The Easter egg hunt in Bancroft Park, near Colorado Springs, has been cancelled this year after last year’s fiasco, in which a large number of greedy guts jumped the gun and began snuffling out the chocolates before they were supposed to. Chaos ensued and, instead of a leisurely search for eggs, it turned into a Black Friday frenzy, with Maltesers in place of flat-screen TVs.
You’re probably thinking: Kids these days, no self-control! Haven’t their parents taught them any patience? Discipline? But it wasn’t the children who flouted the rules and sharpened their elbows while the Easter Bunny covered his eyes in shame. It was the parents, determined that their little darlings would not go home chocolate-free. Perhaps the parents were just responding to the little-known 17th Commandment: “Gather ye chocolate in greater abundance than thine neighbour, else smite him with thine plastic basket.”
So here’s a radical suggestion for the Easter egg hunt organizers of Bancroft Park the next time they’re planning their Christian festival of one-upmanship: Ban the parents. It’s the only way to restore civility. In fact, ban parents from most aspects of children’s lives, since we seem to be ruining it for them.
Everywhere you turn, parental neurosis fills the air, more common than chicken pox and twice as contagious. In the United States, parents are taking out bank loans to ensure their children get into the “right” private kindergarten (where the bite marks on the toys are much more even). British parents are no less susceptible: Children starting as young as 5 are privately tutored for years to improve their chances of getting into the best secondary schools. And, somehow, I don’t think it’s the kids who’re begging to get into St. Stuffy’s.
When your babies are tiny, the doctor tells you about the dangers of sleeping in the same bed: One bad turn in the night and you’ve got a crushed infant sandwich. But after that, no one warns you about suffocating them, even though the danger becomes more real. So now we’ve got parents who phone professors when their university-age children get a bad grade on an essay, or those who count the lines of dialogue in the school play to ensure that all the kids have the same size role. Never mind helicopter parenting, this is pillow parenting – as in, “Hey, mom? I can’t actually breathe with this thing on my face.”
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a fascinating story about the research being done on middle-class family life by academics at the University of California at Los Angeles. It was alarming, in the way that looking in the mirror after a hard night can sometimes make you scream. What the scholars identified in comfortable American families was something called “dependency dilemma”: In essence, the children couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do anything for themselves, from minor chores to cutting their own food. And the reason they didn’t is that parents didn’t expect it from them.
In the other cultures the researchers studied, children were much more self-sufficient and capable of self-denial: Samoan kids waited on their older relatives during meals; rural Peruvians plucked papaya from high trees, without the benefit of mountain-climbing harness or a 10-page waiver from their school. In Southern California, meanwhile, an eight-year-old boy waited for his dad to put on his shoes. One of the problems, the academics noted, is that family life in the West has become too child-focused.
Let’s be clear: The kids aren’t to blame. Frankentweens don’t create themselves – they’re made out of leftover bits of their parents’ status anxieties. (As the much-indulged baby of the family, I was famous among my siblings for stamping my foot and saying, “But I didn’t spoil me!”)
Adults used to have a broader range of concerns than just their kids. Will Brezhnev bomb us? Will the garbage get picked up this month? Do I have the right maxi dress for the key party? Parents and children regarded each other with healthy suspicion, and kept their distance. But that, as my husband likes to say, was before “parent” became a verb.
Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb wrote a popular piece for The Atlantic Monthly last year called How to Land Your Kid in Therapy, about the overwhelming fixation on children’s happiness and self-defeating desire to cushion them form all of life’s knocks. “Parental overinvestment,” she writes, “is contributing to a burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids.”
In other words, they need to be saved from us, their saviours. They need to be released into the wild, among the pimply and pierced who are their own kind, where they will be fine. Probably.