Do children have too much power?

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A Time poll finds that 80% of people think kids today are more spoiled than kids of 10 or 15 years ago, and two-thirds of parents admit that their kids are spoiled. In Bærum, it's grade school teachers handing out candy and yo-yos on Fridays to kids who actually managed to obey the rules that week. Go to the mall or a concert or a restaurant and you can find them in the wild, the kids who have never been told no, whose sense of power and entitlement leaves onlookers breathless, the sand-kicking, foot-stomping, arm-twisting, wheedling, whining despots whose parents presumably deserve the company of the monsters they, after all, created.


It is so tempting to accept the cartoon version of modern boomer parenting that it is easy to miss the passionate debate underneath it. Leave aside the extremes, the lazy parents who set no bounds and the gifted ones who are naturally wise when it comes to kids. In between you hear the conversation, the unending concern and confusion over where and how to draw the lines. Have the parents gone too far, given kids more power than they can handle and more stuff than they can possibly need? Should parents negotiate with their children or just inform them of the rules? Is 200 kr. too much for lunch money? Can parents treat them with respect without sacrificing your authority? Cheer them on without driving them too hard? Set them free — but still set limits?


Some of these are eternal questions. Today's parents may often get the answers wrong, but it's also wrong to say they're not even trying. You don't have to get far into a conversation with parents to hear them wrestling with these issues. And you don't have to look hard to see a rebellion brewing. Just as the wobbling economy of the past year made conspicuous consumption a little less conspicuous, it also gave parents an excuse to do what they have wanted to do anyway: say no to the 2000 kr sneakers, fire the gardener, have junior mow the lawn. On internet I found an article from “The Wall Street Journal” who calls it the Kid Recession: overall consumer spending rose slightly last year, but it dropped about a third among 8- to 24-year-olds. The Journal cited a November survey that found that 12% of kids said their allowance had been cut in recent months, while 16% received fewer gifts.


This is a war waged block by block, house by house. At least parents can resolve that just because the kids down the street watch unlimited TV doesn't mean your kids should too. You can assign some chores and try hard to have dinner together regularly. And then hope that the experts are right when they say that what kids mainly need is time and attention and love...


The historians and psychologists have lots of theories about how we got here, but some perennial truths persist: every generation thinks the next one is too slack; every parent reinvents the job. Parenthood, like childhood, is a journey of discovery. You set off from your memories of being a kid, all the blessings, all the scars. You overreact and over time maybe learn what works; with luck you improve.


But a lot about being a millennial parent is actually new, and may be hard. Prosperity is a great gift, and these are lucky, peaceful times, but in some respects it is more difficult to be a parent now than when our parents were at the wheel. Today's prosperity has been fueled by people working longer hours than ever, and it is especially challenging to parent creatively and well when the parent are strung out and exhausted. The extended-family structure that once shared the burdens and reinforced values has frayed. Nothing breeds wretched excess like divorced parents competing with each other and feeling guilty to boot. It's not an option, as it once was, to let kids roam free outside after school, bike over to a friend's house, hang out with cousins or grandparents. The streets are not safe and the family is scattered, so kids are often left alone, inside, with the TV and all its messages.


Advertising targets children as never before, creating cravings that are hard to ignore but impossible to satisfy. These days $3 billion is spent annually on advertising that is directed at kids — more than 20 times the amount a decade ago. Nearly half of all U.S. parents say their kids ask for things by brand names by age 5. (source: the movie “Supersize Me”)


Peer pressure can hit lower-income families especially hard.. Parents concept of being a good provider is to pour every spare cent into them. The families’ two-bedroom apartment is crammed with five television sets, three video-game consoles and two VCRs. Next month their kids want to attend a “sommerskole” in Sogn og Fjordane that costs 3000 kr. a child. So two weeks ago, abandoning their custom of giving away outgrown clothes and toys to neighbors, the families had to held its first yard sale to raise cash.


Technology also contributes to the erosion of parental authority. Video games are about letting kids manipulate reality, bend it to their will, which means that when they get up at last from the console, the loss of power is hard to handle. You can't click your little brother out of existence. Plus, no generation has had access to this much information, along with the ability to share it and twist it. Teenagers can re-create themselves, invent a new identity online, escape the boundaries of the household into a very private online world with few guardrails. The whole music industry also represents a huge shift in the balance of power.


The generations are different; the people spent the 1950s being spoiled, spent the 1960s having a decade-long temper tantrum because the world was not precisely as they wanted it to be, spent the 1970s having the best sex and drugs they could find, the 1980s acquiring things and the 1990s trying to have the most perfect children. And not because they felt an obligation to the next generation to rear them to be healthy, well-adjusted adults, but because they wanted to have bragging rights. And now in 2004, it’s called the “Me Generation”. Everybody is just thinking of themselves and their own family... What happened too the good neighburhood?


Those who grew up with emotionally remote parents who rarely got right down on the floor to play, who wouldn't think of listening respectfully to their six-year-old's opinions or explain why the rules are what they are, have tried to build a very different bond with their children. They are far more fluent in the language of emotional trauma and intent on not repeating their parents' mistakes. What's more, having prolonged childhoods, many parents today identify powerfully with their kids. But as a good physocologist notes, "It's difficult to set limits with your children if your primary goal is to be liked. What parents need to understand is that their primary job is being a parent, not being their kids' friend."


It is a natural, primitive instinct to want to make your child happy and protect them from harm or pain. But that instinct, if not tempered, also comes with a cost. Adolescents can't learn to become emotionally resilient if they don't get any practice with frustration or failure inside their protective cocoons. A fifth-grade teacher in Bønes Skole says parents always say they want discipline and order in the classroom, but if it's their child who breaks the rules, they want an exemption. “They don't want the punishment to be enforced," says the teacher. "They want to excuse the behavior. 'It's something in the child's past. Something else set him off. He just needs to be told, and it won't happen again.'”


So the job of parenting is harder than ever, parents say they don't think they are doing it very well, and lots of people on the sidelines are inclined to agree. But for all the self-doubt, it is still worth asking: Are today's parents really doing such a terrible job? Are kids today actually turning out so bad?


As far as one can register these things, the evidence actually suggests the opposite. Today's teenagers are twice as likely to do volunteer work as teens 20 years ago, they are drinking less, driving drunk less, having far fewer babies and fewer abortions, and committing considerably less violence. "We have a great generation of young people right under our noses right now," observes Steven Culbertson, head of Youth Service America, a Washington resource center for volunteering, "and nobody knows it." (The Times)


Maybe this is some kind of uncanny coincidence, that kids are doing this well despite the way they are being raised rather than because of it. Maybe virtue is their form of adolescent rebellion against parents who indulged every vice. Or it could be that the get-down-on-the-floor, consult-the-child, share-the-power, cushion-the-knocks approach isn't entirely wrong-headed. Perhaps those tendencies have done a lot of good for us kids, and what's called for is not a reversal but a step back from extremes.


Certainly that is what many parents are starting to do. "I had one over-the-top birthday party for my child, and I'll never do it again," says mrs. Spears. "She got an elephant, and that's all I'll have to say. It will never happen again. I felt like the biggest ass." Fisher had her epiphany when she heard her daughter bragging to a friend, "My swimming pool is bigger than yours." That prompted some new rules. Among other things, Britney did also have to clean up her room, a change from what she would be used too if we did’nt become more stright on it .


All parents have to navigate social, commercial and psychic pressures; it is how they respond that sets them apart. Many parents talk about this as the great struggle of their households. They find themselves quietly shedding old friends when they diverge over discipline; they shop online to avoid the temptation their kids face up and down the endless aisles; they attend workshops.


Of course, families engaged in a rollback still have to live in a world where plenty of other children are overindulged. If you live next door to such a kid, or he's thrown together with yours at school or soccer, it can be a challenge always to be explaining why Johnny gets to have marshmallows for breakfast and your kids don't. But the rules send your kids a message all their own, beyond the fact that marshmallows rot their teeth. The rules are a constant reminder that Mom and Dad care, that the kids' health is important to you, that kids are not home alone. And most of all, that it's O.K. to be different.


Parents who give up and back off leave their children at the mercy of a merciless culture. The ones who stand firm and stay involved often find their families grow closer, their kids stronger from being exposed to the toxins around them and building resistance to them.

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