"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Children As Commodities

For those upwardly mobile urban residents who live in Brentwood, the upper east side of New York, Chicago’s Gold Coast or places where the aspiring masters of the universe set up house, children are not small flesh and blood people; they are commodities. Their value fluctuates like the gold market. What counts, of course, is whether they can enhance the reputation of parents, and whether parents can live vicariously through the exploits of kids.

At a recent dinner event several guests regaled me with stories of their children’s achievements. That is well and good since parents who have something positive to say about their kids might as well let other guests in on the success. But at one point, a fellow said my son disappoints me, “he didn’t get into Harvard.” I asked if he (the dad) went to Harvard. He said, “no but I was counting on my son to get in.” I innocently noted that this rejection would probably not have the slightest influence on the young man’s future. Dad demurred, “of course it will; I was counting on it.”

This conversation has been repeated many times, in many places. Each time I come away perplexed. Why would parents be disappointed that a son or daughter didn’t get in to an Ivy League college, especially if they didn’t get in to one themselves? Moreover, why be disappointed in this child who didn’t get admitted to an elite school? It is precisely because it is elite that everyone doesn’t get in. This rejection doesn’t ensure failure in life, just as acceptance doesn’t ensure success.

The answer to this conundrum is that upper middle class kids are treated as commodities. It is what they do that matters, not who they are. The marketplace of conversation is dependent on the conditions that allow one to boast about the children in a social game of one-upsmanship. Here is reverse projection: the parents derive prestige from what their children achieved. I can remember a time when kids, who took pride in their parents accomplishments, wanted to emulate them. How quaint that seems at the moment.

This children’s commodities market has its up and downs just like the Mercantile Market. On some days Johnny’s stock goes up; he won his tennis match or got 1600 on the SAT. On other days his stock goes down; he didn’t win a Merit Scholarship or he struck out in the 9th with the bases loaded. This rollercoaster effect is found in everyone’s life and surely boasting about children is not uncommon. What makes this condition odd is the lack of intrinsic value in the child. Kids must produce to have value just as corporate value is dependent on earnings.

Not only does this put inordinate pressure on children; it is an attitude hostile to the very nature of a parent-child relationship. It dehumanizes the kid and grotesquely limns the parents. In this human calculus one weighs the scales of achievements and failures using the most superficial of standards to register a judgment. Is Johnny less of a person because he didn’t get in to Harvard?

Fortunately this slice of life is restricted to an affluent portion of the population that has the opportunity to preoccupy themselves with fantasies of their offspring’s accomplishments. Very often what dad or mom couldn’t do for themselves, they expect from their children. After all, they offered every privilege money can provide, now results are expected.

Where this leads is already clear: psychiatrists treat more children of the wealthy than ever before. Children are driven to succeed and become depressed when unrealistic standards are not met. Parents, on the other hand, are frantic. If Mary isn’t always attentive in school, she becomes a candidate for Ritalin. If Johnny only scored 1500 on the SAT, Kaplan or Princeton Review sessions will be in his future. It is not merely the edge Mom and Dad want for their children; it’s the “stock price” of the offspring.

Children as commodities may seem as a harsh idea, but it is a part of current reality in my opinion. The problem is kids often can’t reach the expectations parents have for them and the market suffers from irrational exuberance. Perhaps this market will also burst like its analogue on Wall Street. That might release the pressure at home, but its consequence for society would be very profound indeed.

10 comments:

Matt Huisman said...

Fortunately this slice of life is restricted to an affluent portion of the population that has the opportunity to preoccupy themselves with fantasies of their offspring’s accomplishments.

If only this were true. Harvard may not always be the dream, but one trip to a little league baseball field or cheerleading tryout or science fair and you find out that the problem affects parents at all income levels.

In a culture that believes that success must be the answer to the pain and dissatisfaction of life - the way to provide real meaning - children are only one more place for us to discover that it is not enough.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Matt, it's my experience that the conspicuous consumption of offspring accomplishments recounted in flawless detail by Dr. London is different not just in degree, but in kind, from the run-of-the-mill soccer moms and hockey dads. Because deranged as the sidelines can get, the emotion is based not on what the child reflects back onto the parent, but on what the parent thinks the child is worthy of. Now what Mrs. Smith thinks the coach or the refs owe little Johnny may be wildly at odds with any realistic assessment of Johnny's talents, and in fact the sort of assessment only a mother could cook up, but at least there is, at the core, a regard for Johnny as a person in his own right.

I am witnessing firsthand, for the first time, the sort of Ivy League envy Dr. London describes. My elder daughter is a junior in a private high school in Maryland. All of her friends' parents have gone bull goose loony. Summer SAT prep sent most of them clean over the edge. I think a second-tier admission would hit these people harder in the self-esteem solar plexus than a pink slip would -- maybe harder than an obstruction indictment, even.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Above comments well-observed.

Here in LaLaLand, where these things happen not unrarely, the "commodity" portion of Dr. London's post hit home with me, as in a single woman deciding she wants to "have" a child, sans husband.

Since the actual experience of actual childbirth by all accounts actually sucks, and the children are not offered up for adoption, I would think they are using "have a child" as in possessing the commodity of a rugrat.

(I'd understand mebbe scouting up some Pierce Brosnan sperm, but David Crosby??!!??)

Matt Huisman said...

You may be right, Kathy. It is a little bit different. I think you're probably most accurate when it comes to the moms and what they think their child is worthy of.

But there's still a part of me that sees fathers looking to relive, recapture or more likely reimagine their youth through their son's achievements. If you look closely, you'll find many who are actually disappointed in their sons. It's an amazingly sad - on so many levels - sight.

That said, the experience that you and Dr. London describe is quite bizarre in its own right - any parent that knows the class rank of their 2nd grader ought to be in counseling.

Devang said...

You guys are spot on. Parents too often discount other paths to success, most get over it, some never do, even when their child has grown up. And to think I can't seem to agree with the blog on other things.

As someone who is still going through the education system (senior in college) I have to emphasize that within the system as it is now, students get dragged to the principals office for being late, while their only motivation to do well in classes is hope that their parents will be satisfied with the results. To the kids coming out of that system, schools like Harvard either mean success, or unachievable bliss. What I'm saying is, if the system discounts other possibilities of success for the child, can you really blame the parents?

The Indian (born in bombay, semi-escaped the pressures of the indian school system by immigrating) in me wants let the kids study and suffer, since that is the only way out of true hardship, while parents are capable of no wrongdoing. This voice I've ignored lately, probably at my own peril... I'll stop there.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Matt -- my perpective is tempered by my own children's complete perfection, and having all girls defuses the male preoccupation with the noble carrying on of the bloodline syndrome (which I think would run counter to my husband's entire personality anyway). Add to that the fact that both of us pursued utterly improbable educational and career paths that nonetheless turned out well. John at one point was enrolled in a half-baked California community college because San Diego State kicked him out for overdue library books. I unsuccessfully pursued a PhD at a program that no longer even exists. We're both still employable, John so much so that I no longer have to work if I don't want to.

Matt Huisman said...

What I'm saying is, if the system discounts other possibilities of success for the child, can you really blame the parents?

Yes. This isn't a case of don't hate the playa - hate the game.

What you are describing is a works-based mentality whereby you believe that you (and your parents) have entered into a bargain with the system - you put in the sweat, and the system owes you success. The trouble with this approach is that you will quickly become frustrated with either: 1) the system's ability to recognize your efforts, 2) the worthiness of the prize you seek or 3) your ability to earn what you desire.

The system is a tool, and can help you - but don't put your hope solely on it, it cannot guarantee you the comfort/hope that all will be well.

Devang said...

"Fortunately this slice of life is restricted to an affluent portion of the population that has the opportunity to preoccupy themselves with fantasies of their offspring’s accomplishments."

I'd almost forgotten we are talking within this demographic, and I'd have to agree with the Dr and yourself.

The system is a tool, but the rest of what you said is obvious ideology known to any junior high student who thinks about it.

Unrelated: Outside this demographic though, lets consider the number of kids which the system has judged as failures or hasn't provided a level playing field to, and the number of kids their parents have judged as failures and the overlap in the two. In cases of extreme poverty [i.e. The documentary Born into Brothels], I hardly think you can blame parents.

Matt Huisman said...

The system is a tool, but the rest of what you said is obvious ideology known to any junior high student who thinks about it.

I have not suggested any ideology - though I fail to see why that would disqualify it's relevance - I've only pointed out a very common paradigm that leads to the frustration you described. If you want to keep asking the system to deliver on your expectations, good luck to you.

connie deady said...

Matt -- my perpective is tempered by my own children's complete perfection, and having all girls defuses the male preoccupation with the noble carrying on of the bloodline syndrome

That's really funny Kathy. I do think that you are right to some degree. I don't know about commodities, but I do think richer parents see children as extensions of validations of themselves. I'm enormously proud of my daughter, but I want her to be the best herself she can be.

Drives me crazy that she's not political. Don't see how she can be my child sometimes. But she's into theatre and music. But kids are their unique selves.

I really strived to give her opportunities to do things. So when she was in high school we sent her to France to sudy for a month. She spent a week in Washington, D.C. her senior year at a course on the Presidency. She got into a very good college. Where she goes from here is up to her.

Sorry, you mde me feel sentimental. :)