Joseph Epstein on the Lavishing of Attention on Kids

Anything written by Joseph Epstein is worth reading. That’s why I read his latest Weekly Standard essay even though it’s on a topic that I think is a bit worn out by this point: how my generation – Gen Y or "millenials" – are over-coddled and over-cared for by our parents and how being the recipient of such an attention-fest leads to all sorts of undesirable consequences like an inflated sense of self-importance, arrogance, dependency, and so on.

Putting aside my wariness of generational arguments that overstate the collective experiences of those born in a same time period, I do basically with Epstein’s broad strokes, and always appreciate the flair with which he makes arguments, so do read it. Here’s the basic thrust:

Children have gone from background to foreground figures in domestic life, with more and more attention centered on them, their upbringing, their small accomplishments, their right relationship with parents and grandparents. For the past 30 years at least, we have been lavishing vast expense and anxiety on our children in ways that are unprecedented in American and in perhaps any other national life. Such has been the weight of all this concern about children that it has exercised a subtle but pervasive tyranny of its own. This is what I call Kindergarchy: dreary, boring, sadly misguided Kindergarchy.

Two years ago I wrote about The Emergence of Kids as Kings and noted how most of the Christmas cards I see from families only include the children in the photo, not the parents. It’s perhaps the most amusing sign among many that (at least in America) children’s needs and wants and likenesses preempt the parents at nearly every stage.

Perhaps it’s some internal fear that if I have kids they will come to dominate my life in ways I can’t control which contributes to my ambivalence about procreating in the first place, a sentiment I explore here (don’t miss the 40 smart comments at the bottom).

9 Responses to Joseph Epstein on the Lavishing of Attention on Kids

  1. Jude says:

    Procreation is optional, but there is something about having kids that’s extremely cool. It’s also fun from a managerial standpoint. Supervision was always my favorite part of management, and children offer lots of practice with supervision, especially since they seem to go through a new phase every couple of weeks. My children have grown up without a lot of stuff, but this year I’m sending them to a pricey summer camp for gifted and talented kids because I received scholarships. Is that spoiling them? Perhaps, but I’m hoping the experience will make a positive difference in their lives, much as my living in Mexico for 3 months at age 14 made a positive difference in mine. A mother I know won’t let her kids stay at my home in case I’m one of *those* single mothers who have boyfriends. I told her I haven’t had a relationship in 14 years because my kids come first. She seemed shocked, but she still won’t let her son spend the night.

  2. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Epstein’s essay a reactionary piece of drivel, there is truth in it, but really, if his own parents’ model of child-rearing was so effectual, then why wasn’t he able to replicate it with his own kids, or even to have a successful marriage?

    After all, it was his generation that raised the free-loving hippies.

    So I welcome the chance to deconstruct his fatuous nonsense, starting with his lede.

    First, it’s only the vulgar pretentious class in this country that has the leisure or the means to allow themselves to be ruled by children.

    Second, he’s wildly off the mark when he avers that mothers in the days of his childhood delayed having a second child till the first one got off to school because “it was easier not to have two children under four years old to worry about at once…”.

    More likely it was because families during the ’30’s depression couldn’t afford to have as many children as people did when ninety per cent of the population lived on farms and every extra hand counted for the well-being of the whole. Also, obviously, most of the men of marrying, sperm-contributing age were gone off to fight in World War II in the first half of the ’40s.

    Admittedly, the great freedom his parents and their contemporaries allowed their children would constitute child abuse today, if his diagnosis of the sad state of society in the U.S. were correct.

    I agree that child-rearing should be “an activity conducted largely by instinct and common sense”, but he sounds downright nostalgic for the days when smoking and drinking by pregnant mothers carried no social stigma.

    I also concur that fashionable ‘diseases’ like ADHD, dyslexia, and even depression are being drastically over-diagnosed at ever younger ages in our children.

    It seems that the snobbish class is competitive about even these ‘disabilities’, but it’s unconscionable that so many kids are being drugged with powerful medications, whose effects on still-developing brains are unknown.

    Epstein sees his own childhood through the gauzy film of nostalgia. Anyone who has even a cursory acquaintance with the psychiatric literature of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries knows that debauched criminality, drug addiction (opium, alcohol– Freud himself was a cocaine addict), and sex offenses by both genders were commonplace even in those ‘golden’ days.

    Finally, I have no truck whatsoever with Epstein’s misplaced fondness for the application of the not spared rod.

    When I was in school, even up to high school, paddling was commonplace. Let me assure you that the principals and coaches who administered them were brutal perverts who took out their sexual frustrations on tender behinds.

  3. “I haven’t had a relationship in 14 years because my kids come first.”

    Jude- your life, your choice, obviously, but isn’t that quite a vivid example of people putting their children first to a quite extreme degree that wouldn’t have been expected in the past?

    I’m interested because my own choice was exactly the opposite of yours. I thought it was really important to give my children the opportunity to learn how healthy loving adults function. So when I left my husband and married again that was one of the compensating benefits, as far as I was concerned.

    My general point is this: very often, being “selfish” is actually good for the kids, because it shows them better how to live when they grow up themselves. A lot of our either/or dichotomies are false and destructive.

    Kids need adults to be themselves, be happy, live well and fully- these things are tremendously important as examples for learning. That’s why kindergarchy is actually an adult indulgence, not something that benefits kids. (nb. people’s individual choices about how to live will vary, and often including things other people regard as self-denying, including celibacy).

  4. I didn’t mean to sound so pompous in that comment, but I have to say that when you got a ‘paddling’ in the ‘good old days’, at least where I lived, it was more like a good whacking by a man who was bigger and stronger than you.

    And he made you pull your pants down, to be sure you hadn’t stuffed something in the seat to cushion the whacks, and leave them down while he administered ‘discipline’.

    Some of the coaches even shaved a baseball bat flat to make a paddle, and drilled holes in it so the blows would sting more.

    If they saw you goofing off during gym, they’d sneak up behind you and flail your ass, the better to scare the shit out of you.

    Yeah, those were the good old days, all right.

  5. Paula says:

    “…noted how most of the Christmas cards I see from families only include the children in the photo, not the parents…”

    Ha!–I have been complaining about those “Look at my spawn!” cards for years and everyone looks at me funny. I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds this troublesome…although one of the perpetrators once explained, “Well, kids are cute, but parents tend to be…y’know…fat.”

  6. Jenny Ford says:

    I agree that the expectations on parents these days are ridiculous, and impossible to meet.

    The expectations put on kids by parents who have sacrificed so much for their kids are also ridiculous, and impossible to meet.

    The sense of freedom Joseph Epstein described is not attributable to whether or not his parents attended his baseball games or smoked during pregnancy. It is a result of his parents not requiring him to be an over-achiever.

    The pressure of being the central focus and “reason for living” of any adult is unbearable for kids.

    It is entirely possible to raise your children responsibly and protect their health and well-being without making yourself a martyr to your kids.

    It’s not easy, because everyone from the grandparents to the school psychologist will say or imply that you are a bad parent if you don’t play the game by today’s oppressive rules.

    But it is perfectly possible.

    We have the last laugh now that our kids are teens, because people are starting to comment about how competent they are – a competence they developed by doing things for themselves (under a cloud of disapproving glares and muttered comments about “letting kids be kids”).

    Epstein may be exaggerating slightly to make his point, but his point is valid. And, as I point out in my article, the pressure to achieve academically and get into the right college can not only be crippling, it is utterly misplaced.

    One of the reasons I enjoy reading your blog, Ben, is because your early business success has enabled you to go to college for all the right reasons – to enjoy the exercise of your intellect and broaden your horizons, rather than “to get a good job so I can survive” – and it is a rare and enjoyable experience to be allowed to share the joy you have in feeding your mind.

    Parents who “hothouse” their kids with a view to future “success” deprive them of the true joy of higher education, and instead chain them to a joyless treadmill with a crippling weight of guilt, inadequacy, and unmet parental expectations.

  7. Brady Yoon says:

    I just graduated from high school, so my comments may be premature. I don’t believe in generalizations, and raising kids is one area where making generalizations is detrimental. My sister and I are fairly different, and it’s clear that what works for her doesn’t work for me sometimes, and vice versa. Some people want more attention and guidance, and some people crave independence. There are the obvious universals, of course. But if I was a parent, I’d err on the side of too much love.

  8. Brady Yoon says:

    Your wisdom and experience in life is mind-boggling, and I love reading your blog!

    One of my closest friends is going to Claremont McKenna this fall (Class of ’12), if you want to say hi to me or him, just e-mail/facebook me! I’m going to UCLA in the fall and I’m really interested in the same things you are, including entrepreneurship & politics/social issues.

    -Brady “Bradford” J. Yoon

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