Kids today are being spoiled—or, more precisely, “ruined”—crows the cover of the new Atlantic. A nine-page feature by Lori Gottlieb (author of the book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough) argues that parents today aren’t tough enough on their children.
Gottlieb’s inspiration came from a number of patients she’s seen as a clinical psychologist: talented young adults with lots of promise and opportunities, but who aren’t happy. Gottlieb believes that’s because their parents tried to make them happy all the time, and now that they’re out in the real world, it doesn’t work out that way. The solution? Parents need to stop overprotecting their children, let the kids get out there and make their own mistakes, earn their own happiness.
Sure, whatever, fine. But what does this actually mean, in concrete terms? The article is short on specific examples of what parents are supposed to do differently, but here are a few:
- If your toddler trips and falls in the park, “let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen.”
- Make youth sports more competitive. Don’t just give everyone awards, or encourage kids to play those non-competitive games they have nowadays. Let kids lose, so they know what it feels like to be a loser and learn to try harder.
- If a kid steals your kid’s toy in the playground, let him. This scenario is described to Gottlieb by a preschool teacher who insists on anonymity because of her controversial views on this subject. The teacher was disappointed to see the mother of the bullied “Little Johnnie” intervene. “Kids need to learn how to work things out themselves.”
- Don’t give your kids so many choices. “When I was my son’s age,” writes Gottlieb, “I didn’t routinely get to choose my menu, or where to go on weekends.”
What Gottlieb doesn’t mention in her article is that tens of millions of non-spoiled children still exist right here in the U.S. of A. Where are they? One needs only to peek outside the professional class. Child-rearing still varies sharply by class in America, and if Gottlieb and her sources were to go hang out at a Walmart in Appalachia, or a park in a poor neighborhood, I suspect they’d be delighted to find lots of parents taking exactly the non-coddling, limited-choice approach they think this country needs.
I’m guessing Gottlieb believes that parents who combine authoritarian commands with high expectations in certain situations and a hands-off approach in others (these are kids who often come home after school and take care of the house and their own siblings, with no parental coddling available) are genuinely on to something. Yes, there are parents who love their children but don’t feel the need (more to the point, don’t have the luxury) to hover over them constantly, and those kids turn out fine.
But here’s the rub. Those kids are not being raised for an upper-middle-class lifestyle, and if and when they get there, they struggle—in part because of the way they were parented. If Gottlieb looked outside of psychology (the science of let’s-decide-what’s-best-for-everyone) to sociology (the science of let’s-look-at-a-broad-sample-of-people-living-in-different-circumstances-before-we-draw-sweeping-conclusions), she’d find that sociologist Annette Lareau wrote an entire book on the subject: Unequal Childhoods.
Lareau contrasts the kind of upper-class hands-on “concerted cultivation” Gottlieb describes to a lower-class parenting style she calls “the accomplishment of natural growth,” which is based on exactly the idea Gottlieb thinks we need more of: leave the kids alone to let them figure things out for themselves.
While the kids raised via “concerted cultivation” may show up in Gottlieb’s office complaining about existential angst, they do succeed—as Gottlieb notes—in graduating from college and landing good jobs. These opportunities are not as widely available to lower-class kids in the first place, but Lareau argues that kids raised via the “accomplishment of natural growth” regimen find themselves at a disadvantage when they do have opportunities to get ahead in the world. Why? Because the seemingly indulgent parents Gottlieb describes are actually preparing their kids very well to thrive in the privileged sectors of society. Here’s how:
- All those super-planned extra-curricular activities? Playing Little League—even a nicey-nice Little League that distributes ribbons for just participating—is a lot more like going to school, or working on a team in a professional workplace, than unsupervised sandlot baseball is. The situation Gottlieb describes, where the big kids get to steal all the toys? Really, is your workplace like that? Can the buff guy next to you just steal your MacBook if he wants it? No, he cannot. He needs to succeed by compromising and working together, and that’s a skill adults can teach to kids.
- Those choices that Gottlieb thinks are paralyzing kids with ennui? Parents who give kids choices are teaching them critical thinking skills that will benefit them down the line. If I ask a kid where she wants to go on vacation and talk through the choices with her, that teaches her to systematically analyze the various dimensions of a complicated decision, and she’ll be better prepared to make good decisions when faced with similar situations in the professional-class life I’m raising her for. If I just dictate where we’re going, I teach her to do as she’s told and not question authority. Which brings me to the important third point…
- That supposedly dangerous “cult of self-esteem.” Whether Gottlieb likes it or not, the fact of the matter is that kids who are raised to believe that they deserve the best grow up to demand the best—and actually get it, a lot more often than kids who are raised to believe that the world doesn’t owe them a god damned thing. Maybe you don’t get an A on a paper. Why? Kids raised to expect As will go to their teachers and ask why. Maybe you don’t get that job. Why? Kids raised to expect good jobs are less likely to take no for an answer. In short, kids raised in the buddy-buddy style that Gottlieb dislikes grow up to be comfortable challenging and negotiating with authority—and this pays very real dividends when they grow up.
To say that the parenting style more typically favored by working-class parents disadvantages their kids isn’t a matter of opinion: Lareau has the facts. Of course not all parents in poor families parent that way—just like the upper class has its contrarian Gottliebs. But it’s a pattern that one should consider before going to press with an almost willfully ignorant romanticizing of parents who “let go” of their kids and leave them to figure things out on their own. Kids deserve better than that, and if the behavior Gottlieb describes counts as “spoiling” children, then if you know what’s good for your kids, you’ll spoil them rotten.