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Pampered? Overindulged? Entitled? Whatever you call it, parents are asking the question: Are we spoiling our kids?
A lot of emphasis has been placed on protecting our children from social media and the inherent dangers of believing everything you see online. But what about parents? Are we not just as susceptible to the allure of the perfect Facebook post? Images of our friends baking cakes, lounging by the pool, or making clever crafts—all with smiling, well-behaved children by their side.
“It reinforces the idea that we should try to be perfect,” says Jorie Walker, mother of four. “There’s this trap that says happy kid equals good mom. It’s a seductive thought.”
It’s also a fallacy that promotes overindulgence and entitlement. We want happy children, we want to protect them from disappointment, and we want to support their success. All good things, right?
“No parent intends to raise an entitled child. It happens slowly over the years from a place of love,” says Amy McCready, author of “The Me, Me, Me Epidemic” and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions in Raleigh. “Too much of a good thing can sometimes turn toxic.”
Playing the No-Waiting Game
No child is immune to the attraction of new toys or the latest gadgets. In the 80s, it was Guess jeans, Swatches and Walkmans. Today, it’s iPhones, Fitbits and Uggs. But what makes today different is the sheer amount of “stuff” we’re accumulating.
“Children today have so much more stuff than we’ve ever seen in history,” says Dr. Kimberly Allen, associate professor in the Department of Youth, Family and Community Sciences at North Carolina State University. And she’s not immune to it either. She says she starts the holiday season vowing to only gift experiences.
“Then a week before Christmas I’m panicking and we get a bunch of presents,” she says. Clearly, she’s not the only one. Cary ranked 13th in the nation when it came to holiday spending this year, besting San Francisco and Santa Monica.
Melissa, a Raleigh mother of two, faced a tough decision when her middle-school-aged daughter claimed she was one of the only kids in school without a smart phone. After much deliberation, Melissa and her husband said they would pay for a basic plan, but only if her daughter earned enough money to buy a used phone.
“When she had to pay for it, she didn’t want it so much. She said, ‘I’ll just wait until Christmas when I get my Christmas money.’ That was pretty disappointing. It didn’t feel very good when she finally got it because she didn’t work for it,” says Melissa.
According to experts, when kids receive an abundance of toys or gifts without earning them, they develop a sense of entitlement—which often leads to tantrums, eye rolling and sassy attitudes when they don’t get want they want.
Dr. Kristen Wynns, a Raleigh-based child psychologist and founder of No Wimpy Parenting, suggests parents model delayed gratification, while also emphasizing the importance of earning items off a wish list through a reward system.
“A lot of families give kids privileges for free as if it’s a kid’s natural right to have electronic time or sweets,” says Dr.Wynns. “I work with parents on how to restructure so that kids realize those are privileges to be earned versus freebies they get just for breathing.”
The Save Me Syndrome
Many parents congratulate themselves on avoiding the pitfalls of a materialistic world, but there are plenty of well-intentioned ways to reinforce a “me”-centric view that can have unintended consequences.
“We are raising kids that are less resilient because this generation of parents—and I include myself—is overly invested in our kids happiness and in their success. We intervene,” sums up McCready. “Resilience comes from facing adversity and bouncing back. We are robbing kids of the opportunity to experience adversity.”
Dropping off your child’s forgotten cleats or lunchbox every once in a while isn’t cause for alarm, but when it becomes a habit, parents are rewarding kids for irresponsible behavior. McCready recommends a “no rescue policy” but adds it’s important to set your child up for success and be clear about expectations.
However, even more concerning issues can develop when parents consistently interfere with what McCready calls age-appropriate risk taking. “When we overprotect it undermines confidence in their own abilities,” she says.
Allen adds: “There’s this underlying message that they can’t do for themselves and that’s a scary feeling for kids, especially as they get older and they try to meet high expectations.”
In fact, Boston College professor Peter Gray, Ph.D. noted in a Psychology Today article that “rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years.”
Parents aren’t necessarily causing anxiety but they may be preventing their kids from learning valuable coping methods to deal with it. One interesting theory known as the stress inoculation hypothesis suggests that kids need to experience small stresses, like talking to a teacher about a missed assignment, to build up their stress immune system. “Then when they handle life’s really big challenges, they’re ready,” says Dr. Wynns.
In a world where parents are getting overly involved in science fair projects, it becomes hard for a child to do assignments on their own. Parents want their child to compete successfully but inadvertently they’re sending the message—you’re not good enough on your own. McCready emphasizes that these unintended consequences come from a place of good intentions: “You tend to react from a short-term view of parenting rather than your long term job of launching happy, healthy, fully-functioning adults.”
This idea resonates with Stephanie DiGiulio and her husband Milan, who have three children between the ages of 4 and 8. “Milan and I stay focused on the adults our kids will become, and we parent them with that lens,” she says.
Uncentering Their Universe
Let’s call it the opportunity trap—one that many parents fall into—the realization that your children’s activities have overtaken your life. “We are living in a kid-centric society, where everything revolves around children and their activities,” says McCready.
And sometimes the stakes are high.
“For us personally, we value exercise, and I don’t harbor a lot of guilt spending money on experiences,” says Melissa. However, she does lament the “all in” attitude that permeates many sports. “You can’t play for the sake of playing anymore,” she says.
The better you get, the more intense the commitment.
“When mom and dad don’t see each other all weekend because they’re driving the kids around, when you’re not eating meals together, when kids aren’t getting sufficient sleep—that’s a problem,” says McCready. “That’s sending the message that they are the center of the world, and why wouldn’t they expect to be that way.”
Experts can’t prescribe the same solution for everyone. However, Dr. Wynns suggests children balance two after-school activities at a time. Parents should carve out time for their own commitments—the kids can work around your schedule, she says.
A Generation of Doers
Like most things, it turns out balance is best.
“While we can say there are some cons to permissive parents, it’s still infinitely better than where we were 40 years ago when children really didn’t have a voice,” says Allen. “The pendulum needs to swing back to the middle where parents set boundaries in a kind and firm manner.”
We’re not too far off the mark. We can feel proud that today’s parents are supporting their children in finding a voice and harnessing their passions, such as working on amazing projects for social justice. These digital natives know how to use the Internet and social media to make their voice heard beyond the family home.
Almost 2,400 years ago, Socrates wrote: “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Somehow it’s comforting to know that ancient Greeks were facing some of the same struggles of modern-day parenting, albeit without measuring themselves against a Pinterest perfect standard.
Grit: The 4-Letter Word Your Child Should Learn
When Angela Lee Duckworth, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was teaching 7th grade math she noticed that the smartest students weren’t always the most successful. This sparked a question in her mind, and she began studying children and adults across different contexts asking who was successful and why. One characteristic emerged as the most consistent predictor of success: grit. What is grit? A willingness to fail, to make mistakes and to keep trying in order to achieve a long-term goal.
That’s exactly what Exploris Middle School in downtown Raleigh is trying to instill in its students. Grit has been articulated in a formal way, as a habit of scholarship alongside responsibility, craftsmanship and collaboration.
“When we are engaging students to be problem solvers, it takes hard work, it takes perseverance, it takes an element of grit,” says Principal Summer Clayton.
Part of learning grit requires students to feel safe in making mistakes and sticking with hard assignments.
“Certainly, as a parent, I don’t want to see my child fail because of the emotional component of that failure,” says Clayton. “But if I take the emotional piece out of it and look at it as a learning experience, we shift into a growth mindset.”
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