What can a kid do?

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.

4 responses to “What can a kid do?”

  1. LP says:

    I think about these kinds of questions a lot, actually – especially since I have nieces and a nephew who are entering young adulthood. It does seem like kids today are significantly less capable of doing things for themselves than kids from earlier generations. (On the other hand, I hate that I am now the person who talks about “kids today.”)

    The other trend that is rather maddening is the new tendency of parents to seek approval from their kids, rather than the other way around. In some ways, teenagers have more power than they ever have. In others, they seem to have none. And no one seems to want to grow up.

  2. A White Bear says:

    I think this de-skilling of youth has been going on for quite some time. A friend of mine who was raised in Eastern Europe is often appalled by how many Americans don’t know how to sew or clean, and that they need to be entertained all the time. And my cooking training was already totally old-fashioned in the 80’s. It doesn’t make us happy, having no skills.

    I saw some of my parents’ friends actively doing this to their kids, making sure they were incompetent for the purpose of ensuring that they’d come back and live close after college. They overshot a bit and two out of the three of them didn’t finish school and moved back in with mom. I thought it was interesting in the article that students going off to college were not as worried about academic success as they were about living independently. Although I think I could have benefited from my parents backing off even further even earlier, I was still eager as hell to get out of my parents’ house and live on my own. I still make poor decisions, but I would never trade it for dependency. And I don’t imagine those who are dependent get any pleasure from it. It’s just easier than something that is effectively impossible.

  3. LP says:

    I think that eagerness to get out of the house as a young adult is a good thing, but that trend seems to be on the wane. So many young people seem not only willing but actually kind of happy to move back in with their parents after graduating / dropping out of college. And yet… Lena Dunham lived happily with her parents while writing / shooting the entire first season of Girls, so who’s to say that living at home dampens one’s ability to develop an adult-level sense of responsibility?

    I just read the whole New Yorker article, by the way. Wow. So much in there gave me pause / led to forehead slapping.

  4. Thorn says:

    I think about this all the time. Since my only parenting experience is with kids who’ve experienced abuse and/or neglect, I have seen a lot of survival behaviors they’ve taken on at young ages. And because we don’t live in the Amazon, I’ve spent a fair amount of time saying, “That’s a mom job. You don’t need to take care of that; you take care of you.” It’s always about balancing the areas where a kid is ahead of the age curve (in healthy or less-than-healthy ways, since babies who are left alone develop some counterproductive self-soothing skills) and ways where they’re developmentally behind, which is also sometimes a problem and sometimes something that will work itself out.

    But I live in a school district where the 4-year-old in preschool brought home a bag of food in his backpack at the end of every week, all things that could be eaten cold and didn’t need to be refrigerated so that any kid could open her own beans and franks or vanilla pudding or carton of juice if there was no food around and no adult to cook. There’s a huge class dynamic to all of this that I think is getting overlooked in some other discussions of the article. I’m deliberately trying to raise our adopted daughter Mara to be able to code-switch when it comes to class as well as race because I don’t want her to think she was “saved” from poverty or that her life is richer than that of her siblings who live with their aunt just because we’re better off than they are. It’s tough, and a lot of parents would probably rather not think that way.