Saturday, September 23, 2006

How media elitism misrepresents the problems of the typical American family

From Po:

Over at Time.com, Ashley and I have a new essay called "Baby Einstein vs. Barbie." We argue that much of the media has lost touch with the real issues being faced in American families. Instead, because the media is itself increasingly affluent, and has affluent friends, they look to their own lives for story ideas - and end up devoting a lot of ink to microcrises that only affluent families run across.

Of course, they never admit that these are just the issues of the affluent class; rather, they are held up as representative of us all.

In the Time essay, we focus on the media coverage of parents who push their kids too hard. But there are many other examples: the endless coverage of "adultelescence" in the New York Times; the "coddling crisis" repeatedly mentioned by the Wall Street Journal; a San Francisco Chronicle story that asserted "the new commute is by plane"; a Boston Globe report on students going to 3rd world countries to pad their resumes for college applications; a New York Times story on affluent families hiring teachers away from private schools to tutor/homeschool their kids at home; another SF Chronicle story on parents hiring "parenting coaches" to come over to the house and do the hard parts of parenting.

One of the many consequences of this is that prosperity is made to look rife with problems. They imply that parental success is bad for kids. Like there's something wrong with providing your children good education, a nice house, and plenty of extracurricular options. A few kids are, indeed, pushed too hard. But for most, the good life is indeed a nice life, and not one to complain about. I think this media coverage goads them into complaining about their life, endlessly worrying about problems that don't really exist. I think in our current society, nobody likes to admit they're "upper class." Everyone likes to pretend they are middle class, or maybe "upper middle class," even though their income would put them in the top 10% in the country. In the same way, nobody in our society likes to admit they have an easy life; we all like to be seen as struggling and overcoming and facing issues. In this culture, families with very good lives rarely admit it; they always find something to complain about.

In our essay, we call the books devoted to the affluent class "Supermom Lit." Ashley says "they're not self-help, they're beyond help." These people aren't trying to keep up with the Joneses; they're trying to keep up with the Carringtons. Their problems are routinely of their own making. We can only sympathize so much. Our tears are crocodile tears.

The Supermom Lit books have a hard-to-describe effect on society. In each case, they point out those few crazy parents and insist "Stop The Madness!" But when these books enter the media bubble, they don't seem to reduce the madness at all. They actually increase it. It's sorta like how stories of anorexics work. When anorexics tell their story, it is invariably to warn other young girls "stop!" But if, in telling their story, they mention how it was that they managed to lose so much weight, the intended audience takes that as a tip. Here's how to lose some weight. The act of passing on the story increases the disorder, not decreases it.

And so it is with these parent madness books. Parents who didn't even realize there was a parent-competition going on hear about these books, and they have a reciprocal reaction: they think "gosh, my son's only 4, but maybe I should make him memorize those 130 sight words this article mentions." Parents are drawn into the madness.

Anyway, go read the essay at Time, and please comment here.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Ryan said...

I’m a new reader of the BLOG and really appreciate your thoughts on this subject. Being a fairly new parent (10mo Daughter) I do feel a bit poisoned (Not a victim, just can’t think of a better word) by this phenomena. I’m bothered by the feeling of being in some kind of parental race that doesn’t allow for enjoyment of the amazing little events of this child’s life. I don’t believe that the media is interested in reporting on the “typical” American family because the folks reading the Wall Street Journal aren’t interested in hearing about it.

11:46 AM  
Blogger College Parent said...

I just read your essay on Time.com, and found your blog through a link at the end of the article. Both the essay and your blog entry are very interesting! I'm the parent of an 11th grader who is just starting to think seriously about college, and in fact I've just started my own blog to chronicle our family's journey through the college admissions process. You are quite right that the issues we face -- as an affluent family in New York City, where my daughter attends an elite private school -- are not typical, and yet the media would have us all believe that they are. To be perfectly honest, I've been interviewed a couple of times in recent years for articles in the major media about competitive private schools, the baby boomlet of high schoolers now applying to colleges, etc., and it's not because I'm famous or an expert in the field; it's because when journalists reach out for examples, they reach out to their friends and acquaintances, and we're all part of the same, small world here in NYC. So you're quite right that we're essentially writing about ourselves.

The irony is that the media elitism you decry also serves to increase the angst among the small percentage of American families who really do face these problems, and help to convince us that our problems are everyone's problems -- which further perpetuates the media focus on "issues" that really aren't issues at all for most families. (It didn't help when my daughter read the jacket blurb from Alexandra Robbins' "The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids," and said, "Yep, that definitely describes my life!")

The point of my own blog (called "College Admissions Madness") is to help my daughter navigate her way through these next couple of years with a minimum of anxiety and to help her find a college that is a good fit for her (not necessarily a "name" school or, god forbid, an Ivy League school). In our world, this is the challenge. Thanks for the reminder that these are the problems of a privileged few.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

Hey, thanks. We'll definitely be checking out your site as your daughter goes through this. I think the earlier comment, too, really nails this - that the media scrutiny of this might hope to alleviate the panic about the rat race our kids are in, the actual effect is just the opposite - it really intensifies the fear that we're in this huge rat race and going to fall behind.

Also, to hear that one journalist found you, so other journalists now call - that's so typical of their laziness to go find original sources.

Best of luck to you, - Po

12:17 PM  
Anonymous CrankMama said...

You identify a real concern--whether the media is creating problems by identifying with a small elite group of friends/colleagues. But hasn't it always been the case that the problems of the few get promoted as the problems of many? And isn't that problem somewhat alleviated by the democratization of information?

Most people don't get their information from newsmagazines, books, newspapers, or TV anymore. Most people get their information from the Internet and other less formal sources.

What I love about the blogosphere is that it can alleviate some of this misinformation by democratizing communication between people with differing backgrounds.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous BarBarA (aka Layla) said...

This was fascinating. I got your monthly email today and am reading all the articles you mentioned there. Great to know you have a blog, I'll add you to my links!



P.S. You probably don't remember me but several years ago I sent you some DVDs of short film from the Damah Film Festival. I can't remember WHY I sent them to you!

8:15 PM  
Blogger Rona's Home Page said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. There's nothing that I add to what has already been said.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it media elitism or simply targetted marketing. WSJ, Business Week and NYT do pander to an affluent or at very least, aspirational audience; so it is no surprise that their articles represent affluent families as typical families. Problems of majority that are less than affluent are unlikely to good stories, and in any case, their intended audience is probably so busy making ends meet, that they have little time to read or ponder such articles.

2:19 AM  
Blogger Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Here are two blog discussions on this topic.

Magazines and Mommy Blogs: The Parenting Media Revolution.

Melinda Duckett vs. All of Us.

I just don't read the mainstream media for parenting info or debate; I only read Time in the dentist's office (which I go to, uh, about once ever five years). As I say at Ann D.'s blog, to me the progressive parenting blogosphere constitutes a true alternative press. Spend an hour clicking through Rebeldad, Playground Revolution, Half-Changed World, and Andrea Gordon's blog - plus this one of course! - and you’ll get a solid picture of the issues and ideas facing parents, covered with a depth and seriousness you won’t find on the newsstand. But, as Ann D.'s Magazine and Mommy Blogs discussion reveals, the blogosphere is changing.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Paige said...

Well said. As a relatively new mom, I'm confounded by the mania surrounding the absolute need for Baby Einstein products (which I find useless) and an overplanned day. Though some would argue cramming a Baby Einstein video and flashcards down your child's throat makes him/her smarter, more imaginative, what-have-you...you know, my mother never bothered with all that when I was growing up and I think I turned out just fine.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Kris said...

It's refreshing to read an article discrediting the overachiever mania, being a member of that academic minority myself (but of my own decision). I have to agree with College Parent's comment that the media focus on the 'overachiever issue' harms the overachievers as well, and I can't stress that enough. Those of us who do follow this path in education are under enough pressure without the media telling us that what we're doing isn't nearly enough. I consider myself quite laid-back, yet after a few weeks of college 'research', was in a near panic that I wasn't accomplishing enough. And I'm not even a parent, just a high school student! For those of us who do too much already, it's a lot of unwelcome stress, believe me.

It's unfortunate that parents are buying into the craze, though. I see evidence of that in my academic program--not overly expensive or private, but prestigious nonetheless. In other words, a magnet for parents who can't spend a lot of money but want their kids to achieve. Just yesterday, I had to explain to a classmate why his B-average wouldn't get him into MIT, no matter how much his parents wanted him there.

I applaud your essay. More people need to realize that the media's presentation of overachievement is not the reality.

7:14 PM  
Anonymous Katryna said...

Re: Fueling the rat race panic that you mentioned earlier, I've seen (as a student of both a state-run magnet school as well as one of public school) firsthand that these kinds of attitudes have started to pervade the "non-elite" circles as well . . . ironically because of the coverage that they're getting. People in charge at my last high school quoted these types of articles as a way to keep us from "slacking off" . . . never mind that we were busy with two-year research projects on top of college-level courses. (I, for example, learned Japanese entirely without a tutor or teacher of any kind, used that knowledge to translate an episode of anime, compared the American translation with the original Japanese, and then drew a bigger picture using other sources drawn from both academia and popular magazines of the time, resulting in a twenty-five page thesis . . . and get this . . . my project was considered easy! I had people telling me all the time that I was being lazy!) It nearly destroyed both me and my husband (fiancee at the time), and we still fall into the "if you don't work yourself dead, you won't succeed" trap every once in a while. I even had a friend attempt to commit suicide not because he was rejected by his college of choice, but because the counselors at the school made the prospects out to be so hopeless. When are people going to learn that life isn't as hard as the "elite" make it out to be? I wish that these people would get out there and LIVE, rather than making up problems and boo-hooing all over the place about them. Not only are they affecting themselves with this drivel, they're burdening people who already have barely enough strength to stand on top of it all. When is it going to stop?

5:24 PM  
Anonymous John said...

This is a very nice post, and I want to see how others react to this.

3:33 AM  
Anonymous mermer said...

I want to know why the parents who homeschool their kids are not called elitist? What about the parents who send their kids to private schools or cram schools? They are people who create their own reality rather than living in the reality of our world/nation. If they had their kids in a real public school I hope they would have more empathy for the real world and would be more involved in real issues. As it is we are a nation of people who don't live together. We create our own little worlds and think that everyone should live by our rules. We ascribe to some dogma or other and leave the real world behind. Wake up people the real world is not like your little dream world. Your kids will go on to live in the real world someday won't they? How well prepared are they when you have kept them cloistered? It is not easy to live in the real world - you have to sort out issues and discuss them with your kids - what a concept? I have two very sucessful young adult children who were not pushed in sports or cram schools. They are both outstanding people who view world issues from both sides before they make decisions because they have life experiences to fall back on. Instead of paying people to raise your kids or keeping them home and trying to make them into clones, let your kids blossom with some guidance. They will eventually have to make their own decisions and they need tools to do so. They get those tools by interracting in the wider world. Let them see you reading the newspaper for information. Let them see that you make decisions based on facts not on dogma. Let them make mistakes. Teach them honesty is more important than grades. In my kid's schools cheating is rampant. The kids who get the best grades are academeic bullies alot of the time. They get their parents or other kids to do their homework so they can spend time on sports and other resume building activities. Is that what you want? I hope not. I hope that you like me want your kids to know how to be part of a team, how to be a good friend and most of all to know how to sort out issues and come to reasoned decisions. I don't want to be calling my kid's employer and asking for a raise for them. My kids will talk to me about their decisions, but they make up their own minds and fight their own fights. I started this when they were very young. Just have open communication and your values will get through. That is when you know you are an adult!

7:15 AM  

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