Looking to be spoilt

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InCarolina Izquierdo, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, spent several months with the Matsigenka, a tribe of about twelve thousand people who live in the Peruvian Amazon. The Matsigenka hunt for monkeys and parrots, grow yucca and bananas, and build houses that they roof with the leaves of a particular kind of palm tree, known as a kapashi. At one point, Izquierdo decided to accompany a local family on a leaf-gathering expedition down the Urubamba River.

A member of another family, Yanira, asked if she could come along. Izquierdo and the others spent five days on the river. Although Yanira had no clear role in the group, she quickly found ways to make herself useful.

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Twice a day, she swept the sand off the sleeping mats, and she helped stack the kapashi leaves Looking to be spoilt transport back to the village. In the evening, she fished for crustaceans, which she cleaned, boiled, and served to the others. While Izquierdo was doing field work among the Matsigenka, she was also involved in an anthropological study closer to home.

A colleague of hers, Elinor Ochs, had recruited thirty-two middle-class families for a study of life in twenty-first-century Los Angeles. Ochs had arranged to have the families filmed as they ate, fought, made up, and did the dishes. Izquierdo and Ochs shared an interest in many ethnographic issues, including child rearing. How did parents in different cultures train young people to assume adult responsibilities? In the L. Often, the kids had to be begged to attempt the simplest tasks; often, they still refused. In one fairly typical encounter, a father asked his eight-year-old son five times to please go take a bath or a shower.

After the fifth plea went unheeded, the father picked the boy up and carried him into the bathroom. A few minutes later, the kid, still unwashed, wandered into another room to play a video game. In another representative encounter, an eight-year-old girl sat down at the dining table. In a third episode captured on tape, a boy named Ben was supposed to leave the house with his parents. Ben put them on, then asked his father to retie them. Ben was unfazed. Why, why, why? With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world.

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Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call.

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Unemployed, Jed liked to stay out late, sleep until noon, and wander around in his boxers. Another is parents like her. Madeline Levine, a psychologist who lives outside San Francisco, specializes in treating young adults. Paradoxically, Levine maintains, by working so hard to help our kids we end up holding them back. Hence the exhausting cycle of constantly monitoring their work and performance, which in turn makes children feel less competent and confident, so that they need even more oversight. Pamela Druckerman, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journalmoved to Paris after losing her job.

She married a British expatriate and not long after that gave birth to a daughter. Druckerman talked to a lot of French mothers, all of them svelte and most apparently well rested.

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She learned that the French believe ignoring children is good for them. Also key, Druckerman discovered, is just saying non. In contrast to American parents, French parents, when they say it, actually mean it. Not long ago, in the hope that our sons might become a little more Matsigenka, my husband and I gave them a new job: unloading the grocery bags from the car. One evening when I came home from the store, it was raining.

Carrying two or three bags, the youngest, Aaron, who is thirteen, tried to jump over a puddle. There was a loud crash. Now, in addition to unloading groceries, he would also have the task of taking out the garbage. On one of his first forays, he neglected to close the lid on the pail tightly enough, and it attracted a bear. Ochs and Izquierdo noted, in their paper on the differences between the family lives of the Matsigenka and the Angelenos, how early the Matsigenka begin encouraging their children to be useful. As a consequence, by the time they reach puberty Matsigenka kids have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival.

Their competence encourages autonomy, which fosters further competence—a virtuous cycle that continues to adulthood. The cycle in American households seems mostly to run in the opposite direction. So little is expected of kids that even adolescents may not know how to operate the many labor-saving devices their homes are filled with. Their incompetence begets exasperation, which in still less being asked of them which leaves them more time for Looking to be spoilt games. And, in a certain sense, this is probably true: how many parents in Park Slope or Brentwood would trust their three-year-olds to cut the grass with a machete?

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Her argument runs more or less as follows: High-powered parents worry that the economic opportunities for their children are shrinking. They see a degree from a top-tier school as one of the few ways to give their kids a jump on the competition. In order to secure this advantage, they will do pretty much anything, which means not just taking care of all the cooking and cleaning but also helping their children with math homework, hiring them S.

Marano, an editor-at-large at Psychology Todaytells about a high school in Washington State that required students to write an eight- paper and present a ten-minute oral report before graduating. When one senior got a failing grade on his project, his parents hired a lawyer.

The products of all this hovering, meanwhile, worry that they may not be able to manage college in the absence of household help. One of the offshoots of the L. The Matsigenka prize hard work and self-sufficiency. Their daily rituals, their child-rearing practices, and even their folktales reinforce these values, which have an obvious utility for subsistence farmers. In contemporary American culture, the patterns are more elusive. What values do we convey by turning our homes into warehouses for dolls?

By asing our kids chores and then rewarding them when they screw up? By untying and then retying their shoes for them? Chimpanzees, for instance, are born with brains half their adult Looking to be spoilt the brains of human babies are only a third of their adult size. No one knows when exactly in the process of hominid evolution juvenile development began to slow down, but even Homo ergaster Looking to be spoilt, who evolved some 1. The same trend that appears in human prehistory shows up in history as well.

The farther back you look, the faster kids grew up. In medieval Europe, children from seven on were initiated into adult work. Compulsory schooling, introduced in the nineteenth century, pushed back the age of maturity to sixteen or so. By the middle of the twentieth century, college graduation seemed, at least in this country, to be the new dividing line.

Evolutionarily speaking, this added delay makes a certain amount of sense. In an increasingly complex and unstable world, it may be adaptive to put off maturity as long as possible. According to this way of thinking, staying forever young means always being ready for the next big thing whatever that might be. Or adultesence might be just the opposite: not evidence of progress but another of a generalized regression. Letting things slide is always the easiest thing to do, in parenting no less than in banking, public education, and environmental protection.

A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just about every aspect of American society. By Elizabeth Kolbert. e-mail address.

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