Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, December 23, 2011

Authoritarian Parenting

There is no way I will be able to give this post the attention it deserves, so a quick post will have to suffice. Let me start by saying:

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.


Downpuppy said...

I have May 31 in the pool.

As if there was any other possible reason she'd be writing this.

Mr.Wonderful said...

One striking thing about McArdle is the fact that, while her ostensible topic of expertise (and her job description) focuses on economics--the science of abstractions (money) and group behavior (consumption, etc.)--she insists on yakking away about one person: herself.

Social history is based on HER mother's kitchen. Pedagogy and child-raising is based on HER grandmother, HER history of running around a Manhattan apartment building, and so on.

And these examples, derived from journalism-via-anecdote, are set against the airiest kinds of stereotyped, received generalizations--"children of liberals get gold stars for everything," etc.

On this basis, she should expand her range of subject matter: auto design ("I once--although I grew up in Manhattan--had occasion to drive a Saab, and it surprises me they're now declaring bankruptcy"), physics ("I don't wonder that the chaps at the Large Hadron Collider are having such problems finding the Higgs boson--there certainly aren't any to be found in our house"), and so on. Why not? It's not as though she's prevented from doing so by intellectual honesty.

fish said...

employers are apparently complaining that they have an outsized sense of entitlement

Another way of reading this is that employees are less inclined to be treated like shit for shit pay.

Guess who you believe is a function of whether you are uphill or downhill.

Ken Houghton said...

Fish covered the end. Let's rewind a bit...

"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."

(1) For someone who believes in property rights now, the glories of "running around between apartments in my building"—i.e., interfering with the lives of others who might have wanted quiet from the hallways—certainly are not understated.

(2) The only time I lived on the UWS (1996-1997), there were more than five little girls around the same age in our barely-desirable, four-story walk-up. Difficult to believe (especially with that "approximately" included; not just talking about classmates there) that there would have been so few in her parents's much larger building. Guess that--excepting the Heavy Drug User--the rest were invisible.

Anonymous said...

Well, the conservatives took over economics in academia and look where we've gone since.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Certainly the Chicago types are reigning everywhere, anonymous, but McArdle can't even make their arguments coherently.

She's a senior economics editor the way Jonah Goldberg is one of the most prominent young conservative journalists on the scene today. (As the Tribune bills the latter wingnut nepotism beneficiary.)

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Prominent may just mean large, thunder.

Downpuppy said...

Ignoring Megan's foolery, and looking at : Are kids still getting beat in school? I found that 31 states & the Catholic Church have come to their senses. The only states still paddling are the ones you'd expect - of course, the ones with the worst schools.

Kathy said...

Megan's horrible friend or mother forced the kid to "play" outside even when it was raining or snowing?

She thinks thats good parenting?

Running about the hallways of an apartment building is good for kids?

God she is so stupid.

TBogg said...

It's probably worth pointing out that McMegan has as much expertise in discussing child raising as I have on what it is like to walk on the moon.

And I don't think that McMegan will bearing Dagny Thermomix Suederman-McArdle anytime soon. With her health issues and Peter's arrested development, they have too much shit to deal with without bringing a little moocher into the world, particularly one who will cut into their self-absorption time, which is 24/7 I might add.

Anonymous said...

(oops. I posted this on the wrong thread. somebody spank me!)

wow. the comments on the McMama post are very telling: is it possible that there is not a single anti-authoritarian in that group of so-called libertarians? I mean, I knew McMegan was just an opportunistic conservative (e.g., her position on abortion), but her commenters are explicitly discussing whether spanking is the best way to control your child or not. Nobody has questioned whether controlling a child is a worthy goal.

where are the anti-authoritarian parents? the ones who avoid both punishment and rewards as a way to control their children? in the anarchist blogs?

Lurking Canadian said...

Anonymous took the words right out of my mouth. The "anti-authoritarian" style Megs describes, of reward charts and time-outs, is not less authoritarian than old-school spankings. It's just a modern way of viewing kids as pets.

Even when she's trying to portray antiauthoritarianism, she fails at it.

Anonymous said...

Surely there is a correct combination of inputs to which one can subject one's child so that the output is, shall we say, acceptable.

Susan of Texas said...

Tbogg, yes, she will find it very very difficult because of her disease.

atat said...

She's on another "quite" kick again. "Rather" has lost favor for the moment. Jeebus, how many times can somebody awkwardly insert the word "quite" into one paragraph?

Lurking Canadian said...

Rather a lot, it quite seems to me.

Merry Christmas, Susan and all. Susan, thanks you once again for your hard work.

cynic said...

If Dagny Thermomix (wow tbogg!) should grace us, we will be treated to an endless series of articles on the whole notion of genetic testing and why her insurance should cover every imaginable test ever because she is pushing 40 and she just deserves it dontcha know.

But no public option. As always, shorter McMegan - for me, not for thee.

Anonymous said...

Oh god you deserve some kind of award for the "Bloody Mary" theory of David Brooks.


Anonymous said...

Also, I can't read the original McMommy post because of a tendency, on my part and her's, to projectile vomiting but I would like to add that in McCardle's world there is, in fact, no difference between a smothering parenting style (token economies? gold stars? permanent panopticon) and just talking to your children like they are interesting people with lives and goals of their own. Both are rewards--she see's authoritarian parenting (although she doesn't call it that) as "rewarding" the parent with rightful control over the child's product.

Her parent's "rightfully" ignored her and produced a healthy, upper class, child. Because being naturally upper class and meritfull she repaid their benign neglect, their mature rejection of responsibility for her education, with servile devotion to checking off her goals and getting those grades or, at least, not fucking up and getting pregnant and drug addicted like her "friend" who fell out of the middle class.

That's the goal. A child who will never embarrass you or do badly or do something unexpected and who will assume his or her rightful place in the class hierarchy. Megan actually thinks that academia is nothing more than a corporate ladder that you climb by being able to "impress" the right people--of course she got her ideas of business, like academia, from watching How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

So, how can lower class people or people who are forced by circumstances to work two or three jobs while their children are forced by circumstances (cruel, unknown circumstances!) to live in poverty rear their children? They must punish them to correc them. It takes less time and you don't have to know anything about their daily lives.

Like all of Megan's writing this contains a germ of an idea--but she busily throws the germ away in order to defat and winnow the chaff and present the chaff as original thought. There are class and other components to parenting styles but if you want to really understand how people parent in this modern age you simply can't treat them as though they are some coral reef producing lower life form that doesn't think its doing something when it does it.

Spare the rod and spoil the child goes back to the *&^% bible. People have been thinking about child rearing for a very long time. They rarely do it unconsciously, though they may be unconscious of where they are going with what they are doing. The most unconscious of all styles, of course, is (as susan says) authoritiarian because of its emphasis on the notion that the past is the best predictor for the future. Authoritarian parenting aims at producing the same product, over and over again--a compliant, docile, productive, member of a society which is more or less identical to the previous one. Liberal parenting aims at producing a safe, happy, self actualized person capable of forging his/her own path in a world which the parents can't quite anticipate.


Mr.Wonderful said...

Authoritarian parenting aims at producing the same product, over and over again--a compliant, docile, productive, member of a society which is more or less identical to the previous one. Liberal parenting aims at producing a safe, happy, self actualized person capable of forging his/her own path in a world which the parents can't quite anticipate.

I love this, aimai. Because any halfway honest assessment of the world as it is at any given moment must lead you to conclude that the world changes in ways that neither you, nor anyone else, can anticipate--or, by definition, understand and control.

There will always be a living to be made cosseting the powerful, as a courtier, as an apologist for the privileged. This is McArdle's dream job, and she's attained it.

Other people--people one admires and respects--see that for what it is, and aspire to something entirely different. And we raise our children accordingly: not to mimic us, and to recapitulate our adaptations to a world that will not exist when they're adults (no matter how hard the McArdles of the world pretend otherwise), but to exploit their capacities in a world that no one can predict.

Anonymous said...

I still love McMegan's delusion that she chose to be a "journalist" when she fell into it because she couldn't get a job after 9/11.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wonderful--
I don't think Megan and McSuderman will actually be authoritarian parents. I think they will be smothering and controlling but I don't think they are going to aim at creating an entirely docile and rote "subject" child. Capitalist theories of the creative class and liberal theories of childrearing acutally coincide in some ways. It is the lower classes and laborers, peasants and subjects, rebellious teens and members of religious communities who need to be forced to comply with blind rules through punishment. Megan comes from people who bribe, not punish, who manipulate and seduce, not dominate. And the rewards of compliance are pretty great. Getting to go to Paris is a way better inducement to compliance at school than not being hit by a belt. But sometimes the belt is all people have. Megan will have lots of toys and gifts and gestures to reward the baby with. And she'll do plenty of negotiating and wondering out loud because she likes to hear the sound of her own voice.


Noni Mausa said...

When I was a kid, we ran wild and free around the neighbourhood because a) there were five of us kids in a 1200 sf house and mom needed to preserve her sanity, and b) other mothers saw us and reported back as necessary, and c) it was a smaller college town, a ten minute bike ride from working farms.

But to say our parents thought we were SAFE in those halcyon days is just stupid. My dad was fresh from WWII, they'd both lived through the Depression, mom's father died of cancer when she was seven and dad lost a sibling at age eight in a blasting cap accident. Polio still stalked childhoods in the US, to say nothing of whooping cough and diptheria etc.

They may have been more lassaise faire with us because they were used to the mortal hazards of childhood, not because they were ignorant of them.

Plus, most families today have only one or two children, which would give any parent pause in considering risks.