Aha! Parenting Blog

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Are kids today spoiled and undisciplined?

"Contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff...They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority....This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults fear that it isn’t working out so well: according to one poll, commissioned by Time and CNN, two-thirds of American parents think that their children are spoiled."
- The New Yorker

Are kids today indulged & undisciplined? In the United States, the media thinks the answer is yes. There's a constant assumption in articles and books (not to mention talk shows and the comments section of any online discussion about children) that we parents give kids too much stuff, too much praise, too much attention, too few expectations, too little discipline. As a result, we're told, kids today are spoiled, undisciplined, self-centered, rude, irresponsible, and entitled. What's more, all this attention makes them anxious and all this coddling leaves them ill-equipped for the hard knocks that are inevitable in life. And it's all the parents' fault!

But is this true? The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently released a major report on the state of Americans' health as of last year, that included these findings on teens:

(1) The number of teens who report having had sex has dropped significantly in the past twenty years. The teen birth rate is lower than it's been since we started collecting data. The teen abortion rate has dropped dramatically, too. Teens are also much more likely to use birth control if they do have sex.

(2) Cigarette smoking among teens has dropped by 30% since 1980.

(3) Fewer teens are smoking marijuana and their use of harder drugs such as cocaine has dropped to all-time lows.

(4) The percentage of teens who report trying alcohol has declined from a high of 70 percent in 1980 to less than 40 percent in 2012. And a separate report from the CDC says that the number of teens who drive after drinking has dropped by 54% since 1991.

(5) What are teens today doing with all that time that they used to spend partying? Apparently they're exercising. A lot!

Of course, this doesn't address every aspect of teen behavior. But it certainly doesn't paint a picture of irresponsibility and lack of self-discipline. So why the media drumbeat about how spoiled and irresponsible kids today are?

Alfie Kohn, in his latest book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting, says the mythology that "kids today" are spoiled, over-protected, and under-disciplined is just that -- a myth. I recommend Kohn's book to anyone interested in the evidence supporting his claims. I also welcome you to listen to this interview with Alfie Kohn, in which I asked him to discuss whether it's true that children today are actually different from kids in the past, helicopter parenting, self-esteem, self-discipline, and why we should be raising reflective rebels.

Unfortunately, Kohn's book isn't designed to address the practical concerns that so many parents struggle with about how to raise healthy children in today's world:

  • How do we raise kids who are generous and hard-working rather than entitled, when they're surrounded by the constant cultural message that meaning comes from acquiring more and more things?
  • How do we raise children who flourish and hear their own inner wisdom despite the stresses of our 24/7 connected, noisy world?
  • How do we protect kids without disabling them? Where's the line between appropriate protection in a world that seems dangerous, versus "helicoptering"?
  • How do we raise considerate children in an increasingly rude world?
  • How do we raise kids who are self-disciplined and resilient? Does that mean we let them fail, even when the stakes are high?
  • Where's the sweet spot between too strict and too permissive?
  • How do we raise a child who feels deserving – but not “entitled”? and along with all these big questions: Why don't kids help more around the house?!!

The answers to these "big" questions lie in the small daily interactions each of us has with our children. What parents need is an approach that's in sync with their values and informed by the research, that guides them in making practical day to day decisions.

That's why I'm re-visiting a series I wrote in response to a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert called Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost? Parents told me that this series really helped them make sense of these issues and make better decisions for their families. So, to amplify the wonderful discussion started by Alfie Kohn with his book, and add a practical dimension to it, I'll be re-running that series, with some updating, over the next few weeks.

We'll be covering:

  • Are American Kids Actually Spoiled Rotten?

  • 13 Ways to Raise Kids Who Don't Act "Entitled" in a Culture of Entitlement

  • 5 Reasons Kids Don't Help Around the House -- and What You Can Do About It

  • Do Your Kids Rule the Roost? 7 Strategies to Avoid Permissive Parenting

  • 10 Secrets Every Parent Needs to Know about Saying No

  • Obedience: Why Do You Have To Tell Them Five Times?

  • 10 Ways to Raise a Competent, Confident Child

  • How to Give Your Child a Rich Life -- Without "Spoiling"

  • 10 Guidelines to Raise a Child Who Isn't "Spoiled"

Spoiler alert: I don't believe kids today are spoiled. In fact, I suspect the whole idea is a backlash against our culture's increased awareness of children's needs. What's more, I take sharp exception to the assumptions that dominate the public discussion about WHY kids today might be less helpful, less obedient, or more entitled. In short, I don't think parents are the problem. Sure, we can all do better--and as we learn more, we do. But I don't think the answer is to punish more, or neglect kids more, or "put kids in their place" as the comments sections always seem to suggest. So I look forward to exploring these questions--and moving toward some practical answers--over the coming weeks. I expect a far-ranging discussion about this on Facebook. Please join us!

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