Complaining about a generation of spoiled kids -- again

By Alfie Kohn
Sunday, July 18, 2010

If the subject is kids and how they're raised, it seems our culture has exactly one story to tell. Anyone who reads newspapers, magazines or blogs knows how it goes: Parents today either can't or won't set limits for their children. Instead of disciplining them, they hover and coddle and bend over backward to protect their self-esteem. The result is that we're raising a generation of undisciplined narcissists who expect everything to go their way, and it won't be pretty when their sense of entitlement crashes into the unforgiving real world.

Read 10 articles or books on this topic and you'll find yourself wondering whether one person wrote all of them, so uniform is the rhetoric. The central premise is that the problem's dimensions are unprecedented: What's happening now contrasts sharply with the days when parents weren't afraid to hold kids to high standards or allow them to experience failure.

That's why this generation is so self-centered. Take it from journalist Peter Wyden, the cover of whose book depicts a child lounging on a divan eating grapes while Mom fans him and Dad shades him from the sun: It has become "tougher and tougher to say 'no' [to children] and make it stick," he insists.

Or listen to the lament of a parent who blames child development experts for the fact that her kids now seem to believe that "they have priority over everything and everybody."

Or consider a pointed polemic in the Atlantic. Sure, the author concedes, kids have always been pleasure-seekers, but longtime teachers report that what we're now witnessing "is different from anything we have ever seen in the young before." Forget about traditional values: Things come so easily to today's entitled children that they fail to develop any self-discipline.

Powerful stuff. Except that those three indictments were published in 1962, 1944 and 1911, respectively.

The revelation that people were saying almost exactly the same things a century ago ought to make us stop talking and sit down -- hard. So let's consider three questions: Are parents unduly yielding or overprotective? Are kids today unusually narcissistic? And does the former cause the latter?

Everyone has an anecdote about a parent who hovered too close or tolerated too much. But is it representative of American parents in general? Does research tell us how pervasive permissiveness really is? My efforts to track down national data -- by combing both scholarly and popular databases as well as asking leading experts in the field -- have yielded absolutely nothing. Scholars have no idea how many parents these days are permissive, or punitive, or responsive to their children's needs without being permissive or punitive.

Thus, no one has a clue whether parenting has changed over the years -- and, if so, in what direction. Researchers have shown that various practices are more likely to produce certain outcomes, but they shrug when asked how prevalent those practices are. Similarly, "you will find next to no scientific data on helicopter parenting," says Keene State College psychologist Neil Montgomery, using the popular term for parental overinvolvement.

What we do know about discipline is that corporal punishment remains extremely popular in this country. In a 1995 Gallup poll, 94 percent of parents of preschoolers admitted to having struck their children within the previous year, a fact that's not easy to square with claims that parents have become softer or more humane.

There's also endless demand from parents for advice on getting kids to do what they're told. Some of the recommended methods have shifted over the years, but the goal is still compliance. A verbal reward such as "Good job!" is just the mirror image of punishment -- a tool for eliciting obedience. The same is true of much "overparenting": It's an exercise in control. Yet both are often portrayed as signs of indulgence.

When the conversation turns to what the kids themselves are like, we find separate complaints sloppily lumped together: They're rude, lacking in moral standards, materialistic, defiant, self-centered, excessively pleased with themselves and more.

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