I’ve been teaching some texts relevant to this New Yorker article and have been having mixed feelings about the issues it raises. It’s not long, but if you want the quickie version, Kolbert discusses an anthropologist’s comparison between this kid in the Peruvian Amazon:
A member of another family, Yanira, asked if she could come along. Izquierdo and the others spent five days on the river. Although Yanira had no clear role in the group, she quickly found ways to make herself useful. Twice a day, she swept the sand off the sleeping mats, and she helped stack the kapashi leaves for transport back to the village. In the evening, she fished for crustaceans, which she cleaned, boiled, and served to the others. Calm and self-possessed, Yanira “asked for nothing,” Izquierdo later recalled. The girl’s behavior made a strong impression on the anthropologist because at the time of the trip Yanira was just six years old.
and this kid, in LA:
In a third episode captured on tape, a boy named Ben was supposed to leave the house with his parents. But he couldn’t get his feet into his sneakers, because the laces were tied. He handed one of the shoes to his father: “Untie it!” His father suggested that he ask nicely.
“Can you untie it?” Ben replied. After more back-and-forth, his father untied Ben’s sneakers. Ben put them on, then asked his father to retie them. “You tie your shoes and let’s go,’’ his father finally exploded. Ben was unfazed. “I’m just asking,’’ he said.
I’d read about this anthropologist’s work elsewhere, but Kolbert goes on to bring up several of the ineffective responses people have to reading about these different kinds of kids. Everyone says they want a self-sufficient adult human to pop out of the other end of childhood, but getting there would take a complete restructuring of American expectations. A self-sufficient kid is one who has learned the hard way that she has to learn the hard way. A self-sufficient kid is one who has gone through what a lot of bourgeois mommies and daddies would consider to be abuse and neglect.
When I tell the story about how I was in charge of making mashed potatoes and chicken fried steak with white gravy when I was eight, the kind of people I know now gasp in horror. Mom was yelling what to do from the other room. Her back hurt and she couldn’t stand. If I didn’t do it, we didn’t eat. I’m not saying that I wasn’t emotionally hobbled in a thousand other ways, but at least in the cooking arena, I feel infinitely more competent than a lot of my peers. I didn’t learn from a book or from TV; I learned to cook because I was hungry and Mom wasn’t going to do it for me. Cooking and math I had to figure out on my own. Everything else that is useful I suck at.
As the article points out, though, probably the main reason why parents do absolutely everything for their kids is that kids take a really fucking long time to do things and they make a mess. My ex toted his children around in a double running stroller well into late childhood, not because his children were incapable of walking ten blocks, but because it took twenty times longer if they walked. His excuse was that other people would drive that far; why shouldn’t they get toted? And why should he teach his kids to cook? He’s the one who went to culinary school, and he’s proud to make them whatever they order. He couldn’t do anything about their mother abandoning them; the least he can do for them is everything.
In the end, it seems that no one is happy when kids are useless balls of need. The kids aren’t happy to suck at everything. The parents hate that their kids suck at everything. Parents don’t have the infinite time and resources to take care of their children until they’re dead. And yet no one wants the infancy to end.
I have nothing original to contribute to this, really, other than a lot of questions. Mostly, I read this and experience intense pleasure at not having to deal with any young people until they’re 18 and I can legitimately say they’re out of the nest, so they’d better start flapping.