Wednesday, June 06, 2012

"The findings stated that 90per cent of Manhattan children are spoiled while 67per cent of children living in Brooklyn are as well."

It's official: children in New York are the most spoiled in America. Must be, because it says so in the Daily Mail. Measured by how much parents spend on their kids.

Which is, as I'm sure I've said here before, an oddly persistent definition of "spoiled," and one that rings utterly false when I think back to how things went among my peers when I was a young child, or to that which I've witnessed since. A child who's spoiled is one who's indulged and raised to be entitled. This means that the kid gets what he wants. Which will sometimes mean expensive stuff (video game consoles? Nike sneakers? am I dating myself?), but is essentially about control. Permission to do this or that, to have ice cream for breakfast, to talk back, to use curse words, stay out late, etc.

Meanwhile, parents who spend spend spend on their kids are often spending on things the kid is indifferent to (private school, if that's been the default since age 5 and the kid doesn't know otherwise; international vacations because those are the vacations the parents take, not because the kid necessarily prefers this to going camping) or ones the kid actively protests (expensive children's clothes are, or were when I was a kid, super dorky, not because it was cool to wear inexpensive clothes, but because the expensive ones always had that my-parents-made-me-wear-this look to them; bringing a lunch made from organic kale is not the status symbol at 11 it is at 41; going to a different tutor for nearly every academic subject, as some of my wealthier classmates would, is not something children themselves are known to demand). Sometimes spending on a kid is discipline, sometimes it indicates a lack thereof.


Chris said...

Must be, because it says so in the Daily Mail.

Not sure if this was a deliberate choice of phrase or not, but "The Daily Mail Song" is well worth a listen. Chorus: "It's absolutely true because I read it in the Daily Mail"

PG said...

The distinction between whether you buy based on the parent's desire or the child's is about as good as we can get. I think the Tiger Mom illustrated the difficulty of discerning what constitutes "spoiling" a child. If you force your kid to play the violin, and she has a love-hate relationship with it, is it "spoiling" to dip into your 401K to buy her a really fine one?

Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail is using the term "spoil" where "privilege" is, for once, probably more accurate. I don't think my parents "spoiled" me with SAT tutoring once a week for several years, but they certainly privileged me over the kids who were allowed to watch whatever they wanted on TV. But it's all relative. I've met Indian kids who thought I was spoiled because my parents still paid for me to go to college after I refused to become a doctor.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Good point!


Yes, but there's a further distinction between spending parents do that's for the kid's own good, that the kid might protest/not have asked for, which might be classified as privilege, as versus spending the parents do that's ostensibly on the kid, but that's for their own vanity/because that's how things are done in their milieu. A four-year-old doesn't care if his clothes come from J.Crew or Old Navy. A teenage girl might not want a spa day. I'm not loving these particular examples, but my point is that not all glitz spent on a kid amounts to privilege.

PG said...

spending the parents do that's ostensibly on the kid, but that's for their own vanity/because that's how things are done in their milieu

But wouldn't some of that contribute to the child's privilege precisely by indicating that his family is of a certain milieu? E.g. suppose that a teenager doesn't care whether he gets a decent haircut and is dressed tidily (no tears or holes, not too visibly worn, clothes are clean and actually fit him), but his parents insist because that's how things are done in their milieu. Part of that milieu is having an appearance that marks one as middle-class, which will then be useful in reducing the likelihood of police interference (thinking of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk epidemic), being followed around in stores, being seen as the wrong type by potential girlfriends' parents, etc.

It reminds me of a conservative response to claims of racial profiling, wherein some conservatives (including ones of color) will say that if you just looked right, even if not white, you wouldn't get treated this way. E.g., that a young black man constantly in a suit and tie is not likely to get treated badly, but if you're wearing a wifebeater and lowriders, you're practically asking for it because you've chosen to look like a thug.

Having the look of a certain milieu, if that milieu is associated with positive things in the minds of others, thus can create privilege for a child. Just maximizing the attractiveness of a child's appearance makes it more likely that s/he will garner positive responses from others, whether teachers or strangers. Making your kid look as good as possible when the kid doesn't care that much can be for the kid's own good. Even insisting that an 11 year old get waxed, when she's not interested, could be interpreted as "for her own good" if you know that she'll be brutally teased and ostracized for failing to do so.

So much of what parents do for a kid's own good really is validating a set of social prejudices, not because what's done would still be valuable in a wholly different social context. (Forcing the kid to eat healthfully and exercise: possibly even more useful if suddenly put in a place where one has limited access to transport/ health care; waxed bikini line: fairly useless in cultures where people either don't reveal that body part in public, or don't care if it's hairy.) But I don't think that means that in the social context where it happens, it's not giving the kid the privilege of looking like she belongs. Just teaching your kid a particular set of table manners even if the kid doesn't want to learn and you're teaching what's expected in your milieu is a form of privilege as social knowledge/capital.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, which is why I wasn't thrilled with the examples I picked. Some spending promotes cultural capital, but not all does. Think of acrylic nails. Or if a parent passes along values that are about spending up on designer clothes and not on education. These are things that might help a kid fit into a particular milieu, if these are the values of everyone and not just these parents, but they aren't "privilege."