[Adapted from Shirley S. Wang in the Wall Street Journal]
Anthropologist Elinor Ochs and her colleagues at UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families have studied family life in Samoa and the Peruvian Amazon region, but for the last decade they have focused on the American middle class.
Ten years ago, the UCLA team recorded video for a week of nearly every moment at home in the lives of 32 Southern California families. The families owned their own homes and had two or three children, at least one of whom was between 7 and 12 years old. About a third of the families had at least one nonwhite member, and two were headed by same-sex couples. Each family was filmed by two cameras and watched all day by at least three observers. The researchers acknowledge their presence may have altered some of the families’ behavior.
Among the findings: The families had a very child-centered focus. Parents intend to develop their children’s independence, yet raise them to be relatively dependent, even when the kids have the skills to act on their own.
Ochs, who began her career in far-off regions of the world, noticed that American children seemed relatively helpless compared with those in other cultures she and colleagues observed. In Samoa children serve food to their elders, waiting patiently in front of them before they eat. In Peru’s Amazon region children climb tall trees to harvest papaya and help haul logs to stoke fires. By contrast, Los Angeles parents focused more on the children, using simplified talk with them, doing most of the housework and intervening quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task.
In 22 of 30 families, children frequently ignored or resisted appeals to help. In the remaining eight families, the children weren’t asked to do much. In some cases, the children routinely asked the parents to do tasks, like getting them silverware. ‘How am I supposed to cut my food?’ one girl asked her parents.
Asking children to do a task led to much negotiation, and when parents asked, it sounded often like they were asking a favor, not making a demand, researchers said. Parents interviewed about their behavior said it was often too much trouble to ask.
Another finding: When the fathers came home from work, 86% of the time at least one child didn’t pay attention to him. “The kids,” the researchers noted, “are oblivious to their parents’ perspectives.” The researchers theorize that stems from a tendency in U.S. society to adapt to and focus on the children, rather than teaching children to focus on others. Americans tend to encourage children to pay attention to objects more than faces, emphasizing colors and shapes, for instance, over people. In Samoa, children are expected to be attentive to others from a very young age, and parents stress focusing on what others need.
This is a Monday, so I understand if you’re wondering what this research has to do with schooling. In short, everything. Teachers are intimately familiar with the “learned helplessness” the researchers allude to and the “helicopter parents” who swoop in and try to fix their children’s problems for them. No wonder it’s so hard for teachers to get students to think first and foremost about what’s in the best interest of the classroom.
I believe middle (and upper-middle and upper) class America has long since passed a child-centered point of diminishing returns. What explains this profound, albeit relatively recent trend? I wonder if the answer lies in large part in the aforementioned sentence, “Parents interviewed about their behavior said it was often too much trouble to ask.” By which I wonder if they mean, “After working all day we’re too exhausted to teach our children how to set the table, how to make their beds, what to do with their dishes after meals, let alone to remind them of those responsibilities, and also how to pay attention to others’ feelings, and how to solve problems themselves.”
Too few parents realize that by investing time and energy on the front-end, through teaching their children how to help around the house, how to interact respectfully with others, and how to peacefully resolve conflicts, they save themselves major frustration and hardship on the back-end.
Plus, by investing lots of teaching time on the front-end, they increase the odds that their children will become thoughtful, appreciative young adults who know the world doesn’t revolve around them.
And when caring, respectful, selfless students outnumber entitled, dismissive, self-centered ones, teaching will become especially rewarding. And everyone will live happily ever after. Amen.