Saturday, June 18, 2011

Where Children Are Treated Like Adults

This is my third post in a series about an article in The Atlantic called How to Land Your Kids in Therapy. In it, Jean Twenge, a co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic and professor of psychology at San Diego State University claims that:
We treat our kids like adults when they’re children, and we infantilize them when they’re 18 years old.
Sometimes I feel like I don't live on the same planet as these experts. How many people do you know who treat their kids even remotely like adults?

Things like giving your child a choice between two supermarkets, as the author did for her son, are not examples of "treating him like an adult." And let me know if this is the way you would treat an adult who asked you to go for ice cream, because then I will know never to ask you such a thing:
“A kid will say, ‘Can we get ice cream on the way home?’ And the parent will say, ‘No, it’s not our day. Ice-cream day is Friday.’ Then the child will push and negotiate, and the parent, who probably thinks negotiating is ‘honoring her child’s opinion,’ will say, ‘Fine, we’ll get ice cream today, but don’t ask me tomorrow, because the answer is no!’”
A "no way" with an arbitrary reason, followed by a reluctant "yes" with a hint of "you are such a pain." If this person treats adults this way, I doubt she has many friends.

This article harps on the idea that less freedom, fewer choices, more limits are better for kids. Just ask Barry Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore college, who did a study on preschool kids:
Kids were randomly divided into two groups and then asked to draw a picture. Kids in one group were asked to choose a marker to use from among three; kids in the other group were asked to choose from among 24 markers. Afterward, when the pictures were evaluated by an elementary-school art teacher who did not know which group had produced which pictures, the drawings rated the “worst” were by and large created by kids in the 24-marker group.
Better drawings done with the one marker? Based on an art teacher's review? Ok. Even if we could imagine that the kids with fewer choices did objectively "better" drawings on the first attempt and decided that meant something, can we picture what might happen if the kids were able to use ALL the markers they had? I'm guessing the kids with more colors to chose from would have more colorful drawings...

And there's more:
Then, in a second part of the experiment, the researchers had the kids pick one marker from their set to keep as a gift. Once the kids had chosen, the researchers tried to persuade them to give back their marker in exchange for other gifts. The kids who had chosen from 24 markers did this far more easily than those who had chosen from only three markers. According to Schwartz, this suggests that the kids who had fewer markers to select from not only focused better on their drawings, but also committed more strongly to their original gift choice.

Is it surprising that the scarcity of the markers made them more valuable to the kids who only got three of them? Why do we value the ability of a child to "commit" to his original gift choice? Commitment based on fear that there might be no better options is not a skill. I have written my thoughts about quitting and committing, here, here, and here. I wonder which group of kids would be more likely to share their markers. I would bet a lot of money on the ones who had 24.

As adults in the United States, we have a lot of choices. It's good that we have a lot of choices. It's all the choices that make me feel "safer and less anxious." Fewer choices would do the opposite for me. If you doubt that, I suggest you go to Saudi Arabia and talk to the women there about the driving situation. They do not feel "safer and less anxious" with the limit that prohibits them from driving. I just can't believe that limits on personal freedom, imposed and strictly enforced by others, make anyone (kids included) feel comfortable.

I don't impose arbitrary limits on my children. I don't want them to learn arbitrary limits. I never want them to feel like there are only three markers to choose from.


More from me on Gottlieb’s article:

Part 3: Where Children Are Treated Like Adults

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