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Why you should be a mean parent

Our kids are among the most indulged young people in history. We may be setting them up for failure as adults if we fail to give them 4 essential life skills.

By Donna_Freedman Jan 8, 2013 12:17PM

Logo: Boy in bed (MM Productions/Jupiterimages)Are your kids prepared for life? Quite a few of our children aren't. Citing 8-year-olds who won't tie their own shoes and 20-somethings who stay up all night and sleep until noon, Elizabeth Kolbert suggests that we are raising "the most indulged young people in the history of the world."


(Well, except maybe for "the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France.")

"It's not just that they've been given unprecedented amounts of stuff -- clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods. They've also been granted unprecedented authority," Kolbert writes in The New Yorker.

Specifically: These days parents want their kids' approval, whereas children used to seek their parents' approbation. That means Mom and Dad don't want to lay down the law. Kolbert cited a video study of Los Angeles families that recorded:

"No child routinely performed household chores without being instructed to. Often, the kids had to be begged to attempt the simplest tasks; often, they still refused. In one fairly typical encounter, a father asked his eight-year-old son five times to please go take a bath or a shower. After the fifth plea went unheeded, the father picked the boy up and carried him into the bathroom. A few minutes later, the kid, still unwashed, wandered into another room to play a video game.

"In another representative encounter, an eight-year-old girl sat down at the dining table. Finding that no silverware had been laid out for her, she demanded, 'How am I supposed to eat?' Although the girl clearly knew where the silverware was kept, her father got up to get it for her."
Here's a question: Will Daddy Dearest be around 20 years from now, still rushing to make things right for his pampered princess?

And another question: What are we doing to our children?

Giving them everything, and giving in to them on everything, is a horrible idea  -- and not just because it's producing a bumper crop of spoiled brats. We need to look at the bigger picture: A kid who can't do the simplest things for himself is a kid who's being set up to fail.

How will our children fare once they're out of the house? That is, if they ever bother to leave. Why should they? There’s food in the fridge, high-speed Internet and probably someone to pick up after them.

A few essential life skills

A successful parent is one who will ultimately become superfluous. Note: I am not saying that we shouldn't matter to our kids. I'm saying is that from the time they're toddlers they should be helping out around the home, i.e., to learn take care of themselves.
Offhand I can think of four essential life skills for kids, all of which will save them money:

1. Laundry.
During my first year of college I found a young woman crying in the laundry room -- actually sobbing out loud -- because she didn't know how to do a load of wash. If your kids leave the nest without knowing how to launder their own clothes, you have failed as a parent. Don't let them become those people who pay other people to wash their clothes, especially if their budgets are already precarious.

2. Basic cooking.
Not everyone likes to do this. But eating most or all of your meals out is a budget torpedo. More than one-fourth of the men and women surveyed by the Bosch appliances said they don't cook because they don't know how. Do your own children a favor and teach them a few basic techniques.

3. Cleaning.
Having a tidy place to come home to is good for your mental health as well as your social life. After a tough day at work, few would choose to walk into a pigsty that smells of pizza boxes and dirty socks. It isn't much fun for friends you invite over, either. Wellness is also an issue: Clutter can become what my old boss called "a tripping hazard," and mold and mildew may trigger allergies. As little as 20 minutes of cleaning three times a week can make a huge difference. Or your kid could pay $30 to $50 an hour for a cleaning service.

The cost of not knowing

4. Money management.
Not knowing the other three skills cost money. Not knowing how to handle money can cost your young person years and years of his life. Young adults who graduate with student loans and/or consumer debt need to get a handle on their finances, but they don't know what they don't know. Parents: Talk to your kids about basics such as living below your means, or planning for short-term emergencies while setting long-range goals.

Do more than talk, though. Model responsible financial behavior. Don't joke about maxing out your credit cards. Pay your bills on time, while your kid is watching. Explain all the things your salary covers (mortgage, insurance, car repairs) versus the ones your child can see.

It's unlikely that an 8-year-old would choose a college fund over a theme-park vacation, and it's darned unlikely he'll understand why you're saving for retirement. Tell him anyway.

Oh, and don't worry so much about being seen as mean, or unfair. Your job is to prepare your child for independence, not to jump every time he makes a demand.

We're not doing our kids any favors by carrying them around on chips. Let their feet touch the ground. Often. Preferably in shoes they've tied themselves.

More on MSN Money:

Jan 8, 2013 7:09PM

My kids, ages 9 and 12, don't have a 'set' list of chores they must do. However, they know when I tell them to do something, they had better get to it. I've had them do dishes, sweep the porch, vacum, clean bathrooms (with non-toxic cleaners and wearing gloves), and help with laundry. Recently I have had some back trouble that required them to pitch in around the house. Any failure to do these things when asked, or bad attitudes, results in removal of electronic privileges. So far that hasn't been much of a problem.

Jan 8, 2013 7:09PM

My father stood in a breadline during the Great Depression. Hen was TOUGH on me about being self-sufficient. I hated him for being so hard, but it helped me survive this world.

He was right - depend on NOBODY because nobody cares - be self reliant and save money when you have it

Jan 8, 2013 7:01PM
I am so glad to see this article.  I am all for giving praise where it is due, but I see so many parents and others celebrating mediocrity so often, it at times disgusts me.  If everybody wins, gets rewarded, etc. all of the time, what is the point in working hard to win?  This is what our children see so often.  Our friends tell my husband and me very often how hard we are on our children and that they should have this or that gadget.  They say that we are "old school".  It becomes hard at times to be a parent, but it is our job.  The most important job I will ever have.  It is my responsibility to raise productive thinkers and members of society.  So if me saying to my 10 year old, "No, you may not have an ipod, but you can do extra chores and earn your own money to save and buy one for yourself." is frowned upon by people I know, so be it.  My child will be the one who can manage her money and set a budget.  It is not my job to be a friend to my children yet in life- I am their most important roll model and teacher.  I can be their friend later, after they are grown and on their own.  And anyway now, we all know that children won't fail, because "no child left behind", right?
Jan 8, 2013 6:34PM
I admit it, I was tuff on my two sons. However, both of them got educations. Both worked while they were they were in school. Both left our home after school and got their own place. They met ladies got married and had children. They call me every few days to see how I am doing and I'm invited to their homes and to do things with them. They have never been in any kind of trouble. Parents wake up! Your children need a mother and a father, not a friend. You can be a friend after they move out and have their own children. 
Jan 8, 2013 5:08PM
Well if the parent of the 8 year old girl had just told her to get them or don't eat she would have figured it out pretty quick. The boy would have never seen the game system again unless he went to the land fill, doubt not showering would have ever happened again.
Jan 8, 2013 2:15PM
I have a two year old daughter who is an only child. I was wondering what sort of things i should start having her do, as to assure she does not turn out like most young people in my generation. Basically, how do i break the cycle. 
Jan 8, 2013 1:52PM
Note to the grandkids: Grandma and I are living off Social Security and what money we could save over the years and your parents are for the most part jobless and broke. Better get your sh*t together now that you are almost grown or you'll be living in refrigerator carton.
Jan 8, 2013 1:20PM

My son is a graduate student living on a small stipend which pays his basic necessities and not much more. He's able to cook some basic meals & clean his home shared with roommates. He's able to manage his money - he recieves a paycheck 11 months out of 12. We assist him with some things but not many. He pays his rent, utilities, car and renter's insurance and most medical costs.

When he was younger, he had a checklist of items he was responsible for. His checklist had to be completely checked off for him to receive his allowance. This started at age 7. We always made him keep half of his allowance, and put the other half into his savings account. This money came in handy when he went to college and helped pay some of his living expenses for his first semester at college.


I think we did a good job with him. In our household we've always fended for ourselves but recently, due to health issues, we've had to hire out cleaning and yard work. Since we are a frugal household, we're able to afford it.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.