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.
The old idea that children will be working for the rest of their lives, so childhood should be utopia, is actually wrong, Schafer said.
"Kids are already forming a perspective of how life operates from the earliest of ages, so their fundamental belief system and world view is pretty much entrenched by the age of 5."
Children want to feel valued and in many ways, our children in this modern society are inert tumors in the family, Schafer said. Early socialization that moves the child's self-interest away from oneself can teach children to realize they are one among many.
"Kids who are happy contributors have a higher self-esteem," Schafer said. "They have the benefit of human connection that will continue to enrich their lives as they reach adulthood."
Early socialization starts as simple as answering the door or offering to take someone's coat, Schafer said. If your child refuses to do what you say, allow the consequences to unfold. If a child doesn't set the table as asked, don't do it yourself. Call everyone together and set the food on the table.
"The reality of the situation will set in and they will do it," Schafer said. "If the child doesn't have a plate to eat on, she will get one."
Debbie McCormick, of Winston-Salem, N.C., sometimes delegates tasks based on the child.
"I have one son who loves to bag up trash, so that is what I will ask him to do," she said. "My other son loves organization, so he is the one I usually ask to line up the shoes on the shoe rack."
Lauren Alberts, mother of two from Vancouver, Wash., has found consistency in delegating responsibility to her children to be difficult but rewarding.
"Life isn't consistent. Bad weather, people get sick, vacations happen, people lose jobs and move to start new ones," Alberts said.
"Our lives are changing daily, and most of the time we never know what is going to happen next. So striving to have some consistency in our home is vital to my children's well-being because it will give us some stability when things get rough."
If you stick to it, your kids will, too, Alberts said.
They will have fun with it because they feel in control of their environment and know what to expect.
Routine participation cultivates moral and social responsibility, Izquierdo and Ochs found. "Parental inconsistency in task assignment, with concurrent confused expectations, clouds the path to this end."
Let them fail
Joining the rising genre of parenting books curtailing what Kolbert notes is a prevailing trend of permissive parenting, Schipani released "Mean Moms Rule" last month.
Permitting your children to fail, Schipani said, can be difficult. Allowing your kid to forget to put his homework in his backpack will ensure that he will get to school and be called out as the kid who didn't do his homework, but there's a point where you have to let him deal with the consequence, or you will be putting his homework in his backpack until he's in college.6 comments on this story
"You have to swallow that instinct to protect him from something like this," Schipani said.
No parent wants to see their kid hurt or disappointed, upset or in trouble, but sometimes those are the lessons they have to learn, Schipani said.
"If you let them fail, you also open up the possibility that they will succeed and rise to the occasion."