Saturday, March 17, 2012

Anthropologists in the Family-Focused Suburbs, or the American Cult of Autonomy

Anthropologist Elinor Ochs and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles have turned their tools on a very strange tribe indeed, American middle class families with children:
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. They have been picking apart the footage ever since, scrutinizing behavior, comments and even their refrigerators's contents for clues. The families, recruited primarily through ads, owned their own homes and had two or three children, at least one of whom was between 7 and 12 years old.
The researchers are producing two books based on their studies, but one thing they have already gone public about is their astonishment at how little American children do for themselves:
Dr. 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 had observed.

In those cultures, young children were expected to contribute substantially to the community, says Dr. Ochs. Children in Samoa serve food to their elders, waiting patiently in front of them before they eat, as shown in one video snippet. Another video clip shows a girl around 5 years of age in Peru's Amazon region climbing a tall tree to harvest papaya, and helping haul logs thicker than her leg to stoke a fire.

By contrast, the U.S. videos showed Los Angeles parents focusing 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, according to a study published in the journal Ethos in 2009. 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?" Dr. Ochs recalls one girl asking 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.
This is certainly my experience: getting my sons to do anything usually takes twice as long as doing it myself. Getting them to do something I can't do for them, like their homework, is often flat-out impossible. I hear the words, "you have to make them do it," and I wonder what that means. How, without employing physical violence, do you "make" a person do anything?

I have thought about this a great deal, often in cross-cultural terms. It is undeniably true that contemporary children in North American and Europe are all but useless -- they do next to no chores, and are extremely uncooperative when their parents ask them to do anything. Why?

Partly this is the flowering of the domestic cult that began with the Victorians, in which the family is a temple of love rather than a productive unit. The anthropologists noted that in America, "family time" excludes any kind of work, whereas in the other cultures they studied it means working together. I have found that it is always easier to get my children to work if I pitch in with them.

There is also the importance we attach to school. Getting some kids to do their schoolwork is so difficult that it uses up all the weapons parents have at their disposal, leaving no energy, bribes or threats left to use on chores.

In our society, housework is devalued compared to intellectual, professional work, and children no doubt learn very young that cleaning their rooms is a servile thing. Really successful people -- doctors, lawyers -- pay someone else to do their cleaning for them, and even lower middle class parents set little value on household labor, compared to their "real" jobs. So children see being asked to do chores as being treated like menial help, not, as in other societies, as being treated like grownups.

But I wonder if there isn't something deep about our whole society involved here. The best way to understand my sons' behavior, I think, is to posit that their supreme task in life is achieving autonomy. They absolutely hate to be told what to do, and they are willing to engage in titanic struggles to avoid any suggestion that another person has the right to order them around. Their time is their own, and anybody who wants to control even a minute of it had better be ready for a huge fight. My problem son will fail a class rather than follow instructions from a teacher he thinks has disrespected him. When I point out to him that only he is suffering from this, and that he is screwing up his own future, killing his chance to go to a good college like he says he wants to, and so on, he only shrugs. To him, future success is a small matter compared to resisting authority in the present. I have two friends with similar sons, who cannot be made to see that it is in their own interest to go along with the system. They won't use the system to achieve their own goals, because their supreme goal, almost their only goal, is escaping from the system altogether.

Is this, I wonder, the end point of the individualism that defines the modern world? We have taught our children since they were infants that they must think for themselves, choose their own path, resist "peer pressure," be what they want to be, and so on. Is this producing a generation of children who refuse to do anything they don't, in that moment, feel like doing?

Does this, rather than some intellectual development, explain the surge of interest in libertarianism?

Obviously this is a gross generalization. Even the most rigid societies have outlaws, and just in this family the children vary a great deal. My daughters are much more cooperative than my sons, and my elder daughter is an excellent student and also well skilled in getting ahead by cultivating relationships with her teachers. I think that, on average, this struggle over autonomy is a bigger issue with boys, and that this more than anything else explains why girls are doing better at every level of the educational system. But from talking to teachers and other parents I get the sense that this problem really is getting worse.

I worry about this sometimes. It is hard to figure out what the relationship is between parenting styles and the kind of society they produce, but surely there must be such a relationship. What will we end up with, if parents continue to encourage creativity, self-expression, thinking for yourself, and "finding your own bliss" over hard work, traditional values, and fitting into the group? Our educational system will certainly suffer, since many teenagers would rather do almost anything than sit in high school. Will our whole economy sink, and the world be taken over by hard-working, group-thinking Chinese? If so, should we care, or is autonomy really more important than economic, educational, or social success? Will we be following our own bliss to a more free world in which people work for themselves in their own way, or to the unemployment line?

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