Outlook: Are today's kids really 'spoiled rotten'?

Jul 19, 2010

Alfie Kohn, author of 12 books, including 'Unconditional Parenting' and 'No Contest: The Case Against Competition,' will be online Monday, July 19, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled 'Spoiled rotten, a timeless complaint.'

What kinds of effects do financial austerity show on childhood development? When kids have to work to contribute to the financial well-being of the family, how does that affect achievement?

Provocative question.  I don't know off-hand whether there are enough data to know whether that situation consistently affects achievement -- or personality -- in a particular direction.  I do look at race and class issues in the context of parenting, however, in the Appendix to my book Unconditional Parenting.

Hi Alfie, I'm not sure where I came across it, but isn't this a similar complaint leveraged against the quality and rigor of our school curriculum? And about the ills of technology rotting our children's brains? It's been passed down from generation to generation as a general complaint about the way we're raising (and teaching) our children, in sweeping terms?

Yes!  See Richard Rothstein's book THE WAY WE WERE?, which finds exactly the same complaints about failing schools and falling standards going back decade by decade, each invoking a Golden Age of schooling that never existed.  What interests me is how, with education as with parenting, even politically liberal people sound like they're on Fox News.

I think last year for the first time, half of all children born in America were not non-Hispanic white. Are there changes in parenting within demographic groups that don't show up in gross totals because the composition of the population is changing? To what extent are popular perceptions biased by outliers -- we'll overlook 20 well-behaved kids on a Metro train if there's one obnoxious loudmouth.

I don't think the answer to your first question is known definitively, though it would be more plausible if current samples showed significantly different child characteristics across ethnic groups, and I'm not sure that's the case.  As for your second point, sure -- but I think there's something else going on that predisposes us to fasten on *those* outliers; many people already want to believe kids are obnoxious, self-centered, etc. and are thus more likely to notice and remember the outlier who confirms their tacit theory.

As both a member of Gen Y and the parent of a young child, I find it disheartening to be constantly bombarded with media commentary that is so disparaging about young people. I have held several jobs that have required me to work with the public, and I have plenty of anecdotal evidence of my own that illustrates that selfishness, laziness, overwrought senses of entitlement and narcissism can be found in individuals of every generation currently living. Happily, these people are always the exception rather than the rule. Thank you for bringing some much-needed balance to this never-ending discussion.

And thank you for this refreshing bit of support!

Were those studies at all controlled for heritability? That is, could the personality traits of the children who had been spanked have been the same inherited personality traits that caused their parents to be more likely to spank them? And likewise with the helicopter parenting study?

The spanking study - yes, to some extent.  The researcher controlled for the child characteristics at Time 1 and looked at the effects of spanking on what the child was like at Time 2.  The helicopter parenting study - no, not as far as I know.

Your point that spoiled brat complaints are evergreen is well taken. Still, I need two hands to count the number of friends I have with college age kids who refused summer job offers (hourly jobs) because they were tired, or did not like the work assignments.That one is new to me; I bolted for any job I could get, back in the day, and put myself through college. Cars, cell phones and tuition now seem an entitlement to many middle-class kids who 25 years ago spent summers waitressing and mowing lawns.

And what were the parents and neighbors saying about those kids 25 years ago?  What did they point to as evidence that kids back then were lazy, unmotivated, lacking in work ethic, inferior to their parents, etc.?  (I'm old enough to remember that comments like yours about today's youth are indeed nothing new.)

It has never ceased to amaze me that so many kids grow up to be okay when one considers that they are all raised by amateurs. I don't know any professional parents. However, your argument that there are no hard data to show any differences between previous generation parents and today's parents just begs the comment: just because there are no data doesn't make the assertion untrue! It is inconceivable to me that prevailing child psychologist advice in the last 1/4 of the 20th Century promoting hands-off, time outs and constant reminders that 'you're special' cannot have an effect on later adult behavior. Otherwise, why in the world would those be the recommendations? It's not just anecdotal that you can go into any restaurant and find literally screaming kids in the next booth with no parental attempt to subdue that. Such behavior must carry over into adulthood. The fact is that every kid is not 'special.' Rather, they are unique individuals and are important and deserve to be told that. That 'special' atmosphere translates into crappy adult behavior and can be observed any day, anywhere. No data? Go develop some but don't be an apologist just because bad outcomes cannot yet be 'proven.' My question for you is, "How would you structure a study to develop a credible data base for some conclusion about resulting behavior?"

I think you and I approach the question differently.  You seem unwilling to accept what the data show, or conspicuously fail to show, and want to keep looking until you get the answer you want.  I'm willing to be open to the possibility that what I believe, or what I've noticed anecdotally where I live, might not be representative.  There's ideology driving the empirical claims of social conservatives, as well as confusion about parenting advice.  For example, (a) the prevailing advice for parents is not permissive or accepting or hands-off and never has been; it's focused on getting compliance, as I pointed out in the article, and (b) "time outs" are in fact quite punitive -- a newer twist on a very traditional authoritarian approach.

Excellent topic. To me this was the most important (hidden) fact: "there is indeed a parental practice associated with children who later become demanding and easily frustrated. But it's not indulgent parenting. It's spanking." So very true. And we wonder why prisons are so overcrowded while Wall Street is filled with short-term thinking, fast-reward brats and psychopaths. I grew up in the spare the rod, spoil the child world of the south and I have learned it's the absolute wrong approach: it's cruelty and sadism disguised in conservative ideology. Have you read the research of folks like Murray Straus and the powerful work of the late Alice Miller (For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence)? Why do you think there's not more coverage of the truly long-term deleterious, often life-long effects of physical violence (disguised as 'discipline') on children (and other living creatures for that matter)? Thanks for this chat too.

Miller provides a provocative theoretical basis, and Straus provides the clear-cut data, to warn us about the effects of (and, in Miller's case, reason for) using physical violence on children in the name of discipline.  Our deep attachment to this tactic helps to explain why we're resistant to hearing the case against it.

You mention a study in the May Pediatrics magazine tying demanding and easily frustrated children with increased spanking. As a teacher who sees an increase in these types of children, isn't spanking, and increased physical abuse the real issue here, rather than overindulgence? I would argue there IS an increase in defiant, easily frustrated children in our society. But rather blaming it on "helicopter" parents, I blame it on a growing breakdown in the family structure. I believe our two working parent households have lead to more and more young children left to their own devices much of the day, and then ignored, or worse, abused, by exhausted parents who don't have the energy to be positive and supportive. Ask any teacher if they are dealing with more emotionally troubled children, at younger ages, and they will tell you "yes, yes, yes!" Hasn't our family culture changed tremendously in recent years?

What's good for the "overindulgent" goose is good for the "overpunitive" gander:  I share your concerns about abuse and excessive parental control, but if there's no good evidence to show that kids today are more defiant and easily frustrated than in years go by, we have to accept that regardless of what we believe to be the cause of that behavior when it *does* show up.

Thank you for addressing Twenge's research (Generation Me) in particular. I have found her line of research questionable because of how some of the variables end up being tested and compared between generations, and contradictory evidence from other researchers. For example, Twenge et al's observed changes in obedience between generations (i.e. people are less obedient now) did not hold true in a recent modified replication of the Milgram obedience studies.

Yes.  And there are multiple problems with her methodology that I didn't have the space to describe in yesterday's article.

" there is indeed a parental practice associated with children who later become demanding and easily frustrated. But it's not indulgent parenting. It's spanking." THANK YOU FOR SAYING THIS. As an educator of the 3 - 6 year old children, I can certainly testify to the truth of this. The children who have been spanked are the children for whom nothing else is effective. So unless they are with someone willing to demoralize them with corporal punishment, they know they have all control of any given situation. And having control of their external environment is all that matters to them once they've been robbed of the chance to have any kind of control by being hit. This includes self-control. These children are not capable of inner discipline because the opportunity to develop it has literally been beaten out of them.

And the same is true for non-physical punishments (loss of privileges, time-outs, etc.) and for punishment's mirror image - rewards.  The whole carrot-and-stick approach to parenting makes kids less responsible, less morally sophisticated, and more dependent on an external authority.  Punishments (or "consequences" as we euphemistically call them) teach kids to ask "What does the person with the power want me to do, and what happens to me if I don't do it?"  Rewards (including praise) lead them to ask, ". . . .and what do I GET if I do it?"  In neither case are kids invited to ask, "What kind of person do I want to be?"  (I've written much more about this elsewhere.)

I work in the perfect lab for observing children and their conduct in public places, a buffet restaurant. It is easy to observe the ones with no common courtesy. They are the ones who run, skip, twirl with arms flailing, anything but walk in a straight line. Their table manners are non-existant. They have fake crying jags until they get what they want. The parent says "now stop that". The response is to ignore the parent. A child with no discipline is no joy to anyone. These children miss out on alot in life. It is also sad to see older children sitting at the table playing on their cellphone, oblivious to the rest of the family eating and conversing. Two questions: The constant need for attention many children demonstrate: How can these parents satisfy this need without indulging the child and making their demands worse? My other question: The parent IS in charge. Why do parents not understand that they run the show and surrender to the child's unreasonable behavior? Is it that they want to be a friend instead of a parent? Thank you. P.S. I have had almost universal success with kids at the restaurant by looking them straight in the eye, talking in a direct voice, as if to an adult.

I've seen this stuff, too.  But for every example of an overindulged child permitted to run wild in a public place, I see literally hundreds of examples of children being restricted unnecessarily, yelled at, threatened, or bullied by their parents , their protests routinely ignored, their questions dismissed out of hand, accustomed to hearing an automatic "No!" in response to their requests and a "Because I said so!" if they dare to ask why.

I'm in my early 40s and I hear my peers in the business world grousing about the attitudes they perceive among workers 20 years younger. I'm disappointed to hear that, not necessarily for the younger workers, but for my peers who don't see the relative nature of such complaints. They don't seem to realize that today's 60somethings were saying the same things about us two decades ago. My theory is that it's natural for each generation to see its elders as out of touch and see their youngers as spoiled. Each generation is shaped by a different set of formative experiences and attitudes so each has a different idea of what is "normal." So what qualifies as "spoiled" would seem to be largely subjective since there's no objective standard for measuring it. Imagine how someone from the pre-telegraph era might react to a modern adult complaining about kids spending too much time texting. There might have been cave dwellers right after the harnessing of fire who felt that kids had it too easy growing up with cooked meat. Or for any evolutionary biologists reading this, imagine a amoeba billions of years ago saying, "Damn, these kids today and their sexual reproduction. I guess binary fission is politically incorrect these days."

Yes.  One researcher wrote: "The older generation of Vikings no doubt complained that the younger generation were getting soft and did not rape and pillage with the same dedication as in years gone by.”

Mr. Kohn, isn't what you described so well in your piece pretty much representative of what Isaac Asimov termed the G.O.D., or Good Ole Days, syndrome? The past is always better in our culture is going down the tubes? For example, many parents believe the world is a more dangerous place than it was when we were kids; this is despite objective evidence that violent crime is down, riding in cars is so much safer, and people live longer.

For a fascinating empirical take on this syndrome, see the work of Richard Eibach and Lisa Libby -- for example, their article "When Change in the Self Is Mistaken for Change in the World" in the May 2003 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  The title gives away the finding.

I was a spoiled brat when I was a kid. Listening to my parents' stories of their own childhoods convinces my that while they may not have had all the material things I did, they were indeed brats too. My son, on the other hand, is charming, well mannered and hard- working despite being spoiled by his laid-back mother. Kids are not balls of clay that we can mold into any shape we want them to take. They are born with their own little personalities.

I appreciate your autobiographical perspective, which speaks to my main point about how there's no evidence that kids are worse now.  As for your second point, you're right of course that inborn temperament exists, but it's still possible to look for trends across large samples, thereby holding constant individual temperamental differences.  And it's interesting when those trends fail to emerge.

When I was growing up in America's golden age, our parents' word was final. No questioning. The '60s changed all that. Now I see kids lipping off to their parents at the Applebee's Salad Bar all the time. When will this stop?

The question, of course, is Did it ever really start?  All of the logic and evidence I tried to pull together for my article was intended to directly challenge the premise of your complaint.  People older than you were complaining about your generation, too.  Sometimes I wonder what it would take for folks who grumble about kids (or permissive parents) to pause and say, "You know, maybe my complaints say more about me and my worldview than about the world I think I'm describing."

I really like your work. I'd love to see some research on the "lost" generation from the 80s. We had to deal with the baby boomer "me" generation that pioneered no-fault divorce and spent a whole lot of time living for themselves. Most of my friends have divorced parents who feel as if they were afterthoughts in the second adolescence of these people. It makes me laugh that these same parents are criticizing our parenting now. I know I'm making a broad generalization, but I feel like our generation is living with many of the baby boomers mistakes as they spend our retirement money. Not the least of these is shoddy parenting in the 80s.

Well, you may be onto something about that particular era.  Then again, you may not be.  We'd need solid data to know if things really were different for that particular cohort.

When I was a kid in the early 70s, large groups of us would play outside, often in the street, without any parents in sight. We would even have full 9x9 baseball games at a playground several blocks away. Again, with no parents around. I can't believe this happens as much these days. Is there really no data showing changes in unsupervised play in the last 40 years?

I don't know the answer to that.  But even if we were able to confirm a difference in supervision and play styles, the more interesting question is whether there are data to show a robust difference in terms of the effect of those different styles, isolateable and significant vis-a-vis all the other social and familial factors that help to shape us.

Among the parents I've encountered who practice spanking, most if not all of them, have had strong authoritarian attitudes about adults as well. They seem to believe that without a strong authority, people will focus solely on satisfying their own wants with no regard for others. People much wiser than me have said that how someone treats children and animals is a good predictor for their attitudes toward others concerning power and control.

Yes.  And how we treat (and simply regard!) children says a great deal about very basic worldviews.  See, for example, George Lakoff's book Moral Politics.

I am curious to know what you feel the role of Arts education is. Some principals insist art teachers make art class a place for pure expression and relaxation; other art teachers amp up the rigor (a favorite work of yours) in order to prove their subject worthy. I am also interested to know your thoughts on critique. Some say their is no such thing as constructive criticism. Others make critique into a "good job" session with no actual individualized advice for the students.

Two very big questions in one.  I think the choice you frame in your first one relies on a false dichotomy.  A rejection of our current infatuation with "rigor" (if it's harder, it must be better) doesn't leave us with "Do whatever you feel."  There are ways of valuing excellence while still valuing and affirming people (especially children) struggling to create.  In my books Unconditional Parenting and Punished by Rewards, meanwhile, I talk about alternatives to the "Good job!" vs. criticism dichotomy.  Often it's enough to describe rather than evaluate (criticism and praise are both evaluations, not feedback) or to ask questions to invite the child to reflect on what she's done and what she could have done instead.

It is an uplifting article you wrote that the parenting issues we are having are universal and nothing new in the history of parenting. Please tell us your observation that at what age this universal "Generation Me" group grow up to the next level.

I would imagine it's a gradual process over young adulthood.  Maybe something changes at about the point that people start bellyaching about the generation that's younger than they are!

Is it possible that, when compared to previous generations, the current generation simply has more societal expectations placed on it? The proportions of children who are antisocial, lazy, or undisciplined probably haven't changed, ever, but today's economy may be forcing them into situations they're unprepared for as blue collar jobs have disappeared. It's been well reported that the number of children attending college has grown recently as a degree is seen as required for a decent standard of living in most cases. I graduated from a four-year state school last year and, to be completely blunt, worked with many classmates completely unprepared for the college lifestyle or a college education. What I think I'm asking is is it possible that the increased expectations (study hard, work hard, go to college, get a degree...) are simply making the less determined or disciplined children more visible even though their proportion hasn't changed?

It's certainly a hypothesis worth exploring.  But your question reminds me that we might push things a bit further - and risk antagonizing some folks even more - by asking whether being self-disciplined and hard workers is always a good thing (which has pretty much been taken for granted in this discussion).  For more on this topic, please see "Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated: The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from Within."

For every awfully unbehaved child, I encounter drivers who cut me off, shoppers who refuse to end a cell phone call to pay for groceries, and adults who assume I am lazy and spoiled because I am under 30.

That last phrase is the key.  Sweeping assumptions -- prejudices, really -- determine what part of reality we focus on, and there are always enough examples to keep those assumptions alive and the chatrooms busy.

I was spanked as a child, and did not turn out to be an undisciplined, rude, holy terror. My parents always listened to me, took my opinion into account, explained their decisions rationally, and treated me with respect. But sometimes I acted out (I had terrible temper tantrums) and then I got spanked (it wasn't often, so it had more effect). I think that if you're going to use a punishment like spanking, it needs to be the absolute last resort and you need to do everything you can before you use it.

There's no one-to-one correspondence between any parenting approach and who the child grows up to be.  That's why "X was done to me, and obviously I'm OK" isn't a particularly persuasive argument.  That's why scientists look at large numbers of people, trying to isolate a specific variable.  But in the case of corporal punishment some of us don't even need data to show us (a) that it isn't very effective and (b) that it's typically associated with unpleasant outcomes (even though the data do tend to show both of those things); we find it intrinsically objectionable for adults to hit children for any reason -- even as a "last resort."

I have to apologize that I don't know your work well, but I have a question. What is your feeling on children in competitive sports? My 5-year-old son is in a baseball league where everyone bats and no one loses or wins. At the end, every child gets a participation trophy. I am slightly uncomfortable with this, as I would like for my child to want to win, but recognize that it could also be a detriment to be competitive at such an early age.

At the risk of sounding self-promotional, I will again point to something else I've written - mostly because I can't give an adequate response to your important question in a few seconds.  Please see my book NO CONTEST: The Case Against Competition -- particularly if you're willing to rethink the idea that it's a good thing for children to "want to win" (which is completely different, and often antithetical to, wanting to attain excellence).

We raised 3 very wonderful, responsible kids that became wonderful, responsible adults. It wasn't that difficult and I really believe it was their natures to be the way they are. The grandkids are doing well, too.

Glad to hear it!

Any thoughts on why we are seeing a rise in the diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders, executive function issues, ADHD, etc., in our schools? What impact will that have on educational systems?

Greater minds than mine are wrestling with that question, and specifically asking whether (a) there are really more kids "like that" (b) we're just more attentive to a set of problems that have always been with us, or (c) the issue has more to do with our promiscuous use of labels, often to the detriment of those to whom they're attached.

You turned out ok despite being spanked, not because of it.

Yes, that's a key shift that I ask people to consider -- assuming they're really sure they did turn out as healthy as they think they did.  Same for educational issues:  If we realize that kids who continue to love to read and learn are that way in spite of traditional instruction (lectures, worksheets, tests, homework, grades, etc.) rather than because of it, we're more likely to question those practices.

It's interesting to me that so many people complain about the behavior of children at the buffet, in the booth next to them, at the Applebee's salad bar; in other words, all in restaurants. In my mind this doesn't mean kids these days behave any worse than kids of previous generations. It just means we're eating out a lot more than we used to. It used to be that bad behavior at mealtime was confined to the home. Going out to eat at a restaurant was a rare treat for kids (and often adults) in earlier generations.

Interesting.  I never thought of that.

How do compare the behavior that inspired complaints 100 years ago to the behavior that inspires complaints today? Do you have data to show what the parents a century ago were complaining about? Or is it possible that 100 years ago, they were complaining about teenagers unwilling to work 14 hours a day in the fields, while today they're complaining about college kids unwilling to scoop ice cream for 20 hours a week, and your data doesn't reflect the difference?

I don't' think there are any hard data on the nature of complaints, but the idea of being unhappy about demands made on us -- for teens or adults -- always has to be understood in the context of the norms and expectations of our times.

Complaining about a generation of spoiled kids -- again

Some kids are spoiled rotten and then there are others. Our college age grandson has always been a joy to be around and still is because he is polite and was raised to help without asking. He has been on charity trips the last few summers. On the other hand a nephew several years older has been a pain in the rear all of his life; he was academically gifted but not socially. Now in his late 20s, he still doesn't lift a finger to assist anyone unless asked. His folks were part of the "democracy" movement with him calling most of the shots. He still thinks he is the center of the universe.

Of course I don't know what "the democracy movement" really meant in this particular case, but the vast majority of self-centered people were raised in strict, punitive, my-house-my-rules environments.  (I don't know what proportion of people raised in those environments are self-centered, on the other hand, but there is good theoretical reason to see a connection there.)  Somehow, though, our biases lead us to take a parenting style of which we disapprove and find an example to indict it.  Again, beware of isolated anecdotes.

Thanks for your article. When I look at young adults today and gasp at how immature they can be --  I try to remember how immature I was myself in my early adulthood! We of the slightly older generation need to give the younger ones a break. It takes time for everyone to achieve maturity.

Well said.

Reading works of literature written in earlier times will give you an idea about the sorts of things people complained about. That rotten kid Oliver Twist, for instance had the nerve to ask for more.

I suppose we can turn to literature for one perspective on what things used to be like.  But it's not just *what* people were complaining about; the point I'm trying to emphasize is the never-ending tendency for older people to accuse younger people of being egocentric, spoiled, whiny, etc.

My fingers are glowing from trying to type this fast, and I'm sorry if I haven't been able to answer every question -- or give a satisfactory answer to those I did address.  But I do very much appreciate everyone who weighed in and who's obviously been thinking about the issues I tried to raise in yesterday's article.  Thanks!

In This Chat
Alfie Kohn
Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education and parenting. He is author of 12 books, including 'Unconditional Parenting' and 'No Contest: The Case Against Competition.'
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