There's not a lot of good news for parents these days. In North America there is a rueful acknowledgment that we're spoiling our kids rotten. Entitled, narcissistic, oversupplied with tech goodies, they don't do chores and they rule the roost at home. In fact in one generation, the kiddie cri de coeur has morphed from "you're not the boss of me" to "I'm the boss of you!"
As Elizabeth Kolbert brilliantly wrote last month in The New Yorker, "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."
They are also among the most harried – under parental pressure, they start to fret about their future success while still in elementary school. And although it may seem paradoxical, spoiling kids and fanatically focusing on them to succeed are linked: They both convey the same damaging message that every minute of every day should be focused on them.
Of course this lesson backfires mightily when the child gets to be an adult in the working world and quickly realizes that no one is paying anywhere near as much attention to his success as he should be. Ouch.
In Teach Your Children Well, a wise and pointed new book, California author and psychologist Madeline Levine lays out just how damaging this relentless parental attention and pressure is.
Ms. Levine makes the alarming argument that kids today "resemble nothing so much as trauma victims" because of our twisted and narrow preoccupation with only a certain kind of success.
"Every measure of child and adolescent mental health has deteriorated since we've decided that children are best served by being relentlessly pushed, overloaded, and tested," she writes. "Our current version of success is a failure."
Kids today, she states, while looking like high-gloss achievers, are in fact more depressed, anxious and experiencing both psychosomatic disorders and a sense of inauthenticity. Many have "imposter syndrome," not really believing in their own success.
Well, that's certainly something to contemplate if you're a parent enjoying these last golden weeks of summer before the onslaught of school, tutors, sports and enrichment activities hijacks your life, before every single minute of your – and their – existence is focused on their success. Mom and Dad, start your helicopter engines. (Or how about the 2.0 version of overparenting – the Snowplow Parent – one who goes ahead, clearing away every obstacle in their kid's way.)
Ms. Levine may be correct, entitled children are the "inevitable outcome of time and resources that are wildly and disproportionately assigned to the children and not the adults in the family."
But it's hard to pull back, hard – especially in this economy when resources and opportunity are dwindling and adults are wrapped up in their own terror of personal failure – to buck a culture, hard not to fear that if you don't push, your child will be the one left behind.
It's also hard not to overprotect them. So we don't let them roam freely, say, until they are 12 or 13 and suddenly there they are, in full raging adolescence. The average age of sexual intercourse, Ms. Levine points out, is 17: "Let's be real. Our kids need more than four years between crossing the street and putting on a condom."
Her sensible advice is to encourage kids to work "just outside their comfort zone," but stop the relentless hectoring of them to succeed at everything they undertake. Let them drop out of activities they don't like, if, after giving them a fair trial, they are not enjoying them. Push back at schools that assign too much homework. And try and assess who your kid really is and what makes her light up. And of course, give them responsibilities early on.
Reading parenting books for me now, as the mother of two well-on-their-way twentysomethings, is a poignant exercise. I still relate to the vast realm of mistakes one can make as a parent (oh my God, I did that!) and I remember as if it were yesterday hurling a math textbook across the room and drinking way too much wine on account of an overdue whale project.
To be a present and attentive parent is to grasp when to intervene. But I wince now at the pressure I felt to somehow get them to be perfect. Kids are very canny and they know that if something they do matters a bit too much to their parents, it's about fulfilling their fantasies and not their own.
As one father is quoted in Teach Your Children Well, when the subject of Harvard comes up, "Now there's a school I would give my left testicle to get my son into." Any self-respecting kid is not only going to say ewww but immediately reject the idea of applying.
One of the eye-openers in Teach Your Children Well is the gap between how parents define what they think is success for their children (we say we want them to be happy, well-adjusted and blah blah blah) and what most kids say constitutes success: making a lot of money. So parents are either fooling themselves or not conveying to their child that an inner sense of satisfaction or well-being is as important as a big paycheque.
Being a parent is so tough that reproaching them for just being part of their culture is a pile-on. But urging them to think long and hard about the right mix of activities, unnecessary school stresses and the desperate messages about success they are giving their kids is a good and necessary thing to do.
That's what I call homework.