Spoiled Brat

I love generational talk. I love comparing our parents to us, the generation that’s just after the Y, the X in all of their ground breaking selfishness, the way we pave the way for one another, how one group of people domino effects the lives of the group after them, and even the group after that.

I also have a lot of frustration and fist shaking at how entitled we have become. People can’t put away their phones and have a real conversation, there are shows like My Super Sweet 16 on MTV, the length at which my generation finds it acceptable to live at home even though they have a job and could move out (compared to the ones who can’t find a job and are getting screwed by the education system with massive loans, and the economy). Maybe it’s my anthropology background, my fascination with observing people and comparing them to cultures on the other side of the globe, comparing them to cultures separated by 50, 100, 200 years. It can’t be helped.

Yesterday Kamel sent me this article from the New Yorker titled: Why Are American Kids So Spoiled? And I almost fell over from nerd joy. It makes the assertion that:

With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world.

That’s some pretty hefty indulging we got there. And immediately I thought of all the kids who know how to use an iPad as their own personal entertainment system, and how the majority of adults don’t even have an iPad. And then I realized that in order for this to work, this theory that American Kids are little lords and lordesses, it can’t just be about stuff. It has to span all economic tiers otherwise I would call this article bunk and roll my eyes.

They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority. “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call.

Oh. Well yeah. I feel like this is a cliche idea, but I’m going to use it anyway: It’s like the mom or dad who have the struggle with “what to make for dinner” and one kid refused mac and cheese, one kid demands PBJ, and one kid wants nothing but carrot sticks. The mom or dad, out of frustration, ends up making up 4 different plates when the meal prepped for that night was spaghetti. Parents eat the prepped spaghetti and the kids get what they want. Poof! The Kids are now King and Queen of the land and the parents are the scullery.

Kamel and I sometimes pretend to be our future kids. We may be out on a walk or something. In the grocery store, whatever. And something will happen where Kamel will stomp his foot (in jest) and say “Mooooom! I hate you!” and then he will say, “Someday our kids are going to say that to us, and then you are going to cry.” Or we’ll talk about how kids will just refuse to do XYZ and how do we make them? How do we keep them from running off when we say not to, or being bullies, or staying out till all hours of the night when they are teenagers? And then I remember the one thing I so easily forget: Kids are not adults, they don’t all have the “I’m a human, and you’re a human, and I have the same exact rights that you do!” mentality. Even if they are kicking my ass and wearing me down like emotional tyrants, as long as I never admit to it, maybe I can hold on to the thrown.

But this is about little kids, which I am only mildly interested in. The New Yorker article goes on to talk about more adult sized children (those only a few years younger than me). And I would like to preface this by saying: Remember when all of the sociologists and the like said that all of this boomerang business was our fault? We were the sad, whiny generation who couldn’t get their shit together and have to have mommy bail us out. My hackles raise just typing that out.

Not long ago, Sally Koslow, a former editor-in-chief of McCall’s, discovered herself in this last situation. After four years in college and two on the West Coast, her son Jed moved back to Manhattan and settled into his old room in the family’s apartment, together with thirty-four boxes of vinyl LPs. Unemployed, Jed liked to stay out late, sleep until noon, and wander around in his boxers. Koslow set out to try to understand why he and so many of his peers seemed stuck in what she regarded as permanent “adultescence.” She concluded that one of the reasons is the lousy economy. Another is parents like her.

Ha ha! Blame game victory! Again it falls to parents like her. Obviously, I will be in therapy for many many years trying to deal with the fact that my parents just gave me too much and I didn’t know how to handle it. (Untrue. They gave me just enough, as I am obviously a perfect specimen of generational awesomeness.)

Koslow goes on to assert about adult children (me) (totally NOT me):
They inhabit “a broad savannah of entitlement that we’ve watered, landscaped, and hired gardeners to maintain.” She recommends letting the grasslands revert to forest: “The best way for a lot of us to show our love would be to learn to un-mother and un-father.”

When I was in high school I was a daycamp counselor for 4 years. I was really good at it. By the time I was 17, I was running the camp by myself. The supervisor I had would often go run errands for hours and hours and still get paid for a full day. I realize day camp is not like being a parent, but I could tell a lot about the parents by watching the kids all day. Some kids only responded to yelling, which was super annoying. They wouldn’t hear me unless I raised my voice and when their parents came and picked them up and yelled and yelled and yelled at them to get their bag, don’t forget their coat, get in the car. GET IN THE CAR. I understood why. The way I handled the kids was a lot of the time by not handling them. I watched them. If kid A was at the water fountain trying to fill up his water bottle and struggling, I wouldn’t help him. I would wait until he either dropped it on the ground, spilling all over himself, or figured it out. I once nannied a 6 year old girl and her 6 month old little brother. The mom had carried and carried and carried around that little boy so much, that he hadn’t yet learn to sit up by himself. After 2 weeks of me setting him on the floor and ignoring him (in the most loving, authoritative, care giver way) while he whined about needing a toy he couldn’t reach, he was sitting up and by the end of the summer he was crawling.

I am definitely not the master-parent here. I have no kids. I don’t even have siblings. But as I become more of a grown up and Kamel and I try and figure out what kind of parents we will at some point be, it’s useful to see what’s going on now, what has been done, and how that’s rippled and changed who we are and how we relate to one another.

The article is really good. And it gives you a healthy dose of superiority as only the New Yorker can as an added bonus.

14 thoughts on “Spoiled Brat”

  1. A friend of mine who has two of the most well-behaved children I have ever met has one sentence of advice that she gives to new parents: “Do not negotiate.” And it’s incredibly true. My mother never negotiated with me. I did things her way. Period.

    1. That advice has seriously just given me a bit of breathing room in my thoughts about having kids. My hubby and I have been discussing it for a while, and I’m always terrified that I’ll end up soiling my kids. “Do not negotiate,” seems to go along with my mom’s philosophy of, “Because I’m the parent, and I said so.” I like them both, and I think I’m going to keep them.

  2. I have SO MANY things to say about this. I love this talk. LOVE IT. The sociologist in me goes “weeeeeeeee” every time these kind of topics come up. OMG. But alas, I have no time today (the impending day of submittal) – to comment – but I WILL LATER 🙂

  3. Oh, boy. I wish this article gave me a feeling of superiority, but I can’t help but feel like they are describing me perfectly and now I have no idea how to stop being so spoiled. As in, I remember constantly asking my parents to get me things when I was younger, things I could have gotten on my own with no problem; and I didn’t do my own laundry until I was in college; and I moved back in with my parents for a year and a half because I was mostly just really lost even though I could definitely have kept getting by on my own; AND when I finally moved out again last summer, not one but two sets of parents helped us move all our crap.


    1. You have to look at it as a big cultural issue, not just on an individual basis. This is a American cultural development (apparently). It’s way bigger than just you or me. I enjoy seeing what we are and possibly being able to adjust my own knee-jerk reactions to alter it a little if I don’t like what I see. 🙂

    2. Kristin,

      I don’t think getting help is part of being spoiled. You say you were really lost … that makes sense, and is totally different from just going home because you don’t feel like paying rent (though you can).

      And the help moving? Awesome! Now, if your parents had moved your stuff while you went out and got drunk (like my next door neighbor) … THEN we’d be straying into spoiled. ::winks::

  4. I hate the way this article opens, with the little anecdote about the little girl growing up in the Amazon, who is just the perfect picture of obedience and helpfulness who served food and worked and never complained. Like, that’s what we want from (girl) children, right, for them to “ask for nothing”?

    And why is she compared to a kid in LA who can’t tie his shoes? Because OF COURSE THEY ARE NOT THE SAME. Very little in their experiences of the world are the same. Why would we expect either to behave like the other?

    Actually, ALL the anecdotes in this article are making me insane. If your kid spills garbage on the lawn the first time he takes it out, how is it not his responsibility to pick it up and figure out to put the lid on tight the next time?

    I also think it’s sort of just… uninteresting to discuss if kids are spoiled or not. Of course they are, to varying degrees. In families or countries where kids don’t need to work in order to ensure survival… they don’t work. It’s the nature of being kids and being taken care of. Even parents who make a point to give their kids chores still think kids have it easy, or easier than they did, because adulthood is such a long drag of responsibility. I think the more interesting questions are the ones she barely barely touches in the ending paragraph.

    “Or adultesence might be just the opposite: not evidence of progress but another sign of a generalized regression. Letting things slide is always the easiest thing to do, in parenting no less than in banking, public education, and environmental protection. A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just about every aspect of American society.”

    Really? That’s an interesting argument and one I’d like to read about. I wish she’d written that article!

    1. I think that comparing a culture that is about the communal we at it’s fundamental being to a culture that is structured around the individual is interesting. I don’t think it’s about an ideal, I think it’s about understanding the how and why of nurture and not shrugging it off as nature or “the way things have always been.” Comparing one part of how a human community interacts with itself to a totally different human community can show interesting explanations for behavior.

      1. I agree! I just don’t think the anecdotes the author chose illustrate that comparison very well. It felt more like a comparison that is meant to shame and/or amaze “bad” American parents.

        I would have found the article more interesting if the premise of the article had been “What are the real societal effects of spoiled children?” instead of “Look at how rotten you’re making your kids!”.

  5. Thanks for sharing… it is indeed an interesting article. I agree with Heather on the “no negotiating” rule, I was actually always shocked to read about parents who give kids a “choice” of options for dinner. At home there was the food my mom made and you had to eat it, as my mom always said “this is not a restaurant” haha.

  6. HOMIGOD. There was no God, there was Mom. And if we upset mother?


    *shudder shudder shudder* I mean… Mom was generally pretty unflappable, but when she was flapped, she got PISSED. And when she was pissed, we got beat*. And if we managed to go past that?

    That happened …. once.

    It went to Dad (not that Dad wasn’t involved because he was but if Mom got upset versus pissed, he was involved at a whole other level). And the message was: you upset Mom? YOU DIE.

    But that was, I laugh now, the psychological weight of the whole thing.

    *Our discipline was never abusive. They NEVER struck us in anger. The punishments were – no matter how stupid, rude, or arrogant *we* were (oh boy, were we) – measured and in direct correlation to the offense and systematic. You knew how much punishment you had earned as soon as you transgressed and there was always a discussion afterward of what went wrong and why you shouldn’t have done what you did and why you paid for it. And you had to apologize. Heh. I was the worst apologizer.

    Honestly – all of that worked on me. But I can’t say that it stuck on my sib and then something went horribly wrong down the road, there. So I don’t know how to remedy that. But I do see, in the early years, that fairly strict, no-negotiating, standardized parenting is typically better for kids, and most parents, than the loosey goosey, Let Me Be Your Neighbor sort.

    Kids, like puppies, need boundaries. They don’t need to end up in handcuffs later in life because they were coddled and swathed in layers of protection, they need some boundaries early on so they can figure out how to function as humans, feed themselves, fend for themselves, and be generally tolerable creatures.

    The last thing is where we really tend to feel the effects of parenting in later life: do the kids who weren’t parented much or well, or at all have the basic tools to make fundamentally good social decisions?

    And I don’t mean “can you get a date?”

    I mean: Do you have the ability to function in society as a thinking, contributing member who sees past his or her own nose? Do you understand the web in which you live? Can you understand the ways in which your actions affect others? Do you realize that when you pay or don’t pay taxes, that makes a difference in these myriad ways? Have you considered any of the following possibilities in which you can do more than just make a living for yourself but also be a part of the social web and make this world a better place to live – for yourself, for your neighbor, for the people you may never meet but you might want to meet someday? For the people you don’t even like but understand that they will contribute to making this place better or worse depending on what we all do, each and every day?

    And of course this isn’t all down to parenting. But parents play a fundamental role in laying that groundwork. How can they not?

    Or the person who raises any child – biological parent or not – plays that role.

    …. I think I’ve rambled on for a fair bit here …. can I blame la medicina? 🙂

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