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Complaining about a generation of spoiled kids -- again

What are interchangeable, in style and substance, are the polemics themselves -- books with titles such as "Overindulged Children," "Spoiling Childhood," "The Myth of Self-Esteem," "Pampered Child Syndrome," "The Omnipotent Child," "Generation Me," "The Narcissism Epidemic," and countless articles in the popular media. Trust me: If you've read one of these, you've read them all.

Like the "permissive parents" trope, the notion that kids are full of themselves and out of control is decades, if not centuries, old -- despite the critics' assertion that things are worse than ever. Jean Twenge, who wrote the last two books on that list, establishes her conservative bona fides with broad attacks on anything that deviates from back-to-basics education and old-fashioned parenting. But unlike her peers, she has actually collected some data -- which have received widespread and largely uncritical media attention.

Along with fellow psychologist W. Keith Campbell, Twenge has looked at surveys of young people conducted over several decades and reported that recent groups say they like themselves somewhat more, are more confident and score higher on questionnaires intended to measure narcissism than earlier groups.

But other researchers doubt these findings, raising multiple concerns about Twenge's methodology. Kali Trzesniewski at the University of Western Ontario and Brent Roberts at the University of Illinois (together with their colleagues) went on to conduct their own analyses -- Roberts drew on additional data -- and discovered no meaningful differences across generations.

Why, then, are we so willing to believe that kids today are excessively self-confident or self-centered? Social psychologists say we selectively notice and remember examples that confirm our assumptions -- which is why anecdotal evidence is so unreliable: Look, there's a parent who's wimpy. And my cousin knows a 20-year-old who refuses to work hard. I knew it was true!

But why would we gravitate to these beliefs in the first place? In a recent scholarly article, Roberts and others explained that complaints about a "Generation Me" -- Twenge's snide label -- reflect people's age, not the age they live in.

"When older people are told that younger people are getting increasingly narcissistic, they may be prone to agree because they confuse the claim for generational change with the fact that younger people are simply more narcissistic than they are," Roberts and his colleagues write. "The confusion leads to an increased likelihood that older individuals will agree with the Generation Me argument despite its lack of empirical support."

In short, they argue, "every generation is Generation Me" -- until it grows up.

There's no evidence, then, that today's parents are more permissive than parents of yesteryear, or that today's young people are more narcissistic. But even if there were, no one has come close to showing that one causes the other.

In fact, a pair of recent studies cast serious doubt on that proposition. The first, published in Pediatrics last May, discovered that there is indeed a parental practice associated with children who later become demanding and easily frustrated. But it's not indulgent parenting. It's spanking.

And in a small unpublished study of the effects of helicopter parenting on college students, Keene State's Montgomery did not discover any sense of entitlement or tendency to take advantage of people among students who were closely monitored by their parents; to the contrary, such students tended to be somewhat anxious -- and also had positive qualities, such as "the capacity to love, feel supported and seek out social connections."

Neither logic nor evidence seems to support the widely accepted charge that we're too easy on our children. Yet that assumption continues to find favor across the political spectrum. It seems that we've finally found something to bring the left and the right together: an unsubstantiated knock on parents, an unflattering view of kids and a dubious belief that the two are connected.

Alfie Kohn's books include "Unconditional Parenting" and "No Contest: The Case Against Competition." He will be online at 11 a.m. on Monday, July 19, to chat. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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