Megan McArdle, without quite knowing that she is doing so, decided to discuss authoritarian child-rearing, the better to peddle her libertarian, contrarian bullshit, the only skill she has to offer the world. Since every thought that ever wafted through Indiana Galt's Crystal Skull ends up on her blog, we must (painfully, regretfully and cringingly) acknowledge that reproduction is on the McArdle mind, and a Happy Announcement might be forthcoming at some time in the future. Fortunately the human mind has created immensely strong methods of self-protection, such as denial and hysterical blindness, so we will merely offer this observation and move on, never to return. (God willing.)
McMommy quotes Darshak Sanghavi discussing the shift away from spanking children, as the present generation of parents begin to realize the enormous damage to self-esteem and self-sufficiency that occur when parents see children as property. For all their talk of personhood, conservatives (which includes McArdle) do not see children as persons, with their own will, interests, feelings and needs. Raised to obey and deny their own autonomy, they demand obedience and deny autonomy in and from their children in turn. The purpose of conservatism is to conserve the contemporary power structure, something they learn from their parents, who demand all power and control in the parent-child relationship. If they didn't get any love, tolerance or acceptance from their parents, then by God neither will their kids. Sanghavi says:
Without really realizing it, we zeroed in on a style of parenting that sociologist Annette Lareau calls "concerted cultivation." This is, I think, what separates those who hit kids from those who don't, and divides largely along socioeconomic fault lines. As popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Lareau tried to document how these differences emerged. The issue wasn't that one group was more or less lenient with bad behavior. Instead, middle- and upper-class parents tended to treat children as peers, with the pint-sized ability to make choices, respond to reason, and have valid emotions. It's not a huge leap then to see children as having nascent civil rights that conflict with regular corporal punishment.
Such a view underlies the approach of Supernanny or How To Talk, where parents make behavior charts or create token economies for rewards, answer questions with explanations, and encourage kids to accept and express their feelings. According to Lareau, such discipline tends to be self-reinforcing, and part of a broader ecology of parenting. As a result, these children who experience it develop an "emerging sense of entitlement"--a trait that may carry some negative connotations but generally correlates with better verbal skills, school performance, and a sense that they can actively shape the world around them.
If a child learns that he is important and valued, that he has the right to his own opinions and can trust his own judgement, he is less amenable to control from others. He does not spend his life trying to find parent substitutes in religion and politics. He does not grow up filled with anger at how he was mistreated, or resentment that he is forced to obey all authorities and cannot make his own choices. He does not try to compensate for the lack of love and unconditional acceptance in childhood with consumerism (*ahem*) or sex or alcohol and drugs. And he is much hard to control and mistreat than the authoritarian follower that was raised to obey and "trust" and "have faith" instead of question and defend himself from abuse.
McArdle, of course, does not address any of these issues. It's rather difficult these days to argue that children deserve or need to be hit. Instead she simply begins to ramble about a pet peeve of hers utterly unrelated to the issue she is purportedly discussing.
I wonder, however, if "better" is quite the right word. It seems to me that what parents have discovered is a much, much more intensive form of parenting than their grandparents employed. The elaborate charts and systems of incentives are enabled by the fact that modern children are effectively monitored by adults every waking hour until they become quite old.
Just what we all want--advice based on "I wonder" and "it seems to me." Why bother with science when one can simply do a gut-check? McArdle has decided that raising a child to think and feel for himself is the same thing as helicopter parenting (which she conflates with safety issues), an authoritarian practice in which parents expect the child to achieve in ways that flatters the parents' ego. It is just another form of authoritarian parenting and not at all related to raising a child who knows himself, is confident and empathetic, and reasons rather than blindly obeys. But McArdle has the chance to put in a plug for several of her pet theories and science be damned, McArdle has something to say!
Naturally she starts off by talking about herself. For Mrs. Megan McArdle, her own experiences are sufficient to asses everyone else's.
My grandmother literally never worked outside the home a day in her life. But she would have been bewildered by the intensive parenting of today's "stay at home Moms". When my mother got home from school, my grandmother gave her a cookie and told her to go outside and play. She was not supposed to come back until dinner--rain or shine, sleet or snow.
My mother, who was also home when we were young, did not let us run around outside by ourselves, because I grew up in Manhattan. However, from a very young age, I spent quite a lot of time running around between apartments in my building, where there were four other girls approximately my age. At nine or ten, I walked to school by myself across many New York streets, and past several housing projects. While my mother (and I) always knew approximately where I was supposed to be, I was not directly supervised during most of my free time.
Today's kids seem to be not only supervised but regimented; most of their time is supposed to be spent in some sort of structured activity. This makes it very easy to create elaborate reward systems, because there is all this elaborate surveillance that makes it very easy to monitor compliance.
None of this has anything to do with hitting your kid, but McArdle pointedly does not want to talk about that. Different parents have different comfort levels based on their experience and situations. Parents who were attacked as children or who knew people attacked as children are going to be much more cautious than those who assume that the odds of their child being mistreated are vanishingly small. City or town, working or not, wealthy or poor--these all affect parents' decisions as well. But naturally the world begins and ends with McArdle, and since she was safe as a child then so is everyone else.
But if kids are unmonitored most of the time, then I wonder how well that works. It strikes me as plausible that a world in which kids spend more time unsupervised requires a parenting style more reliant on swift punishment for detected wrongdoing than rewards for good behavior.
McArdle is really talking about what she thinks of as conservative and liberal parenting styles. Conservatives punish their children to teach them right from wrong and liberal parents just praise them all the time so they will grow up vain and egotistical, which they call "self-esteem." Conservatives good, liberals bad.
To be sure, my mother was actually quite well watched--by all the other mothers on the block. But while you could be quite sure that an adult would report it if they saw your kid doing something really wrong, it's much less likely that they're going to tell you that Sally deserves her tidyness gold star for the afternoon because she threw her litter in the garbage can.
All that monitoring and incentivizing probably is better at turning out kids who are able to successfully negotiate the hierarchical American university system.
McArdle adores her theory that liberal academia is just like conservative business world, only more hypocritical because of their totally unfair and mean ideological drive to keep all conservatives out of the liberal club. McArdle has often fumed that conservatives are not able to take over academia and that conservative ideas based on ideology and bullshit do not command the same authority and respect as ideas based on fact and reason. Naturally she also declares that it is liberals who are hierarchical. Rubber, glue, etc.
But crotchety as I am, I find it sort of creepy--and anecdotally, as the first generation of what David Brooks calls "Organization Kids" enters the workforce, employers are apparently complaining that they have an outsized sense of entitlement combined with a difficulty coping with unstructured tasks. Obviously, I'm not advocating a return to an era of brutal beatings. But I'd like to think that there's some alternative to raising children in a sort of well-padded, benevolent police state where no action is too small or large that it can't be managed with an appropriately placed gold star.
McArdle has kind of a Bloody-Mary-urban-legend theory about David Brooks--if she says his name often enough he will magically appear and help her career. Naturally she sees self-esteem as a sense of entitlement and "wonders" if respecting children will make them weak and unfocused. And naturally anti-authoritarians are the ones with a police state, not authoritarian regimes. When she has a child you can bet your bottom dollar that he or she won't have any self-esteem at all, except that which is given to the child by his or her mind-boggingly expensive prep school, the better to prepare little Milton Pinochet McSuderman for his future career as a Master Of The Universe.