MEGAN MCARDLE: Why We Stopped Spanking.
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.
As Valerie Ramey points out in a recent essay, one of the enduring mysteries of the 20th century is that in America, at least, labor saving appliances don’t seem to have saved much labor. Adults spend less time on certain “home production” tasks–like cooking–but more on others, particularly childcare. . . . 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.
I had some related thoughts here. “We keep hearing about declining birthrates, but raising a kid is far more expensive — financially, emotionally, and in terms of time — today than it was a few decades ago. As she occasionally notes, things that were considered adequate, or even exemplary, parenting then are now considered abuse or neglect. In fact, when you look at how the burden of childrearing has increased, it seems amazing that we see as many people having children as we do.” By way of comparison, I invoked James Lileks.
But here’s another thought. Why are kids today so fat? Because — since you can’t (or at least, many parents don’t) induce good behavior by spanking, people try to keep kids happy with food. (That’s the most common “reward.”) Stick a kid in a carseat — unknown in the past — and you pacify them with a juicebox or some goldfish. They’re immobile (burning fewer calories than old-fashioned front-to-back clambering kids) and fed to distract them from the unhappiness of being strapped in like a mummy.
Likewise, schools and daycare centers shove snacks at them for the same reason. It may only add up to a few hundred calories a day in the form of extra snacks and reduced mobility, but that’s all it takes to produce weight gain over time.
And maybe spanking isn’t so bad.
UPDATE: Here’s a column I wrote a while back on related matters. Excerpt:
Meanwhile, in the United States, commentator John Gibson is calling for “procreation, not recreation.” But I think that attitude is part of the problem. (Procreation not recreation? As an old-timer once reportedly said in response to the Make Love, Not War, slogan: “Hell, in my time we did both.”)
But Gibson’s slogan unwittingly captures an important aspect of the problem, in the United States and other industrial societies, at least: We’ve taken a lot of the fun out of parenting. Or to echo Longman, the “social costs” of parenting continue to rise, and, more significantly, perhaps, the “social returns” continue to decline.
Parenting was always hard work, of course. But aside from the economic payoffs, parents used to get a lot of social benefits, too. But in recent decades, a collection of parenting “experts” and safety-fascist types have extinguished some of the benefits while raising the costs, to the point where what’s amazing isn’t that people are having fewer kids, but that people are having kids at all. . . . There’s also the decline in parental prestige over generations. My mother reports that when she was a newlywed (she was married in 1959) you weren’t seen as fully a member of the adult world until you had kids. Nowadays to have kids means something closer to an expulsion from the adult world. People in the suburbs buy SUVs instead of minivans not because they need the four-wheel-drive capabilities, but because the SUVs lack the minivan’s close association with low-prestige activities like parenting, and instead provide the aura of high-prestige activities like whitewater kayaking. Why should kayaking be more prestigious than parenting? Because parenting isn’t prestigious in our society. If it were, childless people would drive minivans just to partake of the aura.
In these sorts of ways, parenting has become more expensive in non-financial as well as financial terms. It takes up more time and emotional energy than it used to, and there’s less reward in terms of social approbation. This is like a big social tax on parenting and, as we all know, when things are taxed we get less of them. Yes, people still have children, and some people even have big families. But at the margin, which is where change occurs, people are less likely to do things as they grow more expensive and less rewarded.
So as we head into what looks like a major demographic debate, I think we need to look beyond subsidies and finances to culture. If people want to see Americans have more children, they should probably ignore Putin’s advice, and they should definitely ignore Gibson’s advice. They should look at ways of making parenting more rewarding, and less burdensome, in social as well as economic terms.
Read the whole thing, if I do say so myself. Plus, here’s a law-review article on how the legal system encourages “over-parenting.”