Parenting for the New World

In the July 2nd issue of The New Yorker, there’s an article by Elizabeth Kolbert on why American children are spoiled rotten.  I found it fascinating to read about other cultures that instill responsibility at an early age, such as the subsistence farmers of the Peruvian Amazon, where toddlers heat their own food, three-year-olds practice cutting wood and grass with machetes and knives, and children of six help their fathers with hunting fishing and mothers with cooking. By the time, they reach puberty, these Matsigenka children have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival.

We all know of spoiled American children but Kolbert cites case incidents from a study by Elinor Ochs and Carolina Izquierdo of middle-class families in Los Angeles.

In another representative encounter, an eight-year-old girl sat down at the dining table. Finding that no silverware had been laid out for her, she demanded, “How am I supposed to eat?” Although the girl clearly knew where the silverware was kept, her father got up to get it for her.

It later mentions that when American youth go off to college, they’re less worried about the academics than the “logistics of everyday life.” This got me wondering whether I’ve prepared my children for life in the 21st century.

Just as the children of the Amazon rain forest knew their place in their world, their parents knew what skills would be essential. We teach our children to tie their shoelaces, but sneakers are now being marketed without laces. We still teach our children cursive script, but how often do they have to hand write any assignment? In our turbulent and constantly changing times, the skills and job titles of yesteryear are obsolete once our children are ready to leave the family home. So, inevitably, both parents and their offspring delay the moment of separation and independence.

In China and India, there is a tremendous push for education, particularly in science and technology. Thomas Friedman has written often in The New York Times about this 21st century belonging to Asia. I concur with Friedman about America’s laxity about a rigorous education for our youth, however, I’m less sanguine about the model of a rigid curriculum that prizes conformity. Throughout its relatively young history, the United States have thrived on the creativity of immigrants. Furthermore, the iconoclastic thinking of entrepreneurs like Steve Job and Bill Gates as well as visionary artists like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have re-made the world in their image and their products.

The parenting style of our American peers may be less than ideal, but we’re doing our best in chaotic times, with much of everything that we used to take for granted is undergoing societal change. The Jewish ritual of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah milestone anchors our children in their religious and cultural heritage. The skills they would need to steer their course in the adult world is less obvious. So, I conclude with giving ourselves encouragement, if not a pat on the back. We do listen to our children and together we may manage to maintain our bearings in unstable waters.