One Solution to the Work-Family Balance Dilemma: Spend Less Time with Your Kids

What Women Really Think
June 26 2012 11:57 AM

The Case for Spending Less Time With Your Kids

Kids being kids?

Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

One solution to the Anne-Marie Slaughter work-family balance problem? Spend less time with your kids. That’s the conclusion I drew after reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent New Yorker piece on how we are parenting the competence and confidence right out of our children.

Kolbert opens “Spoiled Rotten” with a scene from the Peruvian Amazon, as a tribal family heads off on a five-day leaf-gathering trek down the river with a young girl, Yanira, from another family tagging along. Anthropologist Carolina Izquierdo was there to observe:   


Although Yanira had no clear role in the group, she quickly found ways to make herself useful. Twice a day, she swept the sand off the sleeping mats, and she helped stack the kapashi leaves for transport back to the village. In the evening, she fished for crustaceans, which she cleaned, boiled, and served to the others. Calm and self-possessed, Yanira “asked for nothing,” Izquierdo later recalled. The girl’s behavior made a strong impression on the anthropologist because at the time of the trip Yanira was just six years old.

Kolbert then goes on to detail another anthropological study: of 32 middle-class Los Angeles families who agreed to be filmed as they “ate, fought, made up, and did the dishes.” Only, guess who didn’t do the dishes? Six-year-old kids.

In the L.A. families observed, no child routinely performed household chores without being instructed to. Often, the kids had to be begged to attempt the simplest tasks; often, they still refused. In one fairly typical encounter, a father asked his eight-year-old son five times to please go take a bath or a shower. After the fifth plea went unheeded, the father picked the boy up and carried him into the bathroom. A few minutes later, the kid, still unwashed, wandered into another room to play a video game.

Kolbert’s basic argument is that we, American parents, are doing it wrong. From tying our kids’ shoes to analyzing their every emotional dip to punishing them only after counting to three—and trying desperately not to get to that horrible, dreadful number—we are managing our children’s every move until they can’t move without us.

This is not exactly new territory, though Kolbert’s piece, which is in part a discussion of a bunch of books from the unparenting movement, synthesizes the various down-with-helicopter-folks threads quite well. And her plea only feels more essential after reading today’s New York Times piece on the wealth of monitoring tools available to families with tech-wielding kids, and the well-intentioned but seriously misguided parents who use them.

There’s the dad who reads his son’s text messages, the mom who subscribes to her daughter’s YouTube channel, and the grandmother who, via something called, monitors her granddaughter’s Facebook page. All the parents quoted in the Times piece express a certain amount of conflict about Big Brothering their kids, with most saying that though they are privy to the ongoing teen dramas of their children’s lives—boy trouble, mean girl fights, swearing—they usually keep it to themselves, as if that’s somehow an actual attempt to let their little ones fly.

Whatever happened to knowing that our kids were going to steal from our liquor cabinet, or somehow fool the poor guy at the 7-Eleven with a terrible fake ID, and go get drunk on a trespassed golf course—and basically being OK with that? Yes, terrible things can happen to our kids, online and elsewhere. But from the way Kolbert tells it, terrible things are happening to them already as we stunt their growth, and more terrible things are to come when they hit 25 and can’t cook themselves a meal.

One small solution in the work-family balance struggle: Go to work, take a run, socialize with friends, give your kids room to screw up—real room, not managed room—and let them fend for themselves.


Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.


How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 10:42 AM Scalia’s Liberal Streak The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 18 2014 11:25 AM Gays on TV: From National Freakout to Modern Family Fun
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM Where Pregnant Women Aren't Allowed to Work After 36 Weeks  
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 11:48 AM Watch the Hilarious First Sketch From Season 4 of Key & Peele
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 10:07 AM “The Day It All Ended” A short story from Hieroglyph, a new science fiction anthology.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.