Claiming Parental Authority, Reprise

I have written before about professionally successful, generally competent people who are nonetheless seemingly incapable of exercising parental authority. Matt Richtel reveals another aspect of this social phenomenon: Parents who feel the need to pay an outside etiquette expert hundreds of dollars in order to teach their children table manners.

What strikes me most about these people is their strange lack of agency in the family sphere. “It’s so hard to get the kids to behave at the table when the TV is on all the time”. Because obviously, if you have a graduate degree and a six figure income, it is beyond your powers to pick up a remote control and turn off an inanimate piece of electronic equipment. The omnipotent idiot box is on, and who are you to question it?

The other whinge about why people “can’t” parent adequately that is highlighted in the article is one I hear constantly in the Palo Altos of the world (An area Matt knows well as he roams these parts): People who grossly overschedule their family’s life and then complain about how overscheduled they are. I have friends with 4 kids who live near Stanford, and other parents constantly say to them “We envy you guys so much because your kids just play after school whereas we are so exhausted with the baseball coach and the Italian lessons and the ballet club and and and…”.

This couple responds by pointing out that they don’t do anything to get the life they have with their kids, it is indeed the natural state. The over-scheduled, panicked, always-achieving life is something affluent parents create and not something of which they are victims. If you are over-scheduled and overwhelmed by choice, don’t complain and certainly don’t hire an etiquette coach. Instead, do less stuff.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

26 thoughts on “Claiming Parental Authority, Reprise”

  1. your example of overscheduling is something i have seen many times as a 6th grade teacher. i am the sponsor/coach of one of the events in an interscholastic academic competition we have in texas. i can have up to three acrtive competitors and an alternate. when i started doing this 18 years ago it was not that hard to find a day for any number of competitors to attend afterschool sessions to vie for the available slots. this year i don’t even have an alternate because of those children who expressed an interest, i had three who could only make it on thursdays and of the others i had one who could only do mondays, one who could only do tuesdays, another who could only do fridays, and a couple of others who asked if we could meet on saturdays because their afternoons during the week were booked. when i’ve talked to parents about this i see that passivity you mentioned. my best guess is that the overscheduling results from parenst and children making a series of decisions which seem harmnless individually but accumulate to make the result you discuss.

  2. I tend to doubt that the other parents who tell your friend that they envy them actually do so – more likely they are either giving backhanded compliments while validating their own perceived “need” to give their children baseball, ballet and Italian lessons. Nobody who can afford those lessons doesn’t realize they are making a choice to give them. I know just as many people who criticize the decision of other parents to homeschool so that their kids have time for the ballet and piano tutoring or who speculate as to why other parents chose that school over this one. Most of the time it seems to me to be people rethinking and overthinking their own choices by reviewing someone else’s different choices to make sure they didn’t get it wrong.

  3. Well, if you time is too valuable to parent kids, you just have to farm them out to people who’s time isn’t as valuable as yours.

  4. I agree with curious but more so. People who are “complaining” about all the sporting, artistic, educational, and cultural activities they schlep their kids to are actually just boasting — about themselves and their kids. I probably used to do this occasionally myself. Within limits it’s probably natural and relatively harmless as boasting goes.

    I’m not sure what to say about “exercising parental authority.” I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t characterize teaching your children, through example and by instruction and explanation, about how to live well together with other people, in that way.

    1. larry birnbaum: I don’t doubt at all that at times what you are describing occurs as a form of boasting. Yet I also know many of these parents and they are genuinely exhausted and miserable (and my friends in the example I gave are happy, which these parents can see). These overscheduling parents think — wrongly in my view — that they MUST do all these things or else their child will “not get into Harvard” (insert any equivalent anxious upper middle class person goal here). So they feel trapped and helpless even though they are not.

      On your argument that teaching through example and by instruction and explanation not being an exercise in authority, please see my original post on parental authority (specifically the example of the two pilos). “Authority” has gotten an unjustly bad name in some quarters as if it is the same as authoritarian. When a 4 year old throws food at the table and the parent says “Don’t do that”, it’s an act of authority (a good one). And if the kid says s/he will throw food as much s/he wants and doesn’t care what the parent thinks, the parent ought to be able to act in an authorative fashion (again, not authoritarian).

      1. I’m not sure about your point 1; maybe some of these parents are genuinely miserable. I can only speak from my own experience.

        Point 2 taken. Perhaps I might suggest the word “responsibility.” It’s true that assuming responsibility in educating one’s child is also assuming authority (because authority and responsibility have to be aligned). But responsibility comes first; authority is instrumental.

      2. I sent that post to the board of our church.

        We Unitarian Universalists have a fine tradition of anti-authoritarianism and a sometimes pathological fear of authority. With typical brilliance, many of our more influential ministers are decrying our anti-authoritarianism. They want more ministerial authority and are going about getting it in the most counter-productive way possible. I used your post to illustrate the difference.

        I think most of them read it, but I’m not sure, which gives you some idea how much authority the board president, elected by the congregation, has. 😉

  5. Parenting techniques learned from a pre-school teacher: When my daughter was 4 her pre-school teacher reported this conversation my daughter had with two boys in the class who were arguing over a toy train. “You need to share the train.” “Then we can put the train in time-out and try again later.” Whereupon the boys put the train away. Authority — it’s all about the consistency!

    1. Hmmm. Bemused’s 4-year-old seems to be a judicious tyke. Mine is more of a shyster. To him, “share” often means “gimme.”

  6. What I think is interesting is how little it matters. Often I hear people in domestic public policy (or education) talk about the importance of “teaching” responsible parenting to poor people, because then their children would be more successful. But the reality is that wealthy and professional parents often seem to make pretty bad choices as well. And their kids still seem to get good grades and go to college. (This is, obviously, just anecdotal, I have no idea if some’s done a real study on this.)

    1. Funny, that correlation between upper-class background and academic success in the face of behavior that would get other kids bounced from school. I wonder if there’s some sort of causation going on. Does anyone have a hypothesis?

      I decided gifted and talented programs were a scam when I noticed two things. First, almost all kids of people with the right backgrounds get in. Second, those programs simply give a few kids the education all kids deserve.

  7. A think a lot of this is because of land use. When space is optimized for cars then you’ve got to keep your kids in the car as much as possible. The ballet lessons and etiquette classes are just a pretext to get them in the car.

    Really this is about private opulence and public squalor. If we had better schools, walkable neighborhoods, and safe parks (like we used to) then nobody would overschedule (like we used to).

    1. Well chrismealy, Palo Alto has great schools, walkable neighborhoods and safe parks and there is way more overscheduling there than you see in East Palo Alto, a much lower income community on the other side of highway which has struggling schools, non-walkable neighborhoods and unsafe parks.

      1. This strikes me as a case of helicopter parenting, to be honest.

        My parents never walked or drove me anywhere once I had started going to school, unless it was absolutely unavoidable. I was expected to walk, bike, or navigate the public transport system (at an appropriate age) on my own, wherever I needed to go: school, friends, or extracurricular activities. They didn’t do this because they were too busy (there were still plenty of things that we did do together as a family), but because they believed that I needed to learn to stand on my own feet. As a result, no matter how busy my schedule was (usually because of choices I made, not choices they made for me), it didn’t really impact theirs.

        And for what it’s worth, I plan to do the same with my own daughters (admittedly, the older one is only six, so it’s largely walking to school or visiting her friends on her own so far).

    2. I definitely agree about the cr@ppy land-use patterns being a contributor. But if that were fixed, this type of parent would find another reason to not pay attention to the kids.

      They had kids because that’s what they were supposed to do. Now that they have to do it for 18-26 years and can’t get out of it, this is how they cope. IMHO. I get this a lot at our school, and we look at it as a competitive advantage for our kid.

    3. But most over-scheduling happens in more affluent communities, where the schools are fine and the neighborhoods clean and friendly. In poor neighborhoods, where the schools are crappy*, there is almost no scheduling (mostly as a function of income, but also a cultural norm).

      *As a teacher at a poor school, I use the term with trepidation. The institution is only as good as the families it serves. Take the same teachers, administrators, etc. and they’ll become a great school overnight in an affluent neighborhood. This is a much, larger discussion, but terms good and bad schools, as shorthand, are used so often, and so often misunderstood, that I feel obligated to elaborate. Not directed at anyone in particular, just the larger conversation.

  8. I just watched the documentary Happy last night, which explores the field of positive psychology and where happiness comes from. I highly recommend it.

    Much of the research seems predicated on finding correlations between human activities that correlate with high or low scores on happiness surveys. “Extrinsic” values such as status and money (once basic needs are satisfied) don’t correlate with happiness nearly as much as “intrinsic” values such as personal growth and inter-personal relationships. It seems somewhat obvious, but the film makes the case pretty powerfully. Especially given how many people seem not to get the point. Cello lessons are fine. But too many children are forced into their parents’ extrinsic chase.

    1. To give an anecdote along these lines from Palo Alto. A 5 year old boy told his Palo Alto dad that he wanted to learn to play baseball, so his dad hired him a hitting coach. My own view would be that the kid would have been happier to spend some time with his dad and to have some fun, rather than turning this into another graded performance exercise at which he clearly was expected to excel. Love and attention and the “flow” (in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s sense) of fun bring happiness even if you don’t end up becoming a major league baseball star — turning every activity into an instrumental pursuit under the guidance of professional experts does not.

        1. Agreed. And most parents can’t teach their kids algebra, and math teachers at school are the ones who can do that. Parents need help and they should get it…and they should also do some parenting.

  9. This is a consequence of the shrinking middle class. To keep your kid in the middle class you have to make sure s/he is the kind of overachiever that can still get a job with benefits. These are now rare. It used to be an average blue collar kid would have a decent job and a decent life compared to most other Americans, then it got to be that only a college education was a reasonably sure ticket to the middle class. Now it’s that only a college degree from a top institution is such a passport — and that’s even becoming less sure.

    So everyone in that class is desperately trying to outdo everyone else for the diminishing nunber of truly middle-class (*) slots available to the next generation.

    * I’ve written before on here about how middle-classness can be identified with “adequate life-risk management” — the ability and expectation that one will have safeguards in place toward at least a decent modest retirement, insurance against disastrous disability, insurance against financial catastrophe from a health/medical incident.

    You have to self-insure by becoming a rich asshole, since societal insurance is so lousy, because of republicans.

    So, My point is, at least some of this extracurricular hyperactivity, combined with under-parenting in the real sense, is the result of having a frayed or absent social safety net. People are desperate to keep their offspring in the vanishing middle class. The increasing class bifurcation by wealth and risk managment means You have to end up a glib, fortunate, overpaid outlier like Megan mcardle, or risk serving her lattes for the rest of your life as an ordinary graduate of say SUNY-Brockport.

    It helps to make your kid into a mannerless jerk, also, because those with any sense of self-restraint are less and less competitive in that dog-eat-dog dream future that Ayn Rand cooked up for us all.

    1. Betsy,

      While I believe this rat race approach to parenting has many causes, desperation to get one’s children slots in the ever shrinking Middle Class is huge. I further wonder how many of the people pulling our country in the direction of class bifurcation are doing so out of the need to build a world that justifies their own, often overwrought, struggles and fears.

      +1 re: parents grooming mannerless jerks.

      1. It’s just so incredibly vulgar. And puritanical: toil! suffer! Feel righteous ( preferably out loud) about your suffering!

        Also, remember that it’s a time-tested truth that everyone gets exactly what they deserve in this world, which is a perfect executor of justice.

        Merit always equals reward, and those who Achieve Less, why, that shows the disapproval of Providence upon them.

    2. I see a lot of this quiet, not quite articulated panic about passing down middle-class status in my suburb. There is a lot of pressure on the kids, especially as they move into high school.

      Not sure I would describe McArdle as an outlier — it’s my impression she grew up with a good amount more money and privilege than the type of middle-class kid who goes to a state school and is at risk of ending up a permanent barista.

  10. All I can think of is a children’s book of stories about a strange woman named Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who would use various schemes to help children overcome issues that they might be having. One story was about a boy who had very bad table manners, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle came up with a highly refined pig to show the boy (by example) how to do things properly. If there are etiquette coaches now instead of pigs, it is still an example of how strange ideas that I read about as a child have come to pass in my later years.

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