Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed.
I'm not sure what she means by the "moral revolutions of modernity"; does she mean that we now consider it immoral to have children help with the family business? John Taylor Gatto would argue that we now force children into being (in his words) more like parasites than participants in the community, by denying them any industry or tangible contribution. That we deny them autonomy and mistakenly equate obedience with responsibility. That we prolong childhood artificially so that when teenagers are clearly, according to historical example, of an age to participate as adults, we are still forcing them to passively follow the instructions of others 8+ hours out of the day. And the "free range parenting" folks have numerous arguments to make about the harm done by over-protecting kids. Furthermore, the demands being made on children today may be mental instead of physical, homework instead of chores, but the number of ADHD prescriptions indicates that they are strenuous demands indeed. Not much of a moral revolution here.
What's never questioned in this article is whether the current system of parenting is better for the kids. Yes, it's too bad that parents are (according to data) more and more unhappy with each successive generation, but it's all for the good of the kiddies. In describing a videotaped conflict between a mother and her 8-year-old son over his not-yet-done homework, she writes:
Tamar Kremer-Sadlik, the director of research in this study, has watched this scene many times. The reason she believes it’s so powerful is because it shows how painfully parents experience the pressure of making their children do their schoolwork. They seem to feel this pressure even more acutely than their children feel it themselves.... [Seem to? Could there be any doubt about this?]
Obviously, this clip shows how difficult and unpleasant parenting can be. What it doesn’t show is ... that this unpleasant task she’s undertaking is part of a larger project, one that pays off in subtler dividends than simply having fun.
But homework at age 8 does not have any dividends! Alfie Kohn wrote a whole book on this subject and the data are clear. Surveys indicate that homework is a major source of conflict in families with young children, and yet it has no academic (nor any apparent "character building") benefit. If that seems hard to believe, read this interview or watch this one.
A lot of intensive parenting is actually more about the parents than the kids, I suspect. Most of it seems directed at making sure the kids behave, as opposed to making sure that they have a good relationship with you, or that they're happy in life, or that they have empathy. That's partly because bad behavior in your kid is acutely embarrassing and -- because we have a ridiculously competitive society -- is invariably seen as reflecting poorly on the parents. We have expectations that are totally unrealistic, like that 2-year-olds should willingly share toys. And if your kid isn't sharing, you should at least make a big show of talking to them about sharing (or giving them a time out or something) to let everyone else know that this isn't due to lazy parenting. (Which, of course, it isn't; toddlers don't share for developmental reasons.)
Secondly, some of the satisfaction in parenting comes from feeling like you're being a good parent. I feel that way when I have a really good conversation with one of my kids. But the society implies that being a good parent involves buying them cognitively enriching toys and then getting them to use them, or from teaching them phonics at age 4, or teaching them the alphabet before 18 months. You're a good parent if you're hauling them to sports or art class, doing extra teaching at home, and most of all, if you're enforcing the rules. Americans are extremely concerned about not having spoiled children, which presumably will be the result if bedtime is not stuck to or if homework is blown off.
But so much of kids' learning, and the improvement in their behavior over time, is just due to natural development. I imagine that the parent obsessed with getting their toddler to share later pats themselves on the back when that same child, at age 5, shares easily with other kids. But they can't really know if it's due to all their hassling of their toddler, or just natural development. Similarly, if your kid likes reading at age 7 you will never really know if it was the hours of bedtime reading every week and the phonics starting at age 3, or just genes and development. But when parents have made themselves and their kids miserable with intensive parenting efforts, they're going to assume that all that hassling has paid off.
Unschooling families would seem to suggest that maybe it doesn't really take that much effort to learn things. And, to cite another Alfie Kohn book, Unconditional Parenting draws on research to show that common disciplinary techniques like time-outs and charts with stars on them and just plain bribery do not work in the longer term, and have detrimental effects on children's relationships with their parents. My own kids are reasonably well behaved (okay, excepting housework, which I am largely unsuccessful in getting them to do)... they are, at any rate, quite considerate and respectful of other people. I attribute that to the fact that I am respectful and considerate of them, and I do not use Skinnerian techniques like time-outs. I don't "use techniques" at all, actually... we negotiate things via lots of talking. One of the themes of Unconditional Parenting is that good behavior should be based in social contracts, not economic ones. Of course, if your kids attend school this can be tough, because schools exclusively use economic contracts (rewards and demerits, or if you will, credits and debits) to manage classroom behavior.
Meanwhile, in traditional parenting land:
[R]esearchers collected 1,540 hours of footage of 32 middle-class, dual-earner families with at least two children, all of them going about their regular business in their Los Angeles homes. The intention of this study was in no way to make the case that parents were unhappy. But one of the postdoctoral fellows who worked on it, himself a father of two, nevertheless described the video data to the Times as “the very purest form of birth control ever devised. Ever.”
It would be nice if New York magazine would do a feature on alternative parenting, or the unschooling lifestyle, or questioning whether American yuppie parenting is actually beneficial to anyone at all. Because if watching parents with their children is "birth control," it looks to me like something has gone horribly awry.