polarized. You're either a self-gratifyin' big-city single, or you're a 'burb-dwelling, child-worshipping breeder. That's too limited a set of options. And there's too much antagonism between these two groups. (IMHO, of course). Why should either life deride the other? In any case, while our indulgence towards kids may be a nice if somewhat overdone thing, it's too bad that our grasp on adult values and adult pleasures has become as weak as it has.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at December 6, 2006




Comments

Michael:

Though I used to be an urban gin-guzzler DINK, I now live the life suburban, with kids, and you are quite correct that life here revolves around the little ones. However, you do get the impression that parents lead kid-centric lives for largely parent-centric reasons.

Even if you think the little ones are over-programmed what with soccer, piano, dance and such, you are more or less compelled to play along, or at least meet the culture half-way. It does little good to mutter about the good old days when kids took care of themselves if there’s no one in the neighborhood to play with on account of they are all off taking lessons or playing on an organized team. Heck, in my town, an outfit called Music Together, which has the seemingly modest aim of exposing little kids to music, is opening a new facility that looks like it could house a B-52. I imagine the parents will be flocking there.

Here’s what I’d like to think, though: that complaints like yours (and mine) may well signify a change in the weather. Parents are increasingly complaining that kids get too much homework and (at least where I live) seem to be pushing unstructured play time more. That’s a good thing. Maybe it’s too much to expect a return to the idyllic 50s neighborhoods such as the one Bill Bryson describes in his recent memoir. But if the pendulum is headed in that direction, I’d be satisfied.

Fenster

Posted by: fenster moop on December 6, 2006 3:56 PM



"Why should either life deride the other?"

Because you really don't stop being a child until you have one of your own.

So if you don't have them, it's all about you. If you do, it's about them and you (in that order).

Not that I'm saying either situation is inherently good or bad unto itself. I still think you should live your life as you choose to.

Posted by: yahmdallah on December 6, 2006 4:36 PM



Just because there are a huge number of structured activities for children in most suburbs doesn't always mean that all children participate. It's common to hear about how so many children these days spend way too much time watching TV and playing video games. What I imagine happens is that a relatively small percentage of suburban children participate in multiple activities (usually at a parent's behest, of course) while a larger percentage don't participate much if at all.

Posted by: Peter on December 6, 2006 5:07 PM



Honestly, I've thought the kid-centricness was largely a consequence of fear: fear of criminals (kidnappers and pedophiles), fear of the child becoming a criminal, and fear of the child not "succeeding", whether in sports, in academics, or in the arts.

What do others think about the fear factor?

rp

Posted by: raymond pert on December 6, 2006 5:07 PM



Another supporting observation for your take on things is how commercial interests and big business have profitably fetishised childhood to the point that adult products and services are designed packaged and pitch at the consumer as if we were all 10 years old.

Posted by: TW on December 6, 2006 5:26 PM



Some random observations speaking as a resident of the kid-obsessed 'burbs, with three kids myself:

Smaller yards, or the entire absence of yards, plus fearfulness about child predators mean that kids simply can't take off to the park or downtown for hours at time, like I used to growing up.

Because of said fearfulness, informal pick-up games in the park have been replaced by formal, structured sports leagues -- with schedules and locations far from home.

The parents aren't exactly living monastic lives. They have their SUVs, their ATVs, their wide-screen TVs, their shopping, their parties. An alarming number of them love to go to Vegas or the local casinos. Whether you view this "grown-up" or not is an open question. But they are playing with adult toys.

Parents aren't necessarily devoting more one-on-one attention to the kids. Yeah, they schlep them around a lot to music lessons, etc. But at home, the kids are usually in their rooms with their video games, iPods, and laptops.

Parents view raising kids as a very defined period in their life. Once the kids are off the college, it's not like they're collapsing into a state of pod-person somnambulism. They still pursue all the adult pleasures listed above, and more besides.

Part of the reason parents spend so much time scheduling music, sports, theater, and other activities is that schools no longer provide any of this stuff. When I was in public school, I had a period of choir, a period of band, and an elective period which could include shop, theater, a foreign language, etc. Now my daughter gets precisely one "elective" period in which she can choose one of those things. If she elects to take a foreign language (don't get me started on why that should be an "elective"), that means no chorus, no musical instrument, no arts, no anything else. If parents value these things, they have to schedule them outside of school.

Fearfulness about our kids' future--college, good job, etc.--means we want to prepare them as best we can for the big wide world. The future of global capitalism looks very competitive and uncertain. I get the feeling that parents in the 50s, 60s and 70s were less worried that there would be good, plentiful jobs for everyone. We want our kids very well-rounded to face whatever they may be facing.

Posted by: Steve on December 6, 2006 5:30 PM



I see Raymond echoes a couple of my points. Hear hear!

Posted by: Steve on December 6, 2006 5:41 PM



Fenster -- That's good to hear, tks. And it's always good to hear from Fenster.

Yahmdallah -- Happy to be overridden here, but I don't think your generalization holds in an anthropological sense. The Frenchies I lived among, for instance ... They were leading their lives, and the kids were part of that. By no means were they putting the kids first, or "living for" the kids. Although attached to their kids, and devoted to continuing the patrimony, they were anything but prone to the kinds of feelings towards kids that seem to be common among Americans. By our standards, they were quite cold-blooded. The kids thrived anyway, or at least turned into competent Frenchpeople.

Peter -- I'm glad to hear that goofing-off still plays a role in today's childhood!

Raymond -- Fear can explain a lot!

TW -- Agree 100%, and thanks for the reminder. We've sort of acceeded to a vision of ourselves as producer-consumers, and being young cannon-fodder suits the system pretty well. We throw ourselves into our jobs, we get to buy fun toys. Then we get to have kids who do the same thing, only better.

Steve -- That's a very persuasive and very 3-D picture of how things are, thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 6, 2006 6:05 PM



Yes Raymond: fear of failure or of one's children failing to be become good, conformist, big ticket consumers. We are all terrified of being "losers." That's the worst epithet you can bestow on someone today.

So it's Baby Einstein, the right pre-school, and on and on until graduatate school and then the hoped for brass ring, either the corporate job with the corner office or its entrepreneurial equivalent. All helped along by Ritalin, antidepressants, and then in middle age, Nexium and anti-hypertensives for stress-induced disorders.

I'm reminded of the title of Fred Allen's book: Treadmill to Oblivion.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on December 6, 2006 6:07 PM



"Where'd you go?"
"Out."
"What'd you do?"
"Nothing."

That's the story of my whole childhood. And I don't feel deprived. Out, with my pals, living a boy's life in a boy's world. It was the greatest. Kids today. All supervised. I pity them.

Posted by: ricpic on December 6, 2006 6:17 PM



I think that in the broad sweep of things, the American egalitarianism and permissiveness noted by XIXc Europeans was a very good thing. You can have too much of anything, of course.

Chinese society is very nice to kids under about 5, but then it gets very strict. Past that age whizkids and promising scholars get a lot of favors, though. Moms tend toward the smothering but indulgent side.

Posted by: John Emerson on December 6, 2006 7:17 PM



"Chinese society is very nice to kids under about 5, but then it gets very strict. Past that age whizkids and promising scholars get a lot of favors, though. Moms tend toward the smothering but indulgent side."

They've got wonton soup, too, a pale imitation of kreplach. What are the Chinks, the thirteenth tribe?

Posted by: ricpic on December 6, 2006 7:50 PM



Smaller yards, or the entire absence of yards, plus fearfulness about child predators mean that kids simply can't take off to the park or downtown for hours at time, like I used to growing up.
Because of said fearfulness, informal pick-up games in the park have been replaced by formal, structured sports leagues -- with schedules and locations far from home.

Fearfulness surely is a major issue these days. The irony, of course, is that the danger posed by child predators is exceedingly low. Due to media hype, however, and maybe other factors, parents think the danger is much greater than it really is.

Posted by: Peter on December 6, 2006 8:00 PM



Fearfulness surely is a major issue these days. The irony, of course, is that the danger posed by child predators is exceedingly low.

True, and yet one can't be entirely rational about these things, can one? Any parent goes into a cold sweat just thinking about such things.

Posted by: Steve on December 6, 2006 8:43 PM



Furthurmore, even if one isn't personally fearful of one's kids being picked up by a predator, the social pressures (and very real possiblity of legal sanction) places an unrelenting pressure on parents to maintain supervision over their kids 24 hours a day. To wit: parents know, even if in the back of their minds, that their kids could be taken away by "Caring Professionals" and placed under the care of the State if they were discovered alone, by themselves, in such a dangerous place as a public park. One can afford to be an iconoclast when one is a blythe single; once you have kids, the pressures to conform become virtually impossible to resist.

Posted by: jimbo on December 6, 2006 9:21 PM



Fearfulness surely is a major issue these days. The irony, of course, is that the danger posed by child predators is exceedingly low.

True, and yet one can't be entirely rational about these things, can one? Any parent goes into a cold sweat just thinking about such things.

Federal emergency-preparedness training materials have an X-Y chart showing the relative probabilities and consequences of various terrorist activities. Nuclear terrorism is way off in one corner of the chart; the probability (X-axis) is extremely low but the consequences (Y-axis) are extemely high. That creates a high perception of fear notwithstanding the very low probability.

And so it is with child predators.

Posted by: Peter on December 6, 2006 9:57 PM



That creates a high perception of fear notwithstanding the very low probability.

Peter, that's true as to children being kidnapped or killed. But as for sexual abuse, at least half the women I know had at least one thing happen to them by someone or other in their childhood. Usually (not always) it was someone they knew, but often not very well. So, it's not entirely fair to brush off the worries as unfounded parental hysteria. When you're a parent, everyone should be a suspect.

Posted by: Spungen on December 7, 2006 12:55 AM



The probability of being hit by a meteor is extremely low, but the consequences if it occurred -- and it could occur at any time -- would be disastrous beyond measure.

Hence, I live in terror at all times.

Posted by: MQ on December 7, 2006 1:34 AM



Important topic IMO.

I would focus on the big picture rather than US vs France.

In the long view modern societies are much more indulgent towards children than are traditional-agrarian societies - where the kids are more-or-less a form of slave labour for the subsistence-level farm, from as soon as they can stand-up. Much of the US was agrarian-based (eg pioneer homesteading) within recent memory, and is therefore still in transition.

But hunter-gatherer societies, which are very likely the societies in which human evolved, are usually much *more* indulgent towards their children than even modern societies - they are hardly coerced or punished, and greatly cherished (and they don't have to go to school!). I'm thinking of Kung San, Inuit, Amazonian natives etc.

The evidence for all this is a bit scattered around the anthropological literature, but I think it is very solid.

So - I think it is probably 'natural' for parents (and relatives) to be indulgent to their kids. Moderns are not decadent, but merely moving (in this respect) a bit closer to their evolutionarily spontaneous behaviours.

Posted by: Bruce G Charlton on December 7, 2006 2:05 AM



There's also the phenomenon of people having fewer kids at a later age. I had my son when I was in my 20s. My sister had hers at 40 and then pretty much decided that was it. Forty-year-olds and 20-year-olds approach life differently. Add in the fear factor and the insane drive to make sure your child is a success as soon as he comes out of the womb and you've got a highly structured kid-centric world.

Posted by: Rachel on December 7, 2006 9:08 AM



"...some of our big cities are places where narcissistic singles indulge in endless rounds of Ecstasy-gobbling self-pleasure..."

Great line, very Tom Wolfe, made me want to go out on the town, thanks!

Posted by: Don McArthur on December 7, 2006 10:18 AM



Let me 'splain, because I think my point was slightly misconstrued. And first, let me say that I'm NOT saying that those who chose not to have kids are infantile or childlike (meaning childlike in the pejorative sense - I think being childlike is largely a positive thing).

I was responding specifically to the question on why the two sides go at each other, not the level of devotion or, on the flip-side, over-protectiveness that parents in different cultures exhibit.

What is the case though, is that until you have kids, your life and day is largely about you and what you want to do. Yes, if you have a significant other, they play into your plans, but they are usually not the center of them.

With children, because they depend on their parents for so much, even with the French, it's got to be about them first a lot of the time. They need breakfast, baths, sometimes help getting dressed, etc. Those things HAVE to occur, and the parents have to help.

So, I think that the childless just don't realize the amount of time and effort that takes (understandably) and sniff at the haggard parents who beg off doing "fun" stuff, and those with kids get annoyed when they feel dismissed by those who have the time to do whatever they want with their free time. And, unless you're talking about a band, using the term "breeders" (coined by gay culture) will never go over well. ;)

"Living for" the kids is a different topic. And yes, Americans have the tendency to take it too far. I think that we often make child and adult culture too separate. I remember when growing up going to a couple knock-down, drag-out adult parties. It was fun to see mom and dad really whoop it up. These days, you'd have a few sourpusses claim you were endangering the kids. And, if you're getting too blasted that's true.

But I think there can be a happy medium, and a lot of American parents admittedly do not strive for it.

My wife and I do, though. At first, soccer was a lot of fun, and our eldest got some great exercise and the fun of being part of a team. But they got really good, and the team went competitive, which meant that all the parents would have to structure their lives around 3 practices a week, and 1 to 2 games, some of them out of town. There was just no way we were going to give up our weekends and most of our weeknights just so the kids could kick a ball around. I'm sure some of the parents who stayed with the team thought less of us when we left.

And that's silly.

Posted by: yahmdallah on December 7, 2006 10:40 AM



There was just no way we were going to give up our weekends and most of our weeknights just so the kids could kick a ball around.

It's worth pointing out that you have a good problem--your kid is talented, and there are plenty of avenues in which they can explore that talent. I have to say that there are many, many more (fairly inexpensive) opportunities for kids to explore all kinds of sports and arts than there were when I was growing up. Then, if your kid shows talent, and you want to push them into more serious activities, things can get expensive in terms of both time and money very quickly.

But options and opportunities are a good thing, even if managing and choosing among them all can be a chore.

Posted by: Steve on December 7, 2006 12:30 PM






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