The latest question poised to pummel the American way of parenting: Are we asking enough of our kids?

The question comes thanks to anthropologists who have turned their attention to the American middle class. What they are finding is that parents here are far less demanding of their children than parents in other cultures.

Who should serve during mealtime? (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The ongoing research by University of California, Los Angeles anthropologist Elinor Ochs and her colleagues at UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families was described this week by Shirley S. Wang in the Wall Street Journal.

The group has been analyzing family interactions in Los Angeles that were taped inside 32 individual homes 10 years ago. Two books are forthcoming about the research, but first the group offered Wang a tantalizing glimpse of what they’ve seen:


In [other] cultures, young children were expected to contribute substantially to the community, says Dr. Ochs. Children in Samoa serve food to their elders, waiting patiently in front of them before they eat, as shown in one video snippet. Another video clip shows a girl around 5 years of age in Peru’s Amazon region climbing a tall tree to harvest papaya, and helping haul logs thicker than her leg to stoke a fire.

By contrast, the U.S. videos showed Los Angeles parents focusing more on the children, using simplified talk with them, doing most of the housework and intervening quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task.

 — From “A Field Guide to the Middle-Class U.S. Family,“ by Shirley S. Wang

The evidence includes one video that captures an 8-year-old boy demanding that his father untie his shoe.

The father responds by asking the boy to say “please.”

The son repeats the demand, adding a “please.”

The father then unties the boy’s shoe.


Few among us would admit to being cowed by our children — you wouldn’t untie your 8-year-old’s shoe, right?

Nope, neither would I.

Yet, how many of us have our children serve us dinner?

(Whether we ask them to harvest papaya is another matter.)

Researchers conclude that American children are not less competent, but that neither parent nor child expects them to do much. They suggest that the American focus on children creates a more self-centered child who not only does less for himself but also doesn’t think much about others.

In other words, thanks to us, it doesn’t occur to our children to help out.

Does this sound off-base or familiar? If we had been videotaped, what signs of indulgence might the researchers have witnessed in our own homes? Should we ask more of our kids?

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