But it’s hard to find the time. We get caught up in the rat race, sprinting from one activity to the next. Our kids are too busy to volunteer at soup kitchens or read to the blind, let alone empty the dishwasher, take out the garbage, or rake the leaves. They’re exhausted from athletics, piano practice, Scout meetings, Kumon, and Russian Math—and so are we. Sometimes it’s just easier to do these tasks ourselves, to avoid the nagging, the idle threats, and the ensuing argument. Besides, we’re more likely to do it right the first time. While 82 percent of adults reported having regular chores when they were growing up, only 28 percent said they required their own children to do them, according to a 2014 survey by Braun Research.
Bring back the chores, proclaims Richard Bromfield, a Boston psychologist and author of How to Unspoil Your Child Fast. Simple tasks like making beds, washing dishes, and setting the table teach kids a basic work ethic and give them a sense of accomplishment. That’s what makes kids happy—“not constant flattery and reward,” Bromfield says. “Competency and real skills are what endow a child with robust self-esteem.” Chores, in other words, give them purpose and “a real connection to their world and their place in it.”
My husband remembers going door to door when he was my sons’ age, asking neighbors if he could wash their cars so that he could earn money to buy Star Wars action figures. It’s hard to imagine my boys doing the same thing. We give them everything they want—often with just a click of the mouse. “Every birthday and holiday I struggle,” admits one mom. “My kids seem to have every toy [and] plaything that they want.”
Stop giving. “Getting what they want, whenever they want it, can undermine children’s learning patience, gratitude, and all those old-fashioned values that help the adults they grow into manage a healthy, responsible, and contented life,” Bromfield says. Ironically, he says, “Affluent parenting can deprive a child of fundamental life skills.”
A dad tells me about his own awakening: His six- and eight-year-old boys had already opened dozens of Christmas gifts, but their big presents from their grandparents were sitting on the driveway. “I was super- excited, as were my parents,” he says, as he led the boys outside with their eyes closed. “After a dozen steps, they opened their eyes to find brand-new bikes. Their reactions were equivalent to having just found a dime under the couch cushion in the family room,” he recalls painfully. “I looked at my parents and almost died of embarrassment.”
He tells me he views his boys’ ambivalence as a reflection of the parenting mistakes he’d been making for years. “I don’t blame [my kids]. I blame my swing-and-a-miss parenting skills for their oblivious reaction.” His boys had no idea how much the bikes had cost. Why would they? Our kids have no concept of the value of money because they’ve never needed to.
Scrolling through Facebook recently, I came across a friend’s post asking the Tooth Fairy’s going rate. What troubled me was the obvious discomfort one mom felt when she discovered she was giving less: “Guess the tooth fairy is cheap in our house—$1 per tooth,” she wrote, qualifying her comment with “but they get a letter from her too.” Hey, there’s no shame in sticking to your values. Yet parents are more concerned with making sure their kid isn’t the one at the playground who got the least—and we’re not just talking about the Tooth Fairy here. Electronics, clothing, shoes, and sports gear are all fair game. “But Zach has his own iPad,” my kids whine when I tell them they can’t use mine—followed by a chorus of “It’s not fair!”
It seems that we’ve lost something of the solidarity our parents used to have with other moms and dads. There was definitely less pressure to keep up with the Joneses, my mother says of raising my sister and me in the suburbs of Washington, DC. In fact, Bromfield adds, it was not only “manageable, but also was often a force that supported parents maintaining the ‘status no.’ Many parents could comfortably deny their children because they knew, at that very moment, that other parents were doing the same thing right down the street.” It’s not the same now, he acknowledges. “Most parents are not saying no. Today’s children know, from firsthand experience, if they persist hard and long enough, their efforts will pay off: Their parents will eventually tire and surrender.”
There’s a teenager who roars down our street in a bright yellow Audi. I asked my neighbor, “Who buys their teenage son a brand-new sports car?” She gave it to me straight: “Dumb parents.” She has a point; but really, what drives people to make poor parenting decisions? I have a theory: They want their kids to like them. That has to be the reason parents these days allow their middle schoolers to stay up past midnight to watch The Tonight Show, or let their teenagers host unsupervised gatherings at their homes, or why they remain silent while their kids badmouth their teachers.
The trouble is that we’re sending mixed messages to our kids: Are we their moms and dads…or their BFFs? Weissbourd calls it a “big social experiment.” Clearly it’s important for us to be close to our children: 51 percent of us say we spend more time with our kids than our parents did with us, according to a fall 2014 NBC News parenting poll. We want our kids to feel comfortable telling us anything, without fear of judgment or reprisal. But as a result, we’ve lost some of our authority—and “the confidence that supports effective parenting,” Bromfield says.
Here’s the real problem with it, adds Weissbourd: “Kids appropriate their parents’ values [by] trying to be like them.” If we are too close to our children, he says, it can make it hard for our kids to idealize us, in part because we are too busy idealizing them. Maybe we’re trying to relive our glory years through our children, or to parent them the way we wish our parents had parented us, or to reconcile our guilt for working long hours or dragging them through a painful divorce; whatever the reason, we’re blurring the lines. Weissbourd isn’t suggesting we return to the more distant relationships of our grandparents’ generation, but he says we need to figure out a way to be more involved in our children’s lives while still promoting their moral growth. “In the end, you have to make decisions as a parent, not as a friend,” he adds.
The good news? Kids from homes where clear expectations and limits live in balance with nurturing and respect tend to be “livelier, happier, more emotionally self-regulated, resilient, socially adept, and flexible” than kids from either permissive or authoritarian homes, Bromfield asserts.
As I’m writing this article, I have a nagging feeling that I’m missing something. What is it we’re really concerned about? Is it the epic tantrums in the toy-store aisle? The gimme-more attitude? The laments of “it’s not fair”? Or is it something deeper that I can’t quite articulate…or, perhaps, feel uncomfortable saying out loud? And then my friend nails it. He tells the story of driving 20 hours to Walt Disney World as a kid in the 1970s, “jockeying [with my siblings] for a premium back-seat position…the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he recalls. “To this day, I joke about that trip with my siblings, and love that I have those memories.”
In spring 2014, he took his family of five to Disney. The flight was three hours. “I tell my children about driving to Florida,” he says, “and they don’t understand it. ‘Why didn’t you fly?’ ‘Wasn’t it a long drive?’” He wonders whether his attempt to give his kids a better upbringing than he had (an upbringing, he emphasizes, that he loved) is “stealing some cool story moments” from his boys. “JetBlue with an iPad is a shortcut with some benefits, but at the end of the day, the price of the ticket isn’t the only cost one must assume.” He admits, “It’s on me, not my children…. I just feel a bit sad at times.”
My friend recognizes that his story is likely to elicit more than a few “cry me a river” responses, but his honesty strikes a chord. Part of me does worry that I’m short-changing my kids of those character-building experiences that shaped our childhoods and made us who we are today. Their lives are so structured, shuttled from one supervised activity to another, with little time for free play or reflection. Like my friend, I feel nostalgic for a time when there wasn’t as much stuff, when there were a lot fewer choices, when building forts meant real ones in the woods, not virtual ones with 3-D blocks. Then again, there’s always been a tendency for people to view their childhood through rose-colored glasses. Our grandparents didn’t just walk 2 miles uphill to school barefoot in the snow—they boasted about it. I find myself leaning on the familiar trope “When I was your age…” far more often than I’d like. But remember, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies: Our fathers were less present, the divorce rates were escalating, many of us were highly unsupervised, and, in all likelihood, our mothers were not only barefoot but smoking and sipping Harvey Wallbangers while they were pregnant with us.
The truth is that we have good kids who mean well and are sure to make this world a much better place. It’s their moms and dads who could use a little fine-tuning. Otherwise, we risk being the parents of that child who walks into a 1,600-square-foot house for a play date, takes a look around, and asks, “So where’s the rest of your house?”