Thursday, March 04, 2010

"Did your parents cut your meat up until you were 16?"

Imagine writing a blog post about how you yourself are kind of awesome - you read Proust in your spare time, you're fit, you're quite the philanthropist - but how you're nevertheless curious about the stingy couch-potato set. You ask for commenters to offer their own tales about being stingy couch potatoes, since one never hears directly from the stingy couch-potatoes, only about them. It's time to let the stingy couch-potatoes speak!

And surprise surprise, the comments to your post are filled with accounts from other kind-of-awesome folks who, like you, have met stingy couch-potatoes and who, like you, have the anecdotes to prove it. Would you believe that practically no one will admit in a public forum to being a stingy couch-potato? It must be that stingy couch-potatoes are an urban legend.

Because that's how I see this post on (yes, again) DoubleX, in which Torie Bosch holds forth on what an independent person she is and was, and what spoiled brats other people she's met are in comparison, then solicits comments from the spoiled brats (sorry, "helicopter children") of the nation:

I’d like to hear from a teen or twentysomething who will 'fess up to being so coddled that she called home to find out what to do after she put the wrong soap in the dishwasher. Did your parents cut your meat up until you were 16? Did you ever ask them to let you try to do things on your own, or were you happy to have someone call up your academic adviser when things weren’t going well?
Believe it or not, what she gets are a bunch of tales from others who, like herself, never got help from anyone past 18 or 12 or whatever and yet turned out awesome. The coddled, with I think one exception, do not come forth.

I feel as though we've been down this road, or a similar one, before. No one, at least no American, wants to admit to privilege, to not being 100% self-made. Since most successful people come from backgrounds that are a mix of silver spoons and cracked plastic ones, it's easy enough to highlight the latter.

What's frustrating is that helicopter parenting does exist, and is, in its extreme forms, quite the opposite of privilege for its recipients.* But Bosch half-presents the phenomenon as hand-holding she's proud not to have received - as though people with parents like this have a choice - which misses the point.

*Disclaimer necessary, I suppose. I don't believe my own parents were/are 'helicopter', but don't think the world needs more examples of 'you wouldn't believe the people I've met in my upper-middle-class NYC circles.' And if I was offering concrete examples of people screwed up by parental over-involvement, they would have to be of that sort.


PG said...

I think there are different kinds of helicopter parenting. The kind that white people (to put it bluntly) seem to get appears to be based on the idea of the child's inherent awesomeness that must be supported and defended by the parent against all who may challenge it. My mom engaged in helicopter parenting, but more in a highly-controlling, "you're on the verge of completely screwing up your life if I am not monitoring it" way. I don't mean she wasn't supportive and loving (she is both), but I can't say my parents did much to make me think I was some super special snowflake. My dad objected to having a high school graduation party for my older sister because of course she was going to graduate high school; this was nothing to have a party about.

I think even this helicopter parenting can have bad effects in terms of not letting the child mature and be independent when independence might involve some academic screw-ups, but it definitely isn't a kind that anyone ever envied me.

In an article about one of the plaintiffs in the UMich affirmative action cases, she was recounting how when she received her rejection, she immediately said, "Daddy, can we sue them?" When I got rejected from colleges, my mom called them and said, "How did she screw up, so we can be sure our younger daughter doesn't repeat her mistakes?"

I think this is a big difference between white American helicopter parenting and the kind you see in recent immigrant families where parents are also hyper-involved in their children's success, but have a different attitude about it. Namely that if the child doesn't succeed at something, it's definitely the child's fault (and he may or may not get beaten for it), whereas the white American helicopter parent seems to blame the rest of the world when her child comes up inadequate.

Phoebe said...


Pale as I am, I definitely got something closer to what you describe growing up than to the snowflake "white" variety. (Why else the guilt?) But I don't think it's quite right to say this isn't envied - not on an individual level, by other teens, sure, but on a societal level? That's basically what resentment against Asians and Jews is all about.

As for any helicoptering being envied... I think the problem is that Bosch and others conflate helicopter parents with parents-who-give-their-kids-all-the-bourgeois-advantages. The latter is enviable, but the former? Not so much. Just because one sees both in the same "white"/yuppie/whatever communities doesn't mean they're the same thing. Within these communities, the difference is usually clear.

PG said...

I don't think Asians and Jews are envied/resented for the helicopter parenting so much as for the results thereof (i.e. bourgeois success). You are probably right about the conflation -- I would say I got the helicopter parenting without necessarily the bourgeois advantages, as my parents' sense of what was good for us didn't seem to include the whole "be well-rounded" thing that U.S.-born parents seem more concerned about. (When my parents became aware that there could be more factors in college admissions than just grades and test scores, they were really annoyed. Watch the birth of conspiracy theories about how the White Man keeps changing the rules to shut other folks out of the game!)

Phoebe said...

"I don't think Asians and Jews are envied/resented for the helicopter parenting so much as for the results thereof (i.e. bourgeois success)."

I suppose you're right - it's more that the childhoods we know so well are imagined to be a mystical, indescribable force. When all it adds up to is having parents who, when you return tired from track practice, ask you why you bother with that, when homework's obviously the main thing...

I wonder, though, about the US-born, foreign-born distinction. What we're talking about is very much The Immigrant Childhood, but my sense is that it often lasts (or at least can last) more than one generation.

Matt said...

I have both been fit and read (some) Proust in my spare time, but arguably not at the same moment in time. (I suppose I wasn't really _un_ fit then but probably wouldn't be described as especially fit, either.) And I've never been more than a small-scale giver of money. Too bad.

Belle Lettre said...

PG and I are actually sisters, you know, like from the same family with the same parents.

Although I plan to raise my kids with more independence, I often can't shake the "why aren't you a super high achiever" mentality and "don't you know that B's are bad and should be beaten?" (actually said out loud.

Phoebe said...


I also fail at life in these regards. The Proust I've read was either assigned or freely chosen but for a paper for a class.


This makes me wonder, once again, how many generations the attitude lasts for, and at what point it disappears altogether. I can't point to much anecdotally, because many (most?) of the super-helicoptered, parents-blamed-the-teachers-and-not-their-little-angels sorts I knew growing up were give or take as far removed from Eastern European Jewish immigrant pasts as I am.