Sunday, November 18, 2012

Spoiled Children and Overworked Parents

I’ve been focusing a lot on women’s issues recently.  As expressed in the last post, I see this as an issue implicating Christianity because women have traditionally been a segment of the population who have been denied basic civil rights and have been viewed as second class citizens.  Such treatment is incompatible with Christ’s model when he walked this earth.  

However, another reason I have been so focused on women’s issues recently is that such issues are so intertwined with family and children.  Women in our society have long been the primary caregivers of children.  Whether paid as school teachers, nannies or babysitters, or unpaid familial caregivers (e.g., full-time moms), women still tend to be primarily responsible for and thus have the most impact on child-rearing.  Issues impacting women thus have a huge impact on families and on children in particular.  Christians tout family values.  And in the Gospels, Christ demonstrated a particular concern and sensitivity towards children, who were the most inconsequential persons in the pecking order of their society.  As I understand, their status was even lower than women in first century Palestine.

So, with this perspective, I was intrigued by the article below, which I came across last summer:   

The article discusses the notion that American kids are very indulged relative to children in other cultures and that outside the United States children help do household chores at an early age.

The article quotes a sociologist, Allison Pugh who notes that a child in another such culture isn’t “born chipping in; she was taught.”  Ms. Pugh also notes the impact of the “demands of the American workplace” that lead to American children not being similarly taught.  She explains:

“Americans work more hours than anyone else in the universe.  There’s a drive for efficiency.  It’s more efficient to do chores yourself or outsource them rather than teaching children to contribute.  That’s a shame, but I don’t think it’s a children’s shame, and it’s not just the parents’ fault.  There are only so many hours in the workday.” 

The article also quotes a writer and mother of five, Meagan Francis:

“Frankly, expecting kids to pull their weight—and enforcing those rules day in and day out—is tough.  When I had ‘just’ two kids, the daily trade-off hardly seemed worth it; It was better to just do it myself than try to oversee a pair of rambunctious, clumsy, pint-sized employees.”

The author of the article summarizes, “This seems like a practical, rational conclusion: We don’t discipline our kids because it takes time, and we often quite literally don’t have the time.”

In the United States we are often fairly callous to issues involving the challenges of child-rearing.  Often the attitude is: “You chose to bring that kid into the world, he/she is your problem to deal with.”  Personal responsibility is paramount; so many people are unsympathetic to the difficulties facing American families. 

I admit I used to feel like that before I was a parent myself.  If I were on a plane or in a restaurant where a kid was loud or kicking my chair, my attitude was to think poorly of the parents: “Why don’t they do something, their brat is bothering me.”  I was focused on my own annoyance and inconvenience.  I never thought about how difficult it is to completely control another energetic little person who does not have the same sorts of self-control and societal filters as an adult.

When I became a parent, I absolutely ate crow.  I began to realize how difficult it is to raise kids.  I find it a joy, but you never get a break.  You’re always on.  It is just exhausting.   So many of my fellow working moms neglect their own health by going years between check-ups.  Some wonder aloud if the constant exhaustion they feel is the sign of a serious health issue.  But when so many other working moms have the same symptom, it is easy to discount.  And no one is perfect when doing such a non-stop job, particularly if you feel exhausted most of the time.  At some point, we’re all going to fail under such conditions. 

It is also a challenge to be held responsible for everything your child does, even when he/she is not with you.  It is one thing to try to control their behavior when they are in your presence; that is frankly tough enough.  But it is another when they are not with you.  At such times, you have to hope that the lessons you have taught have taken root and they behave appropriately when they are not in close proximity.

That situation is difficult for every parent.  But in my opinion, it is particularly tough if you hold down a paying job and don’t actually get to spend much time with your child.  If most of your waking hours are spent attending to workplace responsibilities, the little time you have at home is often spent on the most pressing items like feeding hungry tummies and trying to make sure folks walk out the door wearing relatively clean clothes.  Time permitting, parents with paying gigs then attend to a sort of second tier triage which typically includes items like making sure homework is done and getting kids to various obligations from dental appointments, church services and/or soccer practice.  Realistically, in many families, disciplining and molding a child’s character become aspirational goals that are easily compromised in the constant time crunch many parents experience.  That is a horrible situation, but it happens.  It happens a lot.

I completely appreciate the need for efficiency and the issue of supervising “rambunctious, clumsy, pint-sized employees.”  My husband and I have seen that in our own up-bringings, the raising of our own children and our friends’ experiences raising their kids.  Instead of inviting a child to help with lawn care, laundry or toilet scrubbing, it is faster to do it ourselves in the little time we have available for those tasks. 

But as parents, we miss valuable opportunities to coach and guide our kids on important life skills when we take that more efficient route.  My father-in-law is an amazing amateur carpenter, but unfortunately he never passed those skills on to my husband until he retired and my husband had his own family.   When I have to bake for a church potluck or other event, I try to incorporate my kids into the process.  But invariably that prolongs the event considerably.  I have to fight the stress I feel from the time pressure.  I have to suppress my inclination to discharge my “pint-sized employees” and do the baking myself.  Beyond teaching my kids life skills in the kitchen, those are important bonding opportunities. And they are invaluable opportunities to encourage my kids to work through challenges.  Just because the egg cracking didn’t go smoothly the first time, doesn’t mean you throw a fit and give up.  Even if you don’t think you’ll ever incorporate all the flour into the creamed sugar, you keep trying and see it through until the end.
Proverbs 22:6
Train children in the way they should go; when they grow old, they won’t depart from it.

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