Let us begin with the assumption that if you are a parent, you wish for your child every advantage and opportunity. From the ergonomic high chair to that all-important first sushi experience and beyond, life should be as golden for your little one as it is for, say, Pax Jolie-Pitt.
But inevitably the moment arrives when all your doting and care come back on you in the form of a precocious little barb that reminds you in no uncertain terms of . . . you. It might be that his friend Jake's eighth-birthday party was "unbelievably lame" or that "it's weird that Brandon's family flies first-class and we don't," or maybe it's simply that "these taquitos taste like turd."
It's then that you must reckon with the real possibility that your drive to make little Johnny better, smarter, and hipper has merely turned him into a douchebag. Put it this way: If it's your child, not you, who gets to choose your weekend brunch spot, or if he's the one asking how the branzino is prepared, it's probably time to take a hard look at your own behavior.
It's not like we're the first generation to turn out Frankenkinder. Since the dawn of time, parents have been dressing their kids in ridiculous sailor suits and dragging them on ski trips to Gstaad. But lately it feels like we're scaling new heights as bad examples. We create parenting blogs that transform our preschoolers into fetishized celebrities. We subscribe to magazines that suggest buying a 5-year-old a $400 Marc Jacobs cashmere hoodie. We think it's cute when our kids learn to text message (until we realize POS means "parent over shoulder") and quietly rejoice when they can tell which Ramone is Dee Dee and which one is Joey.
Alas, convenient as it might be, we can't blame the children. "There's no such thing as a spoiled gene," says parenting expert Michele Borba, author of Don't Give Me That Attitude! "The brat factor is all learned." Which means that if you're the dad pushing Junior around in a limited-edition Bugaboo stroller by Bas Kosters ($2,000), carrying a Louis Vuitton diaper bag ($1,380), and checking in at a members-only parenting club like Citi-babes in Manhattan (annual membership: $2,000), your offspring are probably developing some serious entitlement issues. Just read the news. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the rise of sixth-grade "fashion bullies" who terrorize peers who don't wear Junior Dolce & Gabbana. Then there was the New York Times article on youngsters—4-year-olds!—who fancy themselves collectors of highly coveted works of art.
It's not just about money, though. Since the nineties, a surge in overprotective parenting has promoted discussion over discipline and made leisure activities contingent upon nanny CPR training (have you ever even considered letting your kid play with a pocket knife or a rusty Flexible Flyer, never mind have a paper route?).
In 1999, Katie Allison Granju wrote a book, Attachment Parenting, about the virtues of catering to the needs and emotions of the very young, from breast-feeding-on-demand to co-sleeping. While she still advocates that approach, she also believes that society tries to turn babies into children too fast and then treats older kids much like babies. Her forthcoming book is titled Let Them Run With Scissors: How Over-Parenting Hurts Children, Parents and Society. "We no longer allow children to have personal autonomy, to experience hard knocks, or to take real risks," she says. "The result is a nation of overweight, overindulged, overly neurotic kids who whine and moan and often can't function on their own."
It certainly doesn't help that we 21st- century thirty- and fortysomething parents expect our children to dress, speak, and appreciate Roxy Music just like us. "The Mini-Me phenomenon of kids wearing Sex Pistols T-shirts and sending back foie gras is cute but also gross and dangerous," says Ada Calhoun, the editor-in-chief of Babble, an online bible for hipster parents. "If you've turned your kid into a carbon copy of yourself, that kid loses his voice. He's only trying to please the grown-up, who only wants to live vicariously through the kid."
Greg Ramey is a child psychologist with nearly 30 years of experience counseling families and children at Dayton Children's in Dayton, Ohio. He says the biggest change he's seen is that parents no longer want to act like parents. "Over and over, I see parents who try to be their kids' best friends," he says. "That's a flashing red light. Our kids don't need to be our buddies. They can like us when they're 30. Mostly what kids want is for a parent to be in charge."
The consequences of parental boundary blurring are everywhere. As Vanity Fair recently noted, 2007 is the "year the mothers of Hollywood's wild girls—Paris, Lindsay, and Britney—have found themselves almost as much a part of the tabloid circus as the daughters themselves."
Fortunately, it's never too late to fix the problem. Sharon Pieters sees kids with terrible behavior make the turnaround week after week, and it has everything to do with parenting, she says. The former nanny runs Child Minded, a parent-coaching company that goes into homes to vanquish the Scylla and Charybdis of offspring hell: disrespect and boorishness. For $1,200 a day, Pieters will help parents tame their brats. Whether it's a problem with too much stuff ("I visited some kids in Long Island who had their own moon bounce," Pieters says) or incessant back talk ("Some children's vocabulary is limited to 'Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!'"), the solution is the same: "Set limits and stick to them." The hard part for most moms and dads is admitting there's a problem in the first place. Borba, the parenting writer, says, "The last thing parents today want after a day of work is to come home and be a cop. They think it's going to hurt the child's self-esteem to get a hard no. But you have to look at your kids and say, 'Are they turning out the way I want them to turn out?' If not, it's up to you to start to change things."
That takes care of the kids, but what about you? A possible solution comes from Asra Q. Nomani, who recently wrote an essay on Babble about being trapped in a cycle of out-of-control birthday parties, in which she kept trying to outdo the previous year's festivities. Turns out what her kid liked most wasn't the trip in the limo to the recording studio or even the playtime with a real tiger cub. It was the simpler, everyday stuff, the things that any kid's birthday party might include, like a birthday cake. Which makes you realize, the next time your inner douchebag tells you to book Criss Angel for your son's fifth birthday, you might want to take a deep breath and give yourself a hard no.
Do you think it's cute when 4-year-olds opine about Damien Hirst and demand heirloom tomatoes? Sound off below.