Bad Parents

We give our kids everything and ask for nothing in return. Is it a shock that they’re clueless and entitled?

IT IS, I HAVE TO ADMIT, A PRETTY COOL TRICK. On a Thursday morning in midsummer, I’m sitting in the beautifully appointed St. Davids offices of ES: Educational Services. I’m face-to-face with ES founder and president Avery Snyder, a man who holds one of the most exalted positions in all of affluent parenting culture these days: the high-priced SAT tutor. The trick that Avery, an energetic and remarkably youthful-looking man of 60, is showing me: how to get the correct answer on an SAT ­question — without actually reading the question.

He pulls out a sheet of paper and uses it to cover up the question, then focuses my attention on the multiple-choice answers below it. He explains why if you understand anything about how the SAT really works, you can quickly figure out that the answer here must be D. He flips to the answer key for the test:

Yup, the answer is D.

You are no doubt wondering what Avery knows that allows him to do this, and I would be happy to tell you, except that in the SAT tutoring business this more or less amounts to a trade secret, and Avery has asked me to keep it off the record. However, for the low, low price of $4,990, Avery or a member of the ES team will gladly show the college-bound teen of your choice this and lots of other strategies that will not really make your kid any smarter or better educated, but will nonetheless help him or her give the SAT the ass-­whipping it deserves. In fact, Avery is so confident that he offers a guarantee: Your score will go up 300 points or you get four free classes.

Now, on the one hand, it’s easy to see why any parent who can afford it might be willing to pay for ES’s services. Three hundred SAT points can spell the difference between Ivy and non-Ivy, between a prestigious education and a merely stellar one, between — at least the thinking goes — a Truly Extraordinary Life and an Only Remarkable One.

And yet … somehow you can’t help wondering: Doesn’t dropping five large on test tricks violate the spirit, not only of the SAT, but of parenting itself?

Not that that’s stopping many people, since business is booming at ES’s offices around the Philly suburbs. Avery tells me about the mother of a Baldwin School student who rang him up. “She said the girl has to have a 2,400 — she wants only to go to Harvard,” says Avery, who, while benefitting from this mania, clearly finds it disconcerting. “I said, well, there are a lot of great colleges out there. The mother said no, it has to be Harvard.” ES boosted the girl’s score by 200 points — nearly perfect — but the mother wasn’t satisfied and has sent her back for even more instruction.

The high-priced SAT tutor is just one of the things a well-­meaning parent will provide for his or her offspring these days. In fact, through the years there may be an army of people and services to help your child reach full potential: a tai chi or yoga instructor to strengthen the mind-body connection; a therapist to help sort through any emotional issues; a shrink to prescribe meds. And this doesn’t even touch the stuff that, well, isn’t really important but that you throw in just for fun: a trip abroad to expand his cultural horizons; the occasional spa weekend to help her relax; frequent manicures and pedicures.

Absurd? Maybe. But as one Main Line father joked to me recently, “All we want is for everything to be perfect.”

At least, I think he was joking.

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN PARENTING was a simple job. Not easy, but fairly straightforward: You had kids, you provided them with food, clothes, shelter, an education, and a decent sense of right and wrong, then you pushed them out into the world, hoping that at the very least they wouldn’t be a burden on society. If they turned out better than that — became someone important or influential, like, I don’t know, Nina Totenberg or Charlie Sheen — you might allow yourself a moment of parental pride before going back to watching Jeopardy! and drinking your nightly manhattan. Glad to hear you’re doing well, honey. But I got a life here.

Today, in contrast, parenting in many parts of Philadelphia has become not only vastly more complicated, but seemingly more important than ever before. Listen closely and you’ll hear people utter earnest things like, “It’s the most important job I’ll ever have,” or, “Yes, I may be a world-class surgeon, but my real life’s work is raising little Heather.” Well, I guess. But let’s not botch my appendectomy, okay, Doc?

Unfortunately, evidence is steadily mounting that The Way We Parent Now — roughly defined as giving your child as much opportunity and attention as possible, while requiring little from him or her in return — is turning out to be something of a disaster, at least in terms of producing, you know, well-adjusted, contributing human beings. For starters, a good chunk of kids in suburban Philly today seems to be wilting under pressure from parents to achieve. In the past year, two of the region’s best, most monied public high schools, Radnor and Cherry Hill East, suffered through major cheating scandals. Meanwhile, the need to succeed has other kids so stressed that they’re literally getting sick. “I’m finding a lot of kids from elite schools who feel an enormous amount of pressure to succeed, and whose parents are really frightened that their kids aren’t going to succeed if they don’t get into a certain college,” says Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician at CHOP and author of three books on parenting. Among the health problems Ginsburg has been seeing: stomach aches, headaches, eating disorders, self-mutilation.

No less important, though, is that a generation of kids who’ve been overindulged, overprotected and generally over-parented seems to be overwhelmingly underprepared to live in the real world. “They’ve been exposed to so much more, and on one level, they’re so much more sophisticated than we were,” says Janet Walkow, a business consultant in Wayne and the mother of three college-age girls. “But they’re less sophisticated when it comes to street smarts. They’re not as mature.”

Not that you can tell them. A study released earlier this year found that the current generation of college students is the most narcissistic ever. In the study, psychologists asked students to respond to statements like, “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,” “I think I am a special person” and “I can live my life any way I want to.” Two-thirds of the kids showed elevated levels of ­narcissism — 30 percent more than when the study was first done in 1982.

How did this happen? How is it that a group of moms and dads who love their kids so much, and who were so intent on being great at raising them, has turned out to be, arguably, the worst parents ever? The short answer might be expressed like this: We’ve been too uptight about things — achievement, success, appearances — we should have been relaxed about, and too relaxed about things — values, integrity — that we should have been more uptight about.

To put it another way: We have cared way too much about whether our kids were getting the right answer, and not nearly enough about whether they actually know anything.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1975, when I was 11 years old, I played baseball practically every day. It was in an organized league — though not a “travel team,” nor even a league that had been organized by adults. It was put together by my friends and me. Every day that summer began the same way: with a phone call from me to a friend or a friend to me, asking, “Wanna play baseball?” From there we started our little phone tree, and eventually we’d all end up on the dirt-covered field behind our grade school. It remains the most enjoyable athletic experience of my life (maybe owing to the fact that I was in a season-long battle for the RBI title). Of course, what strikes me as most remarkable was how little my parents had to do with it. The only time I remember either of them getting involved was the day my mother casually suggested that rather than making 67 phone calls, we simply agree to meet every morning at a particular time. It was a great idea that I completely ignored, but to my mother’s unending credit, she never mentioned it again. Perhaps because she had a life.

Today, that sort of freedom is largely gone from American childhoods — in part because it’s impractical in a two-working-parent world, in part because it violates the current ethos of raising children. What changed? The biggest factor is that parents are more educated and sophisticated than ever before. This means they not only think more about parenting, but also — aware of how tough it will be for their own kids to match, let alone surpass, them in terms of money and success — feel much more anxious about it. The result: An entire generation has decided that childhood is too important to be left to children.

“We’re professional at everything,” says Ken Ginsburg, a brown-haired 45-year-old whom I meet one afternoon in his office at CHOP. “You’re a professional editor, I’m a professional doctor. And we want to bring that professionalism to parenting.”

This instinct shows itself in a variety of ways, starting with the enrichment culture that has come to define ­middle-class childhood in the past couple of decades, a culture whose driving credo can be described as either a) I want everything in my kid’s life to be educational and good for his development, or b) it’s never too early to get an edge on all those other little bastards out there gunning for Harvard. Hence the spike in all the things we now associate with a professional-class childhood: lessons, tutors, fights to get into the “best” preschools, culturally enriching trips. In a way, it makes me think of Michael Kinsley’s wonderful line two decades ago about Al Gore: He called him “an old person’s idea of a young person.” What we’ve given our kids is a middle-aged yuppie’s idea of a childhood. Why play with frogs, son, when there’s a French cooking class you can take?

But treating youth like some sort of executive training program for short people is only one hallmark of professional parenting. We also see it in our increasing ­safety-consciousness — ­anything that can give you a bump or bruise must be stopped — and even more so in our increasing involvement in our kids’ lives: ­prearranged playdates, hyper-organized youth sports run by hyper-organized parents, obsessive second-guessing and stage-parenting when it comes to school. As one observer puts it diplomatically: “Parents are overly enmeshed with kids. You wonder sometimes if it’s really the child’s accomplishments or the ­parents’.”

The problem is that this over-­scheduled, over-nurturing, overbearing style of parenting robs kids of something crucial: the opportunity to be alone with other kids, the chance to figure the world out on their own.

It says an enormous amount about how much child-­rearing has changed in only a generation that last year the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report — written by Ken ­Ginsburg — about what it categorized as one of the biggest current threats to children’s health, a linear descendent of TB, child labor, polio, and all the hazards faced by our forefathers: Today’s kids don’t, um, play enough. The paper notes that play is essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children. “It’s the way kids master their environment,” says Ginsburg. “It’s the way they overcome difficulty, figure things out, work out new solutions. Unfortunately, we’ve taken that away, because we’ve redefined parenting.”

I must say that the report really resonated with me, at least in part because of my Summer of ’75 baseball experience. Now, I’m not going to claim that my friends and I had a Lord of the Flies thing going on, but in a lot of ways our little baseball league was a world unto itself, one filled with problems that we needed to find solutions to: what to do when you didn’t have enough kids to cover all the positions (solution: hitting the ball to right field is an automatic out!); how to handle it when there’s an argument about whether someone was safe (solution: you guys got the benefit of the doubt last time, we get it this time); what to do when somebody hits the ball in the tall weeds at the back of the field and we can’t find it and it’s the only ball we have and jeez, it’s really getting hot out here (solution: screw this, let’s go drink Dr. Pepper at the little store down the street!). Again, it wasn’t solving nuclear fission, but you saw the beginnings of leadership and conflict resolution and a lot of other things that tend to help you get by in the real world.

And by the way, now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I won the RBI title.

WHAT’S FASCINATING IS THAT WHILE many of us over-parent when it comes to promoting achievement, we under-parent when it comes to things parents prior to us were fanatical about for centuries: manners, courtesy, respect, responsibility. It’s not that we’re pro-brat, but that we’re so uncomfortable being figures of authority that we can’t demand those things of our kids. To go back to Al Gore, it’s like we want to be a young person’s ideal of an older person: the cool parent, the one who doesn’t mind if you blow milk out your nose at the dinner table.

You see this not only in parents refusing to tell their kids “no” (as I write this, I’m sitting in a Center City Starbucks where an acquaintance’s three-year-old is playing “Let’s See How Loud I Can Be In a Public Place”), but generally in the way we talk to our children. Where our parents told us that yanking the cat’s tail was wrong, we opt for the less judgmental “That’s not a good choice, sweetie.” Where our parents were content with “Because I said so,” we feel compelled to explain our reasoning, lest we seem dictatorial. The popular book What to Expect the First Year (seven million copies in print) even advises that when speaking to your offspring, it’s best to refer to yourself in the third person — their small brains are confused by “I” and “me” — and that if possible, you should crouch down so you’re both on the same level.

Uh, pardon me, but isn’t this the exact opposite of what a parent’s role ought to be? Isn’t our job not to stoop to our children’s level, but to gradually raise them to ours? To show them what an adult looks like? Listen to me, kid, and one day you’ll be tall and able to use personal pronouns just like I do.

I’m exaggerating, but it somehow strikes me as the perfect image of modern parenthood: a generation of grown-ups bending over to accommodate our children’s every want, while simultaneously requiring nothing from them in return. On one level, we may have decided that childhood is too important to be left to children, but on another, more important level, the kids are very much in charge.

Last fall, my colleague Amy Donohue Korman wrote a piece, “The Death of the Chore,” that chronicled how so few of today’s kids are expected to help around the house. It was a wonderful essay, and it was only one example of our instinct to indulge kids, to make them see us not as “The Man” but “da man!” Five-­figure Sweet 16 parties and six-figure bar mitzvahs, kids with platinum cards and more borrowing power than many major American cities, frequent massages (the kind of pampering once reserved for women in Beverly Hills), boob jobs for graduation, Senior Weeks spent not in Wildwood but in the ­Caribbean or Europe … And don’t even think about ­chiding someone else’s child for being rude or irresponsible; today’s parents always side with their offspring.

The result of all this is a group of kids with a depressingly skewed sense of values and a shocking sense of entitlement. I heard a story the other day that reminded me how much times have changed. My friend Platt — yeah, the guy who edits this ­magazine — told me that when he was a student at Lower Merion High School in the early ’80s, he was suspended for [EDITOR’S NOTE: REDACTED]. His father was called in to see the principal, who told him that Platt’s punishment was three days of in-school detention. “That’s it?” Mr. Platt scoffed. “Why don’t you make him clean the cafeteria in front of the whole school?”

Contrast that with last March’s highly publicized Haddonfield party case. You may be familiar with the details: A group of high-school kids at a party ransacked a house, urinating on the furniture, ejaculating on some stuffed animals, and, my personal favorite, defecating in the family’s grand piano — a move that, I must say, is so creative and over-the-top in its depravity that the defecator is clearly headed either for prison or the corner office at Exxon­Mobil. Anyway, as vile as the kids’ behavior was, what was truly shocking was their parents’ response. Ground the kids for life? Doesn’t look that way. Instead, they lawyered up, and thus far, most of the juvenile offenders have gotten off with slaps on the wrist — probation and paying about $75 each to cover the damages. (The insurance company picked up the rest of the $18,000 in reparation.)

Perhaps it was anxiety that drove the parents’ behavior, a fear that any blemish on their children’s résumés would destroy their chances at getting into an elite college. Then again, maybe it was just another example of a generation’s valueless, enabling parenting style: Daddy’s not sure taking a dump in the piano was a good choice, champ. Fortunately, Daddy’s attorney thinks we can bury these judgmental cretins in so much paper their eyes will bleed. Now give Daddy a hug.

IF THERE IS A MOMENT when all the bad aspects of The Way We Parent Now reach their rococo stage, it’s in the college application and selection process. On a recent Friday morning, I am having coffee in Wayne with Janet Walkow, the consultant and mother of three I referenced earlier. When she was choosing a college back in the ’70s, the world was a simpler place, and she handled the whole thing on her own. “The first time I saw Vanderbilt was on my first day of school freshman year,” she says.

Today, in upscale communities like Wayne, that approach would probably get you brought up on charges of child neglect, which is why Janet and her husband took a much more active role in helping their three daughters — two of whom went to public school at Conestoga, one to private school at Agnes Irwin — with the college process. Still, Janet sounds a little rueful about how much has changed. “Before, people’s worth wasn’t wrapped up in where you went to college,” she says. “I never worried about my résumé. I didn’t wake up worried about how I was going to account for every minute of the day.”

I was introduced to Janet by Luisa Rabe, who runs an education consulting business in Haverford. Her job: to guide kids down the now-treacherous path of choosing and getting into the right college for them, one that’s “the best fit.” Luisa likes to meet with kids as early as possible and help them identify what they’re interested in. This, in turn, helps them shape their high-school career, from the kinds of classes they take to the extracurricular activities they’re involved in. It’s a service for which she’s well paid — $6,000 per child — and for which she’s in high demand. “Parents see me as a good investment,” she says. She now starts seeing kids as early as eighth grade, to help them plot their strategy.

I like Luisa Rabe. She’s intelligent and down-to-earth, and she struck me as very much having the kids’ best interests at heart. Still, I can’t help but wonder if her job isn’t utterly absurd, a sign of a culture that has got a lot of things turned upside down. For starters, who knows at 14 or 15 what they’re really interested in? Isn’t adolescence the time in your life when you should feel free to explore a lot of different possibilities, without a lot of risk and without having to worry how it will look to someone on the outside? What’s more, it strikes me that there’s something off in the idea of a school that’s the right fit, as if choosing a college is like trying on a pair of shoes. Certainly, some kids — some people — do better in certain kinds of situations, but I wonder if it all doesn’t underscore a message that kids have gotten since they were young: You’re great just the way you are; if something doesn’t fit, it’s not your fault; you just need to find someplace that will accommodate and appreciate the full wonderfulness of you, you, you. People: Isn’t it possible the kid might need to do some adjusting? What a shock that this is the most narcissistic generation ever.

Mostly, though, I guess I wonder this: If a child is mature enough and competent enough to go to college, shouldn’t he or she be able to manage the process of applying on his or her own, with perhaps a small assist here and there from Mom and Dad? Apparently, though, I’m smoking crack.

“Parents act as if it’s their process now,” Janet Walkow tells me. And sometimes, that’s what it is. A friend recently confessed that last year, after bugging her applying-to-college daughter to send an e-mail to the admissions officer at a particular school, she finally hacked into her e-mail account and did it for her. The admissions officer e-mailed back, and they ended up in a lovely little online exchange, college rep and “student.”

What was driving my friend, what I suspect drives most of the parents caught up in this, is fear — a gut-wrenching anxiety that strikes on so many different levels. It’s evolutionary: If your son doesn’t get into a good school, his career prospects will be dim, and he won’t be able to feed himself and his offspring, and your genetic line will die off. It’s cultural: Without the right diploma, your daughter will never be able to do better than you, as every generation of Americans has done better than the one before it. It’s a status thing, an achieving yuppie’s worst nightmare: You were given a task to complete — raise a thriving, “successful” child — and you failed. You, friend, are not a professional.

It’s a fear that trickles down easily to kids. “The students feel they have to not only satisfy their parents, they also have to satisfy their teachers, they have to satisfy their peers, sometimes even their peers’ parents,” says Jim Nolan, another college consultant on the Main Line. “So there’s tremendous pressure, and I think it’s really gotten all out of perspective.”

To be fair, in one way, this generation’s fears are justified. Thanks to the sheer number of kids now coming of age and the growing number of educated, affluent families aiming for the tippy-top, it is harder than ever to get into an elite college. But in another way, they’re delusional: Study after study has shown that what really makes a difference in whether people thrive in life has less to do with where they went to school than with what internal traits they possess.

That’s a message that some parents, alas, never grasp — even when their kid is so stressed out that he ends up with headaches or stomach pains or much worse.

“There are parents who perhaps themselves went to very prestigious colleges and who struggle with the notion that their child lives in a very different world and may not have access to those schools,” says Nolan. “In many of those situations, the student will say to me, ‘I know I’m not going to get in.’ Obviously, they know they’re going to end up disappointing their parents. That’s a heavy burden.”

The great irony is that many of those kids have been so over-parented that it’s the first time they have to deal with real adversity, so they’re literally at a loss how to handle it. It must seem to them like the ultimate bait and switch: You asked nothing of me … until you asked everything.

Then again, maybe the ones we should really worry about are those kids who manage to jump through all the achievement hoops, the ones who are so focused that they actually grasp what we’ve told them they should be reaching for.

“You show me a kid gunning for Brown, and I’ll show you a kid ­gunning — first, last and always — for himself,” says Caitlin Flanagan, author of To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife and one of our keenest observers of contemporary domestic life. “Which means 20 years down the line, he’s going to have a pretty good chance of feeling hollow.”

KEN GINSBURG SAYS he has seen signs of hope. The AAP statement about the importance of play received an enormous amount of attention from the media and the public. “It touched a nerve,” he says. “It was about the feeling parents have that we’re going in the wrong direction.” He’s seen signs of recognition in his private practice as well, even if parents aren’t quite sure what to do about it. “The most common reaction I get is, ‘I get it. I’m stressed, but I don’t know how to help my kid succeed. I just don’t know how to get off this treadmill, because all the neighbors are doing this.’”

The solution, Ginsburg believes, lies in redefining success. What matters more than anything else is that we listen to and support our kids, while holding them to high expectations — not on their résumés, but in traits the world has long recognized as worthwhile: generosity, compassion, kindness, creativity, responsibility.

Previous generations had a word for this — “character” — and they seemed to know innately, or perhaps because they’d suffered through a depression and a world war, that it was a lot more valuable than a degree from an elite university or even a sweet signing bonus when you’re coming out of law school.

All of this, perhaps not surprisingly, has made me think a lot about myself as a parent — one episode in particular. Three years ago, when my daughter Hannah was five, she made friends with two other girls in our neighborhood, and the three of them spent a summer running back and forth between each others’ houses. My wife and I were thrilled, because it looked very much like the breezy, ­playdate-free childhoods we’d both had.

Until it went bad. One day the local police called. Hannah and her friend, who’d told my wife they were headed to the third girl’s house, had instead walked a mile to the local Dairy Queen — without shoes, and with about 35 cents between them. We lectured Hannah and grounded her, but for a long time it felt like a low point in our lives as parents. Recently, though, I’ve started to wonder whether it’s not exactly how parenting is supposed to work. Because these days, whenever the incident comes up, Hannah sticks her fingers in her ears and begs us not to talk about it. She knows she screwed up big-time.

I won’t kid myself that we have everything licked; there are dozens more moments like that ahead of us. But I’m determined to stay focused on what I’m supposed to be focused on. In fact, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pour myself a manhattan. I got a life here.