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60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll: The Perfect Child

Most Americans and more mothers say they would let a guilty teen spend a night in jail -- those results and more in this month's poll

Welcome to the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll for May 2014. This month's poll focuses on Americans and their children. Throughout recorded history and long before that, humans have something in common, they have loved their children. It is in our DNA to not only have children to propagate the species, but to love, protect and care for them as well. For centuries, children were seen and not heard, providing labor and other economic benefits for the family unit. More recently as incomes have risen, parents can lavish more time, money and attention on their kids. Some believe that today's parents may go a little overboard in either being overly protective or too meddlesome in the lives of their kids. They, and plenty of parents themselves, think moms and dads should give kids more freedom and allow children to fail on their own and learn from those mistakes, to play unsupervised and handle any disagreements themselves without adults as referees.

Today's gotcha technology leaves little room for error when a kid's indiscretions or bad behavior can wind up on YouTube. There is no guaranteed recipe for success for being a good parent. There are plenty of examples of terrible parents having stellar children and vice versa. Despite the crapshoot that is parenthood, very few people regret experiencing the wonders of being a parent. Our kids amaze and delight us, they help us to be better people, and they teach us as much as we teach them. At what age do you think a child is most perfect? We look forward to hearing your answer to this question and many more, and now the results of our poll...

Aged to Perfection

Thirty-eight percent of Americans think that a child is most perfect right when they are born. Fifteen percent said when they are a toddler, 12 percent think it is on their first day of school, 16 percent said when they leave the house for good and seven percent said they are always perfect. Human beings are by definition imperfect, but there is that one moment when we are first born, when we open our eyes to the world and all of its possibilities, and are as close to perfection as we will ever get.

Designer Kids?

Even if technology allowed them to decide what genetic traits their children would have, more than eight out of 10 (83 percent) Americans would leave it up to nature. Twelve percent said they would pick their child's genetic traits. Most people have read stories or watched movies that show what happens when man starts to play God with genetic engineering. As tempting as it would be to have smarter, faster, better-looking kids, the morality of it looms large.

Personal Beliefs

Seven out of 10 Americans say that children should be allowed to choose what religion they practice and 26 percent think they should practice the same religion as their parents. The first person in America to press the philosophy of freedom of religion was Roger Williams. He knew firsthand what it felt like to be persecuted for one's beliefs when he was expelled by Puritans in Massachusetts. In 1636, he founded Providence Plantations and opened it to people of all faiths. It led eventually to the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment to the Constitution which states that "Congress will make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This is a bedrock American value. The only debate should be when is a child old enough to break away from the family religion? Let the debate begin...

Corporal Punishment

Seventy-two percent of Americans think that spanking is sometimes an acceptable way to discipline a child and 23 percent say it is never acceptable. An old saying with roots in the Bible says, "spare the rod and spoil the child," implying that manners and obedience could be learned without force. An occasional light spanking to reinforce a lesson still seems acceptable to most Americans, but the day of the belt or the strap are hopefully long gone.

Who's to blame?

From the list of choices, four out of 10 Americans chose being rude to adults as the kind of behavior that can most likely be blamed on bad parenting. A distant second with 10 percent was picking on kids at school, followed by crying and kicking the back of seats on a plane five percent, being a poor sport four percent and not sharing four percent. One out of three said that all of the above (or none of the above?) could be blamed on bad parenting. It is known that really good parents can have really bad kids, but despite their bad luck, they have an obligation to keep trying to get their kids to be more respectful and to refrain from those types of conduct.

Hey, you're not my mom!

If their child came home from a play date with this story, one out of three Americans would assume their child deserved it and drop the matter. Thirty-one percent would go so far as to call the parent and tell them not to discipline their child and 17 percent would say nothing but avoid making play dates with them in the future. In generations past, people would routinely call out other people's kids for bad behavior and be thanked for it.

Dangerous Pastime

Two out of three Americans are more worried about the possible harmful effects to the inside of their kid's head that comes with unsupervised Internet surfing than they are about the possible physical dangers to the outside of it that comes with riding a bike or skateboarding without a helmet (28 percent). It probably depends on the individual kid as to which is likely to be more of a danger, but parents would be right to supervise both activities.

Praise in the classroom

On this question, Americans are fit to be tied. Forty-three percent would most want to hear that their child is the best student in their class and another 43 percent would most like to hear that they have the most polite child in school. Only six percent chose most popular in class and a less than sporty four percent chose best athlete. Most polite versus best student? There is plenty of time down the road for kids to refine their politeness skills, but the school years give kids a very limited amount of time to become the best student they can be and those skills will be more valuable and necessary than ever in today's changing world.

To Bail or not to Bail

Two out of three Americans would practice "tough love" and let their guilty teenager spend the night in jail. One out of four said they would come and bail them out. Surprisingly, moms are more in favor of a night in jail (76 percent) than dads are (57 percent). Kipling famously said "God can't be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers." Kids, you should keep that in mind the next time you are tempted to do something mom won't like.

Fantasy Child

And now for this month's fantasy question, from a wide variety of choices 15 percent of Americans would choose the young wiz kid Harry Potter to be their child. Fourteen percent would leave it to Beaver Cleaver, 13 percent would pick Roald Dahl's precocious Matilda, 11 percent would go Tomorrow to fetch Little Orphan Annie, another 11 percent would pick the perfect Marsha Brady (sorry again Jan), nine percent would go to Springfield and collect the very bright Lisa Simpson (Doh), and six percent would choose that geeky nerd Steve Urkel from "Family Matters."

Game Time

Just over half of Americans (53 percent) say they attend more of their children's games and performances than their parents did. Thirty-nine percent said they attend about the same amount and only three percent said they attend fewer events than their parents did. It is not surprising that today's parents tend to attend more events than their parents did. There may be more flexibility in the workplace than there used to be as well as a generational shift in caring about a child's sporting life. It can be a lot of fun to watch kids in action, that is, if they really want to be there.

Playing Favorites

Not surprisingly, nine out of 10 parents do not play favorites and love all of their children equally. Eight percent say their favorite changes from day to day and only one percent said they had a favorite child. Life is a marathon and not a sprint and over time most children get a chance to shine in their parent's eyes and when they have their own kids, come to understand how their parents felt about them.

This poll was conducted by telephone from March 12-16, 2014 among 1,009 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by Social Science Research Solutions of Media, PA. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus 3 percentage points. The error for other subgroups may be higher. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls. Read more about this poll