When Parents are Too Child-Centered

[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.

Deep-seated Fear

We’re reading Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau in my Soc of Ed class. In the book, her grad students and her report on their findings from having carefully studied several middle, working class, and poor families. The vignettes are centered upon each family’s nine or ten year old child.

She contends that middle class parents practice “concerted cultivation” by which she means they consciously supplement their children’s schooling through numerous extracurricular activities. In contrast, working class and poor families aren’t nearly as “child-centered”. Instead, they let their kids informally play with peers and rely upon, what she terms, the “accomplishment of natural growth”.

Lareau argues there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. I agree with a few of my students who have suggested the best approach is probably something in between.

When reading Lareau I can’t help thinking about the parenting approach L and I have taken over the past 17 years. I think we’ve made a good team which is another way of saying I’m proud of the young women our daughters have become.

But Lareau’s analysis has also got me thinking about my childhood. My parents were middle class when I was 9 or 10, but they took more of an “accomplishment of natural growth” approach than a “concerted cultivation” one. Maybe in part because I was the fourth of four, but I don’t think birth order was as significant a variable as the larger ethos of the time.

Even though the Vietnam War was raging (I iced-skated at Kent State once a week and was surprised to see the downtown burned down on one trip to the rink) and the counter-cultural revolution was in full bloom, parents didn’t feel they had to keep an eye on their children all the time.

I spent my summers biking a mile and a half (clubs on handlebars) on fairly busy roads to the nearby nine hole par-3 golf course and Olympic-sized outdoor pool. One summer my friends and I set up a schedule where I taught golf on M-W-F and they taught swimming and tennis Tu-Th.

I played organized baseball, but everything else was “pick up” in the hood.

Flash forward to a swim-meet conversation I had with a friend last week. The more she talked the more obvious it was that she’s afraid for her daughter. Among other revealing statements, she confessed, “I’m just so glad it’s a closed campus.”

Contrast her with my sissy who let her then 17 year old drive across several states with friends one summer. Throw in a ski boat, cabin, and I think boys for good measure. I remember asking her, “Are you crazy?” To which she replied, “She’s never given me a reason not to trust her.” Trip went off without a hitch.

My guess is my friend is far more typical than my sis.

The question is, why? How much of it has to do with nonstop national media coverage of horrific abductions and/or murders? Unlike my sister, maybe my friend spends her evenings watching those handful of cable television channels that cover (and sensationalize) crime nonstop. Is Nancy Grace to blame?

Negligent parents deserve criticism, but why don’t we challenge the increasing number of overprotective , fearful parents, to consider the costs of their sometimes obvious overcompensating?

Natural Order Restored

You may recall that in October my 16 year-old daughter shattered my 500 yard free time (6:21 versus 6:28). Last weekend, at the Third Annual Rudolph’s Plunge, I attempted to reclaim the title that is so integral to my identity: family’s fastest distance freestyler.

Uppity daughter couldn’t fathom that possibility so she finagled an invitation to a Seattle concert. Fortunately the other two members of my posse were among the thousands (or tens) packed into the Water Cube (or Briggs YMCA) as I stood on the block.

I am not a talented athlete by any stretch of the imagination, however, I have developed a reservoir of endurance as a result of consistent training over the last 15 years. Another asset is an intuitive feel for even pacing. Case in point, the Seattle Half Marathon. The marathon website provides three pages of stats for each runner based on their timing chip. One graphic said that from mile 6.2 to 13.1 I passed 233 people and 6 passed me. I ran 7:20’s for the first half of the race and 7 flats for the second, hillier section. The art of the slow build.

Oddly, my Rudolph’s Plunge 500 may have been the worst paced race in my life. I don’t know why, but I went out WAY too fast. Long story short, I faded big time over the second half, but still finished in 6:17.5. L said at one point the announcer said I was on a 6:02 pace. Opps. It’s no fun going into oxygen debt and then not being able to recover.

Reminds me of a Prefontaine quote, “The only good race pace is suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die.”

I thoroughly enjoyed posting a 6:17 sticky note on A’s mirror that night before retiring.

And at the end of a quiet circle in Northwest Indiana, my sister just shook her head in disgust.

Even though A was recently named co-captain of next year’s team, I suspect she’ll just quit the sport now that the natural order has been restored and the family record is out of reach.