In 2004, Carolina Izquierdo, an anthropologist at the  University of California, Los Angeles, spent several months with the Matsigenka,  a tribe of about twelve thousand people who live in the Peruvian Amazon. The  Matsigenka hunt for monkeys and parrots, grow yucca and bananas, and build  houses that they roof with the leaves of a particular kind of palm tree, known  as a kapashi. At one point, Izquierdo decided to accompany a local family  on a leaf-gathering expedition down the Urubamba River.

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.

While Izquierdo was doing field work among the Matsigenka, she was also  involved in an anthropological study closer to home. A colleague of hers, Elinor  Ochs, had recruited thirty-two middle-class families for a study of life in  twenty-first-century Los Angeles. Ochs had arranged to have the families filmed  as they ate, fought, made up, and did the dishes.

Izquierdo and Ochs shared an interest in many ethnographic issues, including  child rearing. How did parents in different cultures train young people to  assume adult responsibilities? In the case of the Angelenos, they mostly didn’t.  In the L.A. families observed, no child routinely performed household chores  without being instructed to. Often, the kids had to be begged to attempt the  simplest tasks; often, they still refused. In one fairly typical encounter, a  father asked his eight-year-old son five times to please go take a bath or a  shower. After the fifth plea went unheeded, the father picked the boy up and  carried him into the bathroom. A few minutes later, the kid, still unwashed,  wandered into another room to play a video game.

In another representative encounter, an eight-year-old girl sat down at the  dining table. Finding that no silverware had been laid out for her, she  demanded, “How am I supposed to eat?” Although the girl clearly knew where the  silverware was kept, her father got up to get it for her.

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.

A few years ago, Izquierdo and Ochs wrote an article for Ethos, the  journal of the Society of Psychological Anthropology, in which they described  Yanira’s conduct during the trip down the river and Ben’s exchange with his dad. “Juxtaposition of these developmental stories begs for an account of  responsibility in childhood,” they wrote. Why do Matsigenka children “help their  families at home more than L.A. children?” And “Why do L.A. adult family members  help their children at home more than do Matsigenka?” Though not phrased in  exactly such terms, questions like these are being asked—silently, imploringly,  despairingly—every single day by parents from Anchorage to Miami. Why, why,  why?

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. “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of  children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. Keith  Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class  families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call.  This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults  fear that it isn’t working out so well: according to one poll, commissioned by Time and CNN, two-thirds of American parents think that their children  are spoiled.

The notion that we may be raising a generation of kids who can’t, or at least  won’t, tie their own shoes has given rise to a new genre of parenting books.  Their titles tend to be either dolorous (“The Price of Privilege”) or downright  hostile (“The Narcissism Epidemic,” “Mean Moms Rule,” “A Nation of Wimps”). The  books are less how-to guides than how-not-to’s: how not to give in to your  toddler, how not to intervene whenever your teen-ager looks bored, how not to  spend two hundred thousand dollars on tuition only to find your twenty-something  graduate back at home, drinking all your beer.

Not long ago, Sally Koslow, a former editor-in-chief of McCall’s,  discovered herself in this last situation. After four years in college and two  on the West Coast, her son Jed moved back to Manhattan and settled into his old  room in the family’s apartment, together with thirty-four boxes of vinyl LPs.  Unemployed, Jed liked to stay out late, sleep until noon, and wander around in  his boxers. Koslow set out to try to understand why he and so many of his peers  seemed stuck in what she regarded as permanent “adultescence.” She concluded  that one of the reasons is the lousy economy. Another is parents like her.

“Our offspring have simply leveraged our braggadocio, good intentions, and  overinvestment,” Koslow writes in her new book, “Slouching Toward Adulthood:  Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest” (Viking). They inhabit “a broad  savannah of entitlement that we’ve watered, landscaped, and hired gardeners to  maintain.” She recommends letting the grasslands revert to forest: “The best way  for a lot of us to show our love would be to learn to un-mother and un-father.” One practical tip that she offers is to do nothing when your adult child finally  decides to move out. In the process of schlepping Jed’s stuff to an apartment in  Carroll Gardens, Koslow’s husband tore a tendon and ended up in emergency  surgery.

Madeline Levine, a psychologist who lives outside San Francisco, specializes  in treating young adults. In “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic  Success” (HarperCollins), she argues that we do too much for our kids because we  overestimate our influence. “Never before have parents been so (mistakenly)  convinced that their every move has a ripple effect into their child’s future  success,” she writes. Paradoxically, Levine maintains, by working so hard to  help our kids we end up holding them back.

“Most parents today were brought up in a culture that put a strong emphasis  on being special,” she observes. “Being special takes hard work and can’t be  trusted to children. Hence the exhausting cycle of constantly monitoring their  work and performance, which in turn makes children feel less competent and  confident, so that they need even more oversight.”

Pamela Druckerman, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal,  moved to Paris after losing her job. She married a British expatriate and not  long after that gave birth to a daughter. Less out of conviction than  inexperience, Druckerman began raising her daughter, nicknamed Bean, à  l’Américaine. The result, as she recounts in “Bringing Up Bébé” (Penguin  Press), was that Bean was invariably the most ill-behaved child in every Paris  restaurant and park she visited. French children could sit calmly through a  three-course meal; Bean was throwing food by the time the apéritifs arrived.

Druckerman talked to a lot of French mothers, all of them svelte and most  apparently well rested. She learned that the French believe ignoring children is  good for them. “French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their  kids by frustrating them,” she writes. “To the contrary, they think their kids  will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration.” One mother, Martine, tells  Druckerman that she always waited five minutes before picking up her infant  daughter when she cried. While Druckerman and Martine are talking, in Martine’s  suburban home, the daughter, now three, is baking cupcakes by herself. Bean is  roughly the same age, “but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to let her do a  complicated task like this all on her own,” Druckerman observes. “I’d be  supervising, and she’d be resisting my supervision.”

Also key, Druckerman discovered, is just saying non. In contrast to  American parents, French parents, when they say it, actually mean it. They “view  learning to cope with ‘no’ as a crucial step in a child’s evolution,” Druckerman  writes. “It forces them to understand that there are other people in the world,  with needs as powerful as their own.”

Not long ago, in the hope that our sons might become a  little more Matsigenka, my husband and I gave them a new job: unloading the  grocery bags from the car. One evening when I came home from the store, it was  raining. Carrying two or three bags, the youngest, Aaron, who is thirteen, tried  to jump over a puddle. There was a loud crash. After I’d retrieved what food  could be salvaged from a Molotov cocktail of broken glass and mango juice, I  decided that Aaron needed another, more vigorous lesson in responsibility. Now,  in addition to unloading groceries, he would also have the task of taking out  the garbage. On one of his first forays, he neglected to close the lid on the  pail tightly enough, and it attracted a bear. The next morning, as I was  gathering up the used tissues, ant-filled raisin boxes, and slimy Saran Wrap  scattered across the yard, I decided that I didn’t have time to let my kids help  out around the house. (My husband informed me that I’d just been “kiddie-whipped.”)

Ochs and Izquierdo noted, in their paper on the differences between the  family lives of the Matsigenka and the Angelenos, how early the Matsigenka begin  encouraging their children to be useful. Toddlers routinely heat their own food  over an open fire, they observed, while “three-year-olds frequently practice  cutting wood and grass with machetes and knives.” 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.

The cycle in American households seems mostly to run in the opposite  direction. 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.”

One way to interpret these contrary cycles is to infer that Americans have a  lower opinion of their kids’ capacities. And, in a certain sense, this is  probably true: how many parents in Park Slope or Brentwood would trust their  three-year-olds to cut the grass with a machete? But in another sense, of  course, it’s ridiculous. Contemporary American parents—particularly the upscale  sort that “unparenting” books are aimed at—tend to take a highly expansive view  of their kids’ abilities. Little Ben may not be able to tie his shoes, but that  shouldn’t preclude his going to Brown.

In “A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting” (Broadway), Hara  Estroff Marano argues that college rankings are ultimately to blame for what  ails the American family. Her argument runs more or less as follows:  High-powered parents worry that the economic opportunities for their children  are shrinking. They see a degree from a top-tier school as one of the few ways  to give their kids a jump on the competition. In order to secure this advantage,  they will do pretty much anything, which means not just taking care of all the  cooking and cleaning but also helping their children with math homework, hiring  them S.A.T. tutors, and, if necessary, suing their high school. Marano, an  editor-at-large at Psychology Today, tells about a high school in  Washington State that required students to write an eight-page paper and present  a ten-minute oral report before graduating. When one senior got a failing grade  on his project, his parents hired a lawyer.

Today’s parents are not just “helicopter parents,” a former school principal  complains to Marano. “They are a jet-powered turbo attack model.” Other  educators gripe about “snowplow parents,” who try to clear every obstacle from  their children’s paths. The products of all this hovering, meanwhile, worry that  they may not be able to manage college in the absence of household help.  According to research conducted by sociologists at Boston College, today’s  incoming freshmen are less likely to be concerned about the rigors of higher  education than “about how they will handle the logistics of everyday life.”

One of the offshoots of the L.A. family study is a new  book, “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” (Cotsen Institute of  Archaeology), which its authors—the anthropologists Jeanne Arnold, of U.C.L.A.,  Anthony Graesch, of Connecticut College, and Elinor Ochs—describe as a “visual  ethnography of middle-class American households.” Lavishly illustrated with  photographs (by Enzo Ragazzini) of the families’ houses and yards, the book  offers an intimate glimpse into the crap-strewn core of American culture.

“After a few short years,” the text notes, many families amass more objects “than their houses can hold.” The result is garages given over to old furniture  and unused sports equipment, home offices given over to boxes of stuff that  haven’t yet been stuck in the garage, and, in one particularly jam-packed house,  a shower stall given over to storing dirty laundry.

Children, according to “Life at Home,” are disproportionate generators of  clutter: “Each new child in a household leads to a 30 percent increase in a  family’s inventory of possessions during the preschool years alone.” Many of the  kids’ rooms pictured are so crowded with clothes and toys, so many of which have  been tossed on the floor, that there is no path to the bed. (One little girl’s  room contains, by the authors’ count, two hundred and forty-eight dolls,  including a hundred and sixty-five Beanie Babies.) The kids’ possessions, not to  mention their dioramas and their T-ball trophies, spill out into other rooms,  giving the houses what the authors call “a very child-centered look.”

When anthropologists study cultures like the Matsigenkas’, they tend to see  patterns. The Matsigenka prize hard work and self-sufficiency. Their daily  rituals, their child-rearing practices, and even their folktales reinforce these  values, which have an obvious utility for subsistence farmers. Matsigenka  stories often feature characters undone by laziness; kids who still don’t get  the message are rubbed with an itch-inducing plant.

In contemporary American culture, the patterns are more elusive. What values  do we convey by turning our homes into warehouses for dolls? By assigning our  kids chores and then rewarding them when they screw up? By untying and then  retying their shoes for them? It almost seems as if we’re actively trying to  raise a nation of “adultescents.” And, perhaps without realizing it, we are.

As Melvin Konner, a psychiatrist and anthropologist at Emory University,  points out in “The Evolution of Childhood” (Belknap), one of the defining  characteristics of Homo sapiens is its “prolonged juvenile period.” Compared with other apes, humans are “altricial,” which is to say immature at  birth. Chimpanzees, for instance, are born with brains half their adult size;  the brains of human babies are only a third of their adult size. Chimps reach  puberty shortly after they’re weaned; humans take another decade or so. No one  knows when exactly in the process of hominid evolution juvenile development  began to slow down, but even Homo ergaster, who evolved some 1.8 million  years ago, seems to have enjoyed—if that’s the right word—a protracted  childhood. It’s often argued by anthropologists that the drawn-out timetable is  what made humans human in the first place. It’s the fact that we grow up slowly  that makes acquiring language and building complicated social structures  possible.

The same trend that appears in human prehistory shows up in history as well.  The farther back you look, the faster kids grew up. In medieval Europe, children  from seven on were initiated into adult work. Compulsory schooling, introduced  in the nineteenth century, pushed back the age of maturity to sixteen or so. By  the middle of the twentieth century, college graduation seemed, at least in this  country, to be the new dividing line. Now, if Judd Apatow is to be trusted, it’s  possible to close in on forty without coming of age.

Evolutionarily speaking, this added delay makes a certain amount of sense. In  an increasingly complex and unstable world, it may be adaptive to put off  maturity as long as possible. According to this way of thinking, staying forever  young means always being ready for the next big thing (whatever that might  be).

Or adultesence might be just the opposite: not evidence of progress but  another sign of a generalized regression. Letting things slide is always the  easiest thing to do, in parenting no less than in banking, public education, and  environmental protection. A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just  about every aspect of American society. Why this should be is a much larger  question, one to ponder as we take out the garbage and tie our kids’ shoes.


Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker