An essay by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker book review explores the theme of “spoiled” American kids and introduces a new stage of development, new to me at least, called “Adultescence.”

Adultescence is defined as extended adolescence, something which we see happening more and more as kids take longer to find their way, and or reach financial and emotional independence, despite graduating from pricey universities. While some blame adultescence on the weak economy, others see it as a direct result of a culture of overindulgent parenting.

The article contrasts two anthropological studies, one of tribal families in Peru, and the other of upper class families in L.A. The differences, as you would guess, in the way the children are treated, the independence they display, and what is expected of them, are stark.

I discussed the L.A. study, rather defensively, in another post back in March. (Funny, just three months later and now I’m less inclined to argue.)

The claims made in the article in The Atlantic that I referenced then are straightforward:

“With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff—clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods. (The market for Burberry Baby and other forms of kiddie “couture” has reportedly been growing by ten per cent a year.) They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority.”

No words minced here. The article goes on to suggest that where once American kids sought the approval of parents, parents seem to be seeking the approval of their kids.

While I don’t believe I’m seeking approval from my kids, and our home is in no way overflowing with electronics and material goods, this next scenario struck a nerve:

“So little is expected of kids that even adolescents may not know how to operate the many labor-saving devices their homes are filled with. Their incompetence begets exasperation, which results in still less being asked of them (which leaves them more time for video games). Referring to the Los Angeles families, Ochs and Izquierdo wrote, “Many parents remarked that it takes more effort to get children to collaborate than to do the tasks themselves.”

Who isn’t guilty of doing things themselves because it seems easier than teaching your children to do it? And why has it never occurred to me to teach my ten-year-old daughter to use the washing machine? So often the measure of a mom is how much she does for others….

There are some aspects of this theory, based on the comparison, that aren’t as convincing:

“Boys, when they are six or seven, start to accompany their fathers on fishing and hunting trips, and girls learn to help their mothers with the cooking. As a consequence, by the time they reach puberty Matsigenka kids have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival. Their competence encourages autonomy, which fosters further competence—a virtuous cycle that continues to adulthood.”

To compare our culture, where the skills for survival are no longer defined by gender roles, with that of a tribal culture where man provides, woman nurtures, is useless in my opinion.

But I still find it worthwhile to explore this apparent trend of extended adolescence and talk about how modern culture may be impacting the future adults our children will be. Stories like this from the L.A. Times about the parents who are considering suing their daughter’s high school district for not naming her valedictorian, she was salutatorian, just leaves me speechless.

According to the Times, the salutatorian’s mother sees the second-place finish as meaning “her daughter’s sleepless nights were essentially for nothing.”

Do you believe the phenomenon of extended adolescence can be blamed on overindulgent parenting? Are you guilty of spoiling your kids? Were you spoiled?


Betsy Shaw,