The XX Factor

The Case for Spending Less Time With Your Kids

Kids being kids?

Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

One solution to the Anne-Marie Slaughter work-family balance problem? Spend less time with your kids. That’s the conclusion I drew after reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent New Yorker piece on how we are parenting the competence and confidence right out of our children.

Kolbert opens “Spoiled Rotten” with a scene from the Peruvian Amazon, as a tribal family heads off on a five-day leaf-gathering trek down the river with a young girl, Yanira, from another family tagging along. Anthropologist Carolina Izquierdo was there to observe:   

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.

Kolbert then goes on to detail another anthropological study: of 32 middle-class Los Angeles families who agreed to be filmed as they “ate, fought, made up, and did the dishes.” Only, guess who didn’t do the dishes? Six-year-old kids.

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.

Kolbert’s basic argument is that we, American parents, are doing it wrong. From tying our kids’ shoes to analyzing their every emotional dip to punishing them only after counting to three—and trying desperately not to get to that horrible, dreadful number—we are managing our children’s every move until they can’t move without us.

This is not exactly new territory, though Kolbert’s piece, which is in part a discussion of a bunch of books from the unparenting movement, synthesizes the various down-with-helicopter-folks threads quite well. And her plea only feels more essential after reading today’s New York Times piece on the wealth of monitoring tools available to families with tech-wielding kids, and the well-intentioned but seriously misguided parents who use them.

There’s the dad who reads his son’s text messages, the mom who subscribes to her daughter’s YouTube channel, and the grandmother who, via something called, monitors her granddaughter’s Facebook page. All the parents quoted in the Times piece express a certain amount of conflict about Big Brothering their kids, with most saying that though they are privy to the ongoing teen dramas of their children’s lives—boy trouble, mean girl fights, swearing—they usually keep it to themselves, as if that’s somehow an actual attempt to let their little ones fly.

Whatever happened to knowing that our kids were going to steal from our liquor cabinet, or somehow fool the poor guy at the 7-Eleven with a terrible fake ID, and go get drunk on a trespassed golf course—and basically being OK with that? Yes, terrible things can happen to our kids, online and elsewhere. But from the way Kolbert tells it, terrible things are happening to them already as we stunt their growth, and more terrible things are to come when they hit 25 and can’t cook themselves a meal.

One small solution in the work-family balance struggle: Go to work, take a run, socialize with friends, give your kids room to screw up—real room, not managed room—and let them fend for themselves.