The Magazine

The Kindergarchy

Every child a dauphin.

Jun 9, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 37 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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In America we are currently living in a Kindergarchy, under rule by children. People who are raising, or have recently raised, or have even been around children a fair amount in recent years will, I think, immediately sense what I have in mind. Children have gone from background to foreground figures in domestic life, with more and more attention centered on them, their upbringing, their small accomplishments, their right relationship with parents and grandparents. For the past 30 years at least, we have been lavishing vast expense and anxiety on our children in ways that are unprecedented in American and in perhaps any other national life. Such has been the weight of all this concern about children that it has exercised a subtle but pervasive tyranny of its own. This is what I call Kindergarchy: dreary, boring, sadly misguided Kindergarchy.

With its full-court-press attention on children, the Kindergarchy is a radical departure from the ways parents and children viewed one another in earlier days. Ten or so years ago I began to notice that a large number of people born around the late 1930s and through the 1940s had, as I do, a brother or sister five or six years younger or older than they. So often was this the case that I began to wonder if there wasn't some pattern here that I had hitherto missed? Then it occurred to me that mothers in those days decided not to have a second child until their first child, at five or six, had gone off to school.

Born into the middle class in the Middle West, growing up I did not know any married woman who worked. So the mothers I am talking about here did not put a five- or six-year separation between the birth of their kids for economic reasons, or because it gave them more time to devote to their first-born children, or any other reason I can think of other than their own damn convenience. They did it because--insensitive, selfish, appalling really to contemplate--it was easier not to have two children under four years old to worry about at once; it made more sense to them not to have to deal with two or more needy greedy little children simultaneously. Let one go off to school, then we shall think of having another--much easier for everyone all around. Or so I believe thinking on the matter went.

Did this arrangement make sense for the children? Five or six years' age difference between siblings is probably not an ideal difference for the development of closeness between brothers and sisters. When my younger brother entered boyhood, at eight or nine, I was already in high school; when he was in high school, I was away at college; and when he was in college, I was a married man with a son of my own. No, a five- or six-year separation is doubtless not the best spacing between two kids growing up in the same household. If you had confronted my mother and father with this psychological datum, they might have said, "Interesting." But I doubt that they would have found it very interesting at all.

Let me quickly insert that I had the excellent luck of having good parents. Neither was in the least neurotic, both were fair to my brother and me, neither of us ever doubted the love of either of them. I can also say with no hesitation that my parents' two sons were never for a moment at the center of their lives. The action in their lives was elsewhere than in childraising.

In my father's case the action was at his business--"the place," as he sometimes called it. A small businessman, he came most alive when at work. Without hobbies or outside interests, he worked a five-and-a-half day week, and didn't in the least mind if he had an excuse to drop in for a few hours on occasional Sundays.

My mother, who was not in any way a trivial person as the following details might make her seem, played cards at least three afternoons a week. She kept up a fairly brisk social round. She was at home to provide us lunch when my brother and I were in grammar school, and she cooked substantial dinners, baked, and was a careful housekeeper. Later she took an interest in charities and paid for and helped organize occasional fundraising luncheons. When her children were grown, she went to work in her husband's business as a secretary-bookkeeper-credit-manager, at all of which she did a first-class job.