A few sociological answers to why American kids are “spoiled rotten”

A recent piece in the New Yorker asks “Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?” Here appear to be the crux of the problem:

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. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff—clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods. (The market for Burberry Baby and other forms of kiddie “couture” has reportedly been growing by ten per cent a year.) They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority. “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. 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. This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults fear that it isn’t working out so well: according to one poll, commissioned by Timeand CNN, two-thirds of American parents think that their children are spoiled.

The article is primarily built around anthropological comparisons with “the Matsigenka, a tribe of about twelve thousand people who live in the Peruvian Amazon.” But I think there are also some sociological answers to this issue.

1. American culture has long emphasized children. While this article seems to suggest some of this is tied to recent technological and consumer changes (we can buy so much stuff so cheaply), this stretches back further than the consumeristic 1980s to today. This reminded me of the Middletown study, an in-depth examination of Muncie, Indiana that started in the 1920s. In the first study published in 1929, here are a few of the findings regarding children (and these are from my notes so there are some summaries and some quotes):

-growing problem of “early sophistication” where young teenagers (12 to 14) act like grown-ups (135) – part of this is the relaxation of traditional prohibitions between interactions of boys and girls (137) – greater aggressiveness and less modest dress of girls (140) – parents are unsure and puzzled about what to hold children to (if they could even do that ) (143) – parents increasingly devoting more of their lives to and sacrificing for the children (146-147) – mothers eager to get their hands on any resource that will help them train their children (149) yet there is “a feeling that their difficulties outrun their best efforts to cope with them” (151)

-the school provides the most formal and systematic training (181) – the school now has more responsibility where this task may have fallen to the family in the past (190)

-“If education is oftentimes taken for granted by the business class, it is no exaggeration to say that it evokes the fervor of a religion, a means of salvation, among a large section of the working class.” (187) – “Parents insist upon more and more education as part of their children’s birthright; editors and lecturers point to education as a solution for every kind of social ill…” (219) – “Education is a faith, a religion, to Middletown.” (219) – education is not desired for its content or the life of the mind but rather as a symbol: “[seen] by the working class as an open sesame that will mysteriously admit their children to a world closed to them, and by the business class as a heavily sanctioned aid in getting on further economically or socially in the world.” (220)

In other words, the Middletown study hinted at an American world that was starting to revolve around children: teenagers were gaining independence (particularly with the introduction of the automobile) and education was a growing community emphasis as it represented future progress for younger generations.

Researchers in the early mass American suburbs also noted the emphasis on family and children. The classic study of Crestwood Heights (1956) as well as some work by Dennison Nash and Peter Berger (early 1960s) showed that suburban life was organized around children. People moved to the suburbs for their children, particularly the increase in open space, the better schools, and safety. Other more recent researchers (such as Eileen Luhr) have also noted this emphasis in contemporary suburbia.

Overall, these studies suggest that the emphasis on children is not necessarily new in the United States. The form that it takes might have changed but this is not simply the result of recent trends and this is also intertwined with the important processes of consumerism, suburbanization, and education which also have a longer and more complicated history.

2. This reminds me of Annette Lareau’s two types of parenting (see Unequal Childhoods): concerted cultivation (middle-class and up) and the accomplishment of natural growth (working-class and below). Lareau argues that there are benefits of both styles of parenting (as well as disadvantages) and I wonder if some of this “spoiledness” could be beneficial down the road. What the journalist is describing seems to fit some of Lareau’s description of concerted cultivation: parents cede authority to children as the children are taught to ask questions and assert their interests and children are pushed by parents into all sorts of activities to develop their skills. Here are my notes on what Lareau says are the advantages of this:

children become adept at using language, activities are said to teach them skills that will prepare them for later opportunities/jobs/school, parents help them access new things in school and activities, they become assertive and challenge institutions to help them, institutions often made up of same kind of people so these kids fit in

And my summary of the disadvantages:

feel a sense of entitlement, little talk about money so children have little idea what things cost (in terms of money and time), parents spend a lot of time sacrificing for children, conflict can arise with professionals (school teachers and administrators in particular throughout the text), conflict between siblings and limited contact with extended families

Doesn’t this sound like this article is arguing? While there are clearly disadvantages to this way of raising children (and the differences are perhaps made more stark in comparing this to past childrearing strategies, or even the relative lack of childhood several hundred years ago), there are also advantages. Overall, Lareau suggests children raised under concerted cultivation are better prepared than their counterparts to join the adult world. Even from a young age, these children are taught to challenge institutions and given skills that serve them down the road.

Based on Lareau’s findings, is the story all bad? Perhaps not. When I read critiques like this, I always wonder if there is a little generational bias present: “these young people of today just aren’t like we were in our day.” I suppose time will help us figure this out, particularly as we see how today’s youths handle adulthood and what they are able to accomplish.

One thought on “A few sociological answers to why American kids are “spoiled rotten”

  1. Pingback: Does social media make your life better? | Legally Sociable

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