I recently came across an interesting article in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert about why American kids are so spoiled, which seems to be Topic A among anxious parents these days. I love reading such articles because they satisfy my innate sense of moral injustice while providing evidence-backed reasons (for the most part) why modern children are such wienies.
Kolbert lays out a couple of compelling reasons for the brat epidemic (I’m not going to delve deeply into those reasons when you can read the article yourself) and I’ve added some highly subjective, anecdotal analysis of my own:
1. Children are deluged with more stuff than at any point in human history — gadgets, toys, clothes, video games, Pottery Barn Kids (which manages to single-handedly keep the monogramming industry in business). Kids even have their own specially marketed food (I’m talking to you, dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets!). The experts say this is because parents seek their kids’ approval, a reversal of the way it used to be when young Reginald supposedly craved nothing more than an accepting glance from his austere papa.
That’s all well and good, but I posit that it’s also because parents themselves are deluged with more crap than at any point in human history and naturally offload some of that largesse to their offspring. A logical remedy seems to be, let’s all of us stop buying so much stuff and watch our children’s dependence on it drop accordingly.
2. Moms and dads are more interested in being their child’s friend than their parent. Being a parent means saying “no” pretty much all the time, and “no” in our soft-handed culture is often misconstrued as “mean.” And what well-intentioned, progressive parent wants to be mean? Shudder.
More than that, “no” carries with it the stink of curmudgeonly old age. ”No” is for people closed-minded to opportunity, to potential. “Yes” is for entrepreneurs and risk-takers and hot, 43-year-old moms in half-tops (werk it, MILFs!). ”Yes” is for the youngs. Why are parents so obsessed with being young? I’m not so sure, but I have a feeling Volkswagen Beetle commercials might have something to do with it.
3. Parents praise their kids for being “special” rather than useful. American parents are obsessed with raising “individuals,” and individuals, we know, are “special.” Parents praise kids’ most innocuous, mind-numbing non-milestones in the hope of bringing forth this elusive individual. (Wait, is that a syllogism? Does that make me
special an individual?)
Experts say that if you really want to boost your kid’s sense of self-worth, make him clear the dishes and take out the trash and don’t get all glow-y about it. “Competence encourages autonomy,” Kolbert writes. “Which fosters further competence–a virtuous cycle that continues into adulthood.” And probably while he’s caulking the tub, too.
4. Parents are so obsessed with getting their child into the right college they don’t mind tying their shoes for them. The thinking here is that not tying Junior’s shoes leaves him less time to study for the SATs. So what if the child grows up to be in all other ways useless? That is what manservants are for.
I have a fifth reason Kolbert didn’t get into but I think has some merit.
5. People wait soo long to have kids. With few exceptions, all of my peers and friends, myself included, waited until we were well into our 30s to have children. By the time we all got around to it, we could feel good about having prolonged procreation because we now had the resources and maturity to raise them properly and responsibly and intentionally. But the flip side is that the gap between adults and children has never been wider; children can seem like a separate species, requiring their own special food and trinkets because we’re not really sure how else to relate to them. “You want me to play with you, Suzie? Um, how about a monogrammed towel instead?”
Like I said, I love reading these stories. I loved Amy Chua’s Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mom. I plan to crack Bringing up Bébé one of these days.
But the truth is, I don’t actually know any spoiled children. Okay, I know two, but the vast majority of kids I know are pretty sweet and normal — respectful, smart, helpful, funny, obedient (such a non-PC word). Whenever I read these “Kids Today!” stories, I can’t help but wonder who the heck are they talking about? What sort of FAO Schwartz-pod are these sniveling creatures spawned from? And why doesn’t someone give them a beat down?
It would be easy to say that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I live in rural Virginia, a pastoral paradise of old-fashioned values and apple butter festivals where grandmas willingly wield the wooden spoon. But my all my friends’ kids in and around Manhattan — ground zero of touchy-feely parenting — and Memphis and Missoula and Baltimore are pretty much the same.
So is this story really true? Are “kids today” bigger brats than ever? Or is this story more of a media creation, a way to rouse fear and anxiety in already anxious parents? Or is it a very specific and highly privileged demographic — Suri Cruise and her clicky golden heels comes to mind — that I don’t get to hang out with anyway?
Because from where I’m sitting, kids and their parents seem pretty much the same as they’ve always been — just people. With iPads.
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