In colonial times, men and women were equal when it came to work. Both had chores and responsibilities from dawn to dusk. Women not only did housework, they milked cows, fed the pigs and chickens and helped tend the crops.
Life was hard in colonial times. It made little difference whether the family lived in a small town or in a farmhouse miles from the nearest neighbor. There was no such thing as women’s work when it came to basic survival needs. Everyone shared the load. Families couldn’t afford slackers on a hand to mouth existence.
Children were expected to carry their load as well. Drawings suggest the little ones were given chores as soon as they were walking and out of diapers. They learned early in life to carry their own weight, a seemingly outdated concept in our modern affluence.
Families made do with plain food and clothes. Moreover, there was very little of both to go around. A person’s needs were easily satisfied: a roof over one’s head, food in the belly a warm bed, one set of everyday clothes and one for Sunday church service. Brothers slept together in one bed; sisters, in a second.
Life was hard but few felt they wanted for anything. People had modest wants and modest needs. Kids didn’t complain or pout if asked to do more: work another few hours, do without a meal or a night’s sleep or slog in the rain to save the harvest. Everyone, young or old, just did what was expected. There were no gender issues, no protests. There was only work, and more than enough to go around for everyone.
The same equality of responsibility continued through the very early days of our industrialization. There seems to have been a shift in the nature of men’s work and women’s work when the population moved from rural farms to urban homes. Men went to work and became the breadwinner of the family. Most women got married and stayed at home to raise the children.
Life was still hard for the average family. Money was generally tight. There were few luxuries. During the Great Depression, life became even harder. Through it all, families struggled but made do. Children were often expected to get little jobs delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, sweeping stores or running small errands to help support the family. There was no gender discrimination. Sons and daughters were equal in times of survival. Protest and pouts were not well received.
The children of these bygone eras have been among the most successful in American history. Women became teachers, doctors, lawyers, authors and entrepreneurs. They were ambitious and productive. Accustomed to making do with little, they used their brains and time to make the most of themselves.
They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, advancing education, medicine and science in this country and around the world. Their names include Nobel Laureates, pioneer scientists and physicians as well as notable authors and artists. Hard work and ambition defined their lives. Success was the reward for their efforts.
The average expected workload lessened sharply after WWII. Perhaps because most adults had grown up in times when families struggled to survive and everyone was forced to make great sacrifices, and understandably had resentments about abandoned hopes and dreams, parents were determined to make certain their children never had to do without.
Children began to be indulged. In many homes, the amount of work they were expected to do lessened. This was more apparent in some cultures and in the two genders. Parents began to cut their daughters some slack when it came to chores and responsibilities, an unwise decision.
Girls were coddled and infantilized. It gave them the feeling they didn’t have to play by the same rules as their brothers, didn’t have to be responsible and could get away with murder. Spoiled rotten is what it’s called in the trade.
Therein lays the exegesis for how the Greatest Generation spawned perhaps the worst generation in American History: the pot-smoking, free-loving, America-hating ambitionless Flower Children of the Sixties whose spawn have remained lost and purposeless for fifty years. Their effects on the nation’s culture have been nothing short of a tsunami. To better understand the phenomenon requires putting it under the psychological microscope.
Unlike the struggles of life in log cabins and farmhouses, nothing much was expected of post-war urban youngsters apart from getting good grades in school, sitting quietly in church and being respectful to the adults. The practice known as weekly allowances was born and soon became commonplace.
Sons and daughters appeared like clockwork at the appointed hour, even if they were late taking out the trash, cleaning their rooms or doing countless other chores. Even parents of modest means succumbed. How could they not? Their offspring soon came to feel entitled to the money, even for doing nothing.
The more they got, the more it seemed children wanted. The more they demanded, the more the parents gave. Modesty was replaced by immodesty. Studying the hordes of spoiled, over-indulged, couture-clad young narcissists spilling out of schools in the early afternoon, one is struck by the numbers of already wasted lives. One feels a profound sadness for their well-intended parents whose generosity and love have gone far awry.
This tradition of giving too much continues unabated. Affluence has increased the extravagance of the young ones’ demands. The expectation of work seems to have become an outdated concept when housekeepers and maids are paid to do chores children were expected to do. The concept is known as cleaning up after oneself, a basic responsibility that is taken for granted in adults.
Sons and daughters these days seem to be equally pampered. Neither has to carry their weight. Some parents actually continue to support their able-bodied offspring and allow them to live at home well into their twenties, an age when most young adults were married and supported their own families not so very long ago.
In an era when the president of the United States expects parents to feed, clothe and provide health insurance for their offspring for twenty-six years, he has now stretched the limits of childhood beyond what is in the best interest of parents and progeny. Has he no understanding the consequences for the future his nation will face with an entire populace that never grows up?
What happens to people who are never expected to stand on their own two feet? Is it any wonder that 47% of the citizenry is on public assistance? Is it any wonder that schools demand less and less from the students? Not only is there less homework, there are fewer assignments and classes and an easier curriculum. Exams given to 8th graders in 1895 would stymie even most teachers today.
Has “work” become a four-letter word? Try to assign a student too much homework and parents will file a lawsuit in protest. It may be difficult to believe but parents across the country have joined together to protest the stress homework puts on students. The movement ignited as a response to The Case against Homework, the alarmist reaction of a middle-class mother overly concerned about the detrimental effects on her son’s emotional well-being.
Having gone to medical school before there were admissions quotas for women, the nature of her protest seems incomprehensible to me. Pre-medical students lived in libraries while their college classmates partied at fraternities and campus hangouts. Medical school, internship and residency were even worse.
Interns worked for thirty-six hours, got a twelve-hour break and did the same thing all over again for an entire year for a five-hundred dollar monthly paycheck. We did what was expected without complaint, grumbling only because of the lack of sleep.
Doctors weren’t singled out. Physicists, engineers, nurses and pilots also had heavy workloads to acquire their skills and master their trade. Why on earth complain if that’s what it took to be the best? The profession didn’t matter. What mattered was the work it took to become the best.
In China and neighboring Asian nations, this expectation has not changed for five thousand years, nor will it change if not corrupted by the new American laissez-non faire attitudes toward ambition-less life. The Emperors of the Ming, Ch’ing and Xia dynasties were not so different from China’s current leaders. They all expect their country’s sons and daughters to work. Our leaders since FDR expect some of the country’s sons and daughters to work and more and more equally able-bodied offspring to mooch off their productive siblings. This is a recipe for disaster.
A culture of national indulgence has metastasized like a cancer since the sixties, spreading waste and disease throughout the populace to such an extent that the country is financially, academically and morally bankrupt. Entire cultures have been corrupted. American schools, like American society, have become a global joke, While China’s students are math and music prodigies, our youngsters spend their time on skateboards and playing video games.
What price success? Profligate cultures cannot last, in part because they become unproductive and cannot sustain themselves. They expire when the last working stiffs expire or when the invading armies conquer them.
R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.
1. “Students Under Stress, Do Schools Assign Too Much Homework?” CQ Researcher, July 2007
2. “Czars and Emperors,” The Trumpet, January 2014