Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Kinderarchy: It's the Thought that Counts

Joseph Epstein published a piece about a month ago that seems to have reverberated sympathetically with a lot of people. His main idea is that kids grow into little tyrants because they get too much attention from their parents. Parents nowadays make kids the center of their lives, a thing that his own parents certainly did not do. The result is kinderarchy, rule by children

I see a fallacy here, and I see the same fallacy in some discussions of "helicopter parents." These of course are parents who hover over their kids even in a doomed effort to prevent them from ever failing or suffering. It is sometimes discussed as if the root of the problem is that the pay too much attention to them: they email them or talk to them on their cell phones ever week if not (gasp!) more often than not, and some of these kids even go to a college in the same town their parents live in (oh no, not that!).

I agree that there is a problem here to be addressed. As an anarchist, I am opposed to every sort of _archy -- including kinderarchy. Some kids -- and many adults (many of whom vote!) -- think they are entitled to the fruits of other people's pains and exertions and to massive amounts of self-esteem. But is the cause of this the attention they get from their parents?

There is a simple, logical distinction, which these arguments ignore, between quantity of attention and quality.

As to quantity: I am convinced, both by theory and my own experience, that, for kids, especially for small children, there is simply no such thing as too much attention. Nor can there be too much love or affection. Of all these things, the more the better. And as far as making them "the center of your life" is concerned, if you weren't prepared to do that, why did you bring them into the world in the first place?

It's not the quantity of attention that is a problem, but the quality. That might seem to mean that good parenting is something that is impossibly subtle. What kind of attention is the right one, and how do you monitor it? But it's not really all that subtle. The right kind of attention, I would say, is the kind that is given, automatically, by someone who thinks everyone has rights that are not to be violated -- including not only the kids but the kids' teachers and the parents themselves. When I say "thinks everyone has rights," I am not talking about some superficial political opinion, but about how you live your life from day to day. Good attention is the kind you get from someone who treats everyone -- including themselves! -- as persons with rights that have to be respected. If that is your mindset then go ahead and love your kids and make them "the center of your life." They will grow up to make you proud.

Parents who do not have this mindset, I predict, will often have children who think that the world owes them everything they desire -- because that's what their parents think! Where's the mystery there?

In either case, it is the thought that is the active ingredient, not the sheer brute quantity of attention or affection. Humans are very good at reading other humans, starting at a very early age. Your kids can sense where your actions are coming from, and that is what makes the big difference.

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