I think most of us remember a time when we were kids where all we wanted was to be in control of our lives. And, if we don’t we’ve probably got kids who are now repeating the cycle.
Given my age, I’m old enough to now have a distant memory of how frustrating it was to be controlled by parents who knew best. Now I’m on the receiving end of the anger and frustration of my own kids, who have very firm ideas about what they want and when they want it!
It goes something like this: “Dad, why do I have to do what you say?” Or “I only want pasta. I won’t eat vegetables”. Or “All my friends play 4 hours of Minecraft before school. Why can I only play it on weekends?”
To parents everywhere, it’s all very familiar – particularly if the question is asked more than ten times within the hour and then at least 5 times in each subsequent hour of remaining daylight.
Some things will always be the case. But there’s a lot of talk at the moment about whether today’s young people have grown up in an environment where they have been given more control and less structure than previous generations. This in turn gives them a heightened level of expectation that they are actually going to get their way.
Commentators say parents have started chasing the approval of their kids, haven’t said ‘no’ enough and now are reaping what they have sown: kids who think they will always get their way and, later, young adults who still live at home, don’t know how to iron their shirts, and drink all their parents’ alcohol.
Mia Freedman had an interesting piece in the paper a few weeks’ ago. She sees the issue as more than just a parenting one – the community as a whole has become too affluent, comfortable and consequently has become obsessed with #firstworldproblems (as they say on Twitter).
She tells a story about a friend whose husband doesn’t want to take their kids on a European holiday because the kids might be bored in the car. Freedman also relates how her own children now won’t go on a 10-minute car ride to the shops without snacks and drinks: a story to which I can unhappily relate to!
In the US, concern about this phenomenon has spawned a plethora of new books with titles like “The Price of Privilege”, “The Narcissism Epidemic,” and “A Nation of Wimps”.
I’m always conscious that in these kinds of debates, the voice of young people can recede into the background and stereotypes come to the fore. I think about all the outstanding, switched-on, compassionate, strong young people I come across in this job and it makes me extremely hopeful for the future. These are all kids raised in this so-called era of narcissism.
But it’s my job to ensure that we’re properly examining social changes, to ensure our centres are best equipped to support them. It worries me that new research conducted by sociologists at Boston College shows that incoming students are more worried “about how they will handle the logistics of everyday life” than how they will navigate the complex world of higher education.
It makes me think about all the times I’ve avoided teaching my kids how to perform household tasks because it’s simply easier for me to do it. Ultimately, we’re not doing our kids any favours by being what some people call “bulldozer parents”, who try to clear obstacles, hardship and toil from our children’s paths. That doesn’t prepare them well for life.
It seems to me that life is just a series of traffic lights, telling us to ‘go’, ‘stop’ or ‘be cautious’. In a world that is full of advice from a multitude of ‘experts’ – none of whom are short of an opinion – how do we reassure ourselves that we are on the right track; that the traffic light is telling us the right thing?
Ben Hart, the Public Affairs Manager for headspace recently put me on to an article in the New Yorker which, like Mia Freedman’s, examined the issue of permissive parenting (some of its content forms the basis for this blog – I recommend having a read).
At a swimming lesson with the kids I was sitting next to a guy from Germany who too was dealing with the emotional turmoil of his children being taught how to swim. We both noticed, in between my reading of the New Yorker, each other’s children struggling.
We got talking about parenting and the challenges. I mentioned the article and the author’s contention that the French are much better than the Americans at child rearing as French parents think that an important step in child development is learning to cope with the word ‘no’.
He had a different take on the issue and said that the French are largely negligent parents and that’s not healthy either. “Who are they trying to kid? The French have others look after their children and completely ignore them for their entire lives!” It was extreme view but nonetheless an interesting perspective.
The point I think is that, just as parenting is no simple task, equally there are no simple answers (like “be more French in your parenting” for instance).
We do what we can to ensure that our children are resilient and have the skills they need to head out into the world as confident, capable adults; to be able to cope with disappointment and sadness. This requires more work that just saying no, or, at the other end of the spectrum, alternating between distracting them and appeasing them.
It’s up to all of us to find that balance.