Ten Miles Square


December 28, 2012 12:03 PM Claiming Parental Authority, Reprise

By Keith Humphreys

I have written before about professionally successful, generally competent people who are nonetheless seemingly incapable of exercising parental authority. Matt Richtel reveals another aspect of this social phenomenon: Parents who feel the need to pay an outside etiquette expert hundreds of dollars in order to teach their children table manners.

What strikes me most about these people is their strange lack of agency in the family sphere. “It’s so hard to get the kids to behave at the table when the TV is on all the time”. Because obviously, if you have a graduate degree and a six figure income, it is beyond your powers to pick up a remote control and turn off an inanimate piece of electronic equipment. The omnipotent idiot box is on, and who are you to question it?

The other whinge about why people “can’t” parent adequately that is highlighted in the article is one I hear constantly in the Palo Altos of the world (An area Matt knows well as he roams these parts): People who grossly overschedule their family’s life and then complain about how overscheduled they are. I have friends with 4 kids who live near Stanford, and other parents constantly say to them “We envy you guys so much because your kids just play after school whereas we are so exhausted with the baseball coach and the Italian lessons and the ballet club and and and…”.

This couple responds by pointing out that they don’t do anything to get the life they have with their kids, it is indeed the natural state. The over-scheduled, panicked, always-achieving life is something affluent parents create and not something of which they are victims. If you are over-scheduled and overwhelmed by choice, don’t complain and certainly don’t hire an etiquette coach. Instead, do less stuff.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.


  • low-tech cyclist on December 30, 2012 12:29 PM:

    This couple responds by pointing out that they donít do anything to get the life they have with their kids, it is indeed the natural state.

    It isn't that way anymore. The reality is that neighborhoods age, and so do the families in them.

    Case in point: the neighborhood my wife and I moved into 14 years ago when we got new jobs. There were a lot of young kids in the neighborhood, as evidenced by the crowds of kids on Halloween, and we hoped to have kids soon ourselves, so it was a good fit. Then.

    But biology was uncooperative, and eventually we adopted. The throngs of kids that went up and down our street on Halloween when we first moved in are in high school or college now. There are no playmates for our five year old that we know of within walking distance (and he's a pretty good walker).

    So we too will be scheduling activities and playdates for our son.

    It sucks, but short of moving, there's nothing we can do to provide that 'natural state' for our son. Apparently it isn't so natural after all, dammit.

  • boatboy_srq on December 31, 2012 9:31 AM:

    Higher education has for two decades now (if not more) placed substantial value on "extra-curricular" activities when it comes to admissions. It's no longer enough to get good grades and ace the SAT: it seems you have to play sports (and play them well), play chess, play at least one musical instrument, speak multiple languages (a hard thing for US youth for some reason), volunteer for a homeless shelter or other nonprofit, intern with some local business and generally keep the kind of all-work-no-play (or is it all-work-no-sleep?) schedule your parents have - just to be considered for admission. Most families I know who keep these schedules do it with UC Berkeley, Stanford, the Ivy League or other respected universities in mind - not because it's somehow fashionable to be be "busy."

    If we're going to talk about overscheduled families, maybe we should talk about what universities are demanding of their incoming freshmen first.