Whatever you want, dear

Spoiling children doesn't just make them obnoxious - it makes them unhappy, too

Ok, moms and dads, listen closely. Dan Kindlon has a sobering message for you - one you might not want to hear. Too many well-intentioned parents, he charges, are too indulgent. They give children too much and demand too little from them. The result? Anxious, unhappy, self-centered offspring, potentially ill-equipped to handle the challenges of adulthood.

As an antidote, Kindlon, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, offers a provocative cultural wakeup call, "Too Much of a Good Thing." He focuses on a generation he calls Millennials, the offspring of a prosperous New Gilded Age, born in the last 20 years of the 20th century, exactly 100 years after the children of the first Gilded Age. Computers, phones, and TV sets crowd their rooms. Cars and credit cards give them independence. Coddled and catered to by parents who yearn to be their friends, they appear to be a privileged and enviable group.

But wait. Underneath the shiny veneer of prosperity lies a darker reality. In a study entitled "Parenting Practices at the Millennium," Kindlon surveyed more than 1,000 parents and 654 students in "advantaged" families across the country. He found that parents earning more than $100,000 were more likely to rate their child as spoiled. They also showed more permissive attitudes about drugs and alcohol than parents with lower incomes. About 60 percent of teenagers responding to the survey were active drug users.

Students themselves admit they are spoiled. As one high school senior wryly puts it, "I know I'm spoiled, but I think my parents have done a good job in making sure I'm appreciative of that."

Parents can also spoil children without spending a dime, of course, simply by caving in to their demands or failing to insist that teenagers take sufficient responsibility for their own actions.

When Kindlon asked parents what they want for their children, the reply invariably came back, "We just want them to be happy."

Then he followed with a harder question: What do you think will make them happy? Too often, Kindlon says, parents want children to have a "perfect life devoid of hardship and pain," creating the danger of a life lacking character and a moral compass. A comfortable life can lull parents into "complacent childrearing," Kindlon warns. Leniency, he adds, especially on the part of mothers, puts teenagers at risk for a host of problems, among them eating disorders, underachievement, permissive attitudes about sex, even meanness.

The consequences can be dangerous. Girls who describe themselves as very spoiled are three times as likely to have driven drunk and about twice as likely to have smoked marijuana in the past month. Boys who rated themselves the same way were also at higher risk for drunk driving, lying, cheating, and skipping school.

In Kindlon's view, remedies can be as simple as eating dinner together often and spending time together. Children who keep their rooms clean, do not have a phone in their rooms, and engage in community service also stand a better chance of not being spoiled. He advocates two Ps - praise and positive reinforcement - when children do something good. When youthful behavior falls short, parents must also be willing to use another P - punishment.

He urges parents to give children more TLC, which he defines as Time, Limits, and Caring. And he cautions against trying to be their friend, which produces confusion for both generations.

No one can argue with the benefits of those suggestions. At the same time, as a parent himself, Kindlon knows the siren call of prosperity. Rather than seeking happiness in material possessions, he encourages a different approach. "The happiness of our children comes from their engagement in the world; from compassion, independence, emotional maturity, and a sense of their own self-worth that is tempered by humility and a joy in being alive," he writes.

Kindlon deliberately focuses on upper- and upper-middle-class families. But the trickle-down effects of an indulgent society also raise questions worth asking about other economic groups: What about middle-class students who work long hours after school so they can buy the status symbols their richer classmates possess, sometimes jeopardizing homework in the process? And what about the low-income teenagers who may resort to stealing leather jackets or dealing drugs as their desperate way of trying to keep up?

Kindlon is hardly the first to sound the alarm about spoiled children. Nearly 25 years ago, Robert Coles wrote "Privileged Ones." And in the early 1990s, Fred Gosman weighed in with "Spoiled Rotten." Nor will Kindlon be the last. For now, his book serves as the latest thoughtful reminder that sometimes the best way a parent can say "I love you" is by gently but firmly invoking that powerful little two-letter word: "No."

Marilyn Gardner writes about family issues for the Monitor.

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