America's Youth 'Dependency Dilemma' Is A Political Problem, Not Just A Family One

Bill Hobbs
By Bill Hobbs | March 16, 2012 | 10:25 AM EDT

“Researchers at UCLA are studying the habits of middle-class families,” reports the Wall Street Journal today, “asking intriguing questions like why are American kids so helpless and dependent?”

The story, “A Field Guide to the Middle-Class U.S. Family," reports on the work of anthropologist Elinor Ochs and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, who have studied family life as far away as Samoa and the Peruvian Amazon region, but more recently have been studying the American middle class and asking questions like this one: Why do American children depend on their parents to do things for them that they are capable of doing for themselves?

Among the findings: The families had very a child-centered focus, which may help explain the "dependency dilemma" seen among American middle-class families, says Dr. Ochs. Parents intend to develop their children's independence, yet raise them to be relatively dependent, even when the kids have the skills to act on their own, she says. How kids develop moral responsibility is an area of focus for the researchers. Dr. Ochs, who began her career in far-off regions of the world studying the concept of "baby talk," noticed that American children seemed relatively helpless compared with those in other cultures she and colleagues had observed.

In those cultures, young children were expected to contribute substantially to the community, says Dr. Ochs. Children in Samoa serve food to their elders, waiting patiently in front of them before they eat, as shown in one video snippet. Another video clip shows a girl around 5 years of age in Peru's Amazon region climbing a tall tree to harvest papaya, and helping haul logs thicker than her leg to stoke a fire.

By contrast, the U.S. videos showed Los Angeles parents focusing more on the children, using simplified talk with them, doing most of the housework and intervening quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task. In 22 of 30 families, children frequently ignored or resisted appeals to help, according to a study published in the journal Ethos in 2009. In the remaining eight families, the children weren't asked to do much. It isn't that the kids were unable to do the tasks or that their parents didn't express a need for help, say the researchers. Rather, the studied children didn't seem to view it as their routine responsibility to contribute, the researchers say.

Reading through the story, you may recognize these children. Or, rather, you may recognize their self-centered attitudes, their laziness and their insistence that others take care of them in others around you.

You have seen it from people at your local Occupy encampment, sitting in a tent, demanding the “1 percent” give them what they want, refusing to take responsibility for their own lives.

You have seen it from people who stupidly wracked up six-figure student loan debts for degrees that are near-worthless in the job market, and now want government to forgive their loans.

You have seen it recently on the national news, when a 30-year-old law student at a school whose graduates make, on average, $160,000 a year in their first job after law school, demanded Congress make someone else pay for her birth control.

You are seeing it now from the Democratic Party, which once was lead by a President who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, Ask what you can do for your country,” but which now is lead by a President who talks endlessly about making others pay more in order to fund more bailouts and subsidies for his constituent groups and favored supporters.

The “dependency dilemma” is not just a middle-class American family problem. It's America's political problem, too.

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