No more spoiled kids: Delegating responsibility can help combat trend toward indulgence, experts say

Published: Sunday, Aug. 26 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

Lauren Alberts, of Vancouver, Wash., with her sons Weston, 7 months, and Ryan, 3, works continuously to delegate responsibility.

Brad Alberts

Audrey Reyes, of Miami, is getting a new Lexus for her 16th birthday. As her mom brings out the black car, glistening in the morning rays, Audrey begins to cry.

"It's not even the car I wanted," she sobs, storming away in her three-inch stiletto heels and tilted birthday tiara. The scene is captured during a 2007 episode of MTV's "My Super Sweet 16."

Contemporary American children may be one of the most indulged groups of young people in the history of the world, Elizabeth Kolbert claimed last month in a New Yorker article, "Spoiled Rotten," which incited a blogging frenzy of discomforted mothers. While American children could stand to have less unwarranted authority, parents could be doing them a lifelong favor by delegating responsibility to them as their capacities increase, experts say.

"Children's routine work at home promotes not only social but also moral responsibility," anthropologist Carolina Izquierdo wrote in an email to the Deseret News. "Micromanaging simple tasks that children are capable of performing perpetuates children's dependency in spite of the American dream of independence."

Land of the indulged

Izquierdo, an anthropologist at the University of California-Los Angeles, traveled to the Peruvian Amazon in 2004 to spend several months with the Matsigenka, a small-scale, egalitarian society that hunts for monkeys and parrots and takes leaf-gathering expeditions down the Urubamba River to bring Kapashi leaves back to the village for roofing.

Izquierdo observed a 6-year-old child, Yanira, who accompanied the group on an expedition. The calm and self-possessed child asked for nothing. She was attuned to the needs of the group, helping to stack and carry leaves, sweeping sand off the sleeping mats, and fishing for and preparing crustaceans for the group.

Izquierdo was simultaneously involved in an anthropological study of life in 21st-century Los Angeles, observing 32 middle-class families as they went about their daily life.

One child, upon getting ready to leave the house with his parents, threw a sneaker at his father and commanded that he untie it. His father requested that he ask nicely. "I'm just asking," the boy said.

There is an obvious conflict here between idealizations of children's responsibilities and actualities, Izquierdo and her colleague Elinor Ochs, also a UCLA anthropology professor, noted in an article for Ethos, the journal of the Society of Psychological Anthropology.

Why, they ask, do Matsigenka children help their families more than children in Los Angeles? Why do parents in L.A. help their children more than the Matsigenka family members?

"Questions like these are being asked — silently, imploringly, despairingly — every single day by parents from Anchorage to Miami. Why, why, why?" Kolbert wrote.

Denise Schipani, mother of two boys in New York City, shares the concern. People are seeing the results of pampering children, Schipani said. They see America falling behind in her great promise, as children aren't being raised to solve major problems and take on the world.

However, it's not reasonable or practical to try and suggest that our 6-year-old should be boiling crustaceans, Schipani said. "Culturally, that's a completely different thing." Children do, however, need responsibilities that instill confidence.

The power of responsibility

Delegating responsibility to children teaches them the satisfaction of contributing to a bigger whole, according to Alyson Schafer, a psychotherapist and author of three parenting books.

Shafer's two teenage daughters perform many chores and tasks around her house, and they say they prefer a lifestyle that allows them to be in charge of their own lives, rather than being micromanaged by adults, Schafer said.

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