This morning (Tuesday), I tweeted The New Yorker article that is making the rounds about how American kids are spoiled. Compared to kids raised in tribes in the Amazon, our kids are positively useless (and we as parents are positively failing them). We tie their shoes for them and don’t let them cut the grass with machetes.
Look, I’m all for allowing my kids a little more independence than what seems to be allowed today. But, at the end of the day, at least for most parents, we’ve been forced into the cult of efficiency; it is much faster to tie the kids’ shoes for them (or even better, get ones with Velcro). When you have to be out the door by a certain time or be late for work/school (and get fired or have the truancy officers at your door), then making their lunches, tying their shoes, and getting them dressed just happens.
When my daughter was little, we had the luxury of time. My husband was a PhD student and I was an adjunct. We matched our schedules so that someone was always home with her. She taught herself how to get dressed, feed herself, wash herself, brush her own teeth, etc. We were rarely in a rush. My son, on the other hand, came of age with both parents working full time, with very set schedules to keep. We couldn’t sit around and just wait for him to figure out how to put on his pants. We needed to be out the door so that mommy and daddy weren’t late for class.
But it’s more than that. Look at the activities that the tribal children were able to learn to do: they were easy to scale down, readily observable and repeatable, and (perhaps most importantly) essential to the survival of the entire tribe. My kids are desperate to help me or my husband with our work. I have a picture in my office, drawn by my daughter, of me working on a computer. That’s my job to her. How much assistance can a 5-year-old be when it comes to writing a 15 page essay? And, how enthusiastic will she be when she can actually read what I write and decide, meh? She has, however, been able to work an iPhone since she was 18 months old. I rarely cook or clean, but when I do, I oscillate between letting the kids help and shooing them away, partially because I hate the activities so much that it’s hard for me to see it as quality time with the kids.
Which brings me back to the quote in the title. After reading the essay and debating the message, my son called me from upstairs, “Mommy, I need you.” It melted my heart and I headed upstairs to help my son get dressed. In the tribe, every job is important and, to a certain extent, their lives depend on it. There’s not much that we do that our lives seem to depend on anymore, and we know it. Or rather, we are further and further removed from the basics of survival. I go and work at a thankless job that I derive decreasing amounts of satisfaction from in order to make (less and less) money in order to buy the things I need to survive. I am underappreciated at work, both by those in charge, who underpay and try as hard as they can to exploit me, and those that I teach, who resent me and what I am trying to teach them. Nothing that I do seems to make any difference. But my kids, they still need me. I can still make a difference with them, for them. Maybe sometimes I do over-parent, but in a society where people are increasingly withdrawn and disconnected from one another, I can see and feel the connection with my kids. As we feel increasingly powerless in our day-to-day lives, as what we do goes increasingly unrecognized and unrewarded, is it any wonder that we strive to nurture and protect those things that mean the most to us?