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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.

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Jan 9, 2013 1:17PM

Are you kidding me? This is some revelation? They present this as if a light bulb suddenly went off.LOL. That damn bulb should have been burning since the 80's like a strobe light of dire warning!!

But Oh no!...the warm and fuzzy "don't insult little Johnny's intelligence and sensitivity" crowd just had to have their way and allow the brats to do as they damn well pleased so they'd not have to waste their precious selfish time actually raising the damn kids they birthed and now they are crying? Please! People are getting exactly what they deserve and a sudden reversal in attitude isn't going to help one bit! Since this is a product of 3 decades of bad descision making on the part of parents and the institutions in this country that actually approved legislations that would take all form of power and discipline out of the hands of parents,teachers and guardians and placed that power directly into the hands of the friggin kids! As if a child can raise itself and is capable of making it's own rational choices in life and do as it damn well pleases.

Who with a grain of comon sense didn't see all this coming about five miles off? I guess a whole hell of a lot of people...considering the tone of this inane piece of "oh what have we done?" writing.

Jan 9, 2013 12:51PM
I grew up with a working single parent and out of necessity had to help with everything around the house, although I wasn't great with cleaning my own room. I grew to enjoy a sense of being independant and yet my parent was very generous and loving would reason with me on why it was important to do the right thing. I was taught much about character by their example of hard work and and frugality, yet I never really wanted and had a private education and went on trips. I am self-sufficient and have a family myself. I married a person who comes from a family of much sharing, making sure that no one goes without, and everyone works hard. It's a cultural thing. I believe everything in balance, and remember to love, not spoil.
Jan 9, 2013 12:50PM
This article could not be more correct but it misses some of the additional causes.  How about the high divorce rates and the courts pandering to the less responsible parent?  I divorced more than 10 years ago (my wife ran off with the guy she was having an affair with) and, of course, the liberal judge sent my two young children with her.  Twelve years later she still doesn't work (lives off the state and CS), has set no rules or responsibilities for the kids, and now, at the edge of graduation neither can take care of themselves and neither has any interest in learning how to.  Over the years the courts have said my expectations that they learn in school, perform chores at home, learn basic hygiene, limit the video games, and at least occasionally go outside, are way to unrealistic because the kids don't like it.  I always questioned when they became the decision makes and got to make their own rules but the courts overruled me again and again.  We are facing an entire generation that will never be self sufficient and the blame falls as much on the liberal politicians, judges, teachers, as it does on the parents.
Jan 9, 2013 12:38PM
jan 2013 Awake 

" Raising considerate children in a Me first World" talks about this in even more detail. Great read...
Jan 9, 2013 12:35PM
Couldn't agree more! The youth of today are lazy, disrespectful little snots. Luckily I was raised with respect and to have values so I can carry on my parents teaching to my children.  My 4 year old son keeps his room clean, makes his bed, and says please and thank you. His 2 year old little sister says please and thank you as well.  Not so much on keeping the room clean though:-)
Jan 9, 2013 12:31PM

OMG - I see this issue everyday in higher education.  No common sense, lazy and feeling entitled it the attitude with many of today's youth.  Not all, but many!  Parents need to wake up and give of their time instead of the wallets.  Be a parent with guidance and structure not just be the BBF.  Kids need and often want structure.  Face it, the job of a good parent isn't always the easiest. 



Jan 9, 2013 12:16PM

Our oldest daughter graduated from college with high honors, travelled, married, bought a house, and works at a university.  Our younger daughter was salutatorian and is in pre-med, smart as a whip.  Our son plays sports, straight A's, great kid.  The girls worked in high school and our son will also.  They went to church and played instruments.  I am not their friend.  It is my job to get them to age 18 with morals and values.  They always had consequences.  The cellphones, xboxes, and cars would be gone in a heartbeat.   They know that misbehaving isn't an option.  The modern parenting is bologna.  Never tell them no, always be positive.   My neighbors son is in jail.  He got to run wild.  When my son told me that his friends don't have to be home at a certain time, i laughed.  That won't fly in our house.   The toughness works.  Stop being their friend.  Kids need those rules and boundaries.  It pays off down the road. 

Jan 9, 2013 12:02PM
This article is spot on except for the title "Why You Should Be A Mean Parent". It's not mean to expect something from your children, it's not mean to prepare them for life and it's certainly not mean to be tough but fair. Maybe a better title would be "How To Be A Real Parent".
Jan 9, 2013 12:00PM
My mother walked me over to the washer and dryer at 8 years old and made the necessary introduction!  
Jan 9, 2013 11:43AM

I concur that so much has changed in parenting. As an immigrant, single parent I had to raise my only child to be productive, creative and think quickly. I can remember friends remarking that I was forcing her to grow up too fast- as she learned to read and write by 4, prepared her for school by introducing her to vocabulary beyond her age, as well as algebra, swimming, music,... At home- she learned to fry an egg, start cooking basic meal, taught her to drive then sent her for driver's education where she received her permit at 16. Simultaneously, I was trying to fulfill my role working 3-4 jobs, going to college taking 12 -18 credits per semester and trying to achieve a BA and an MS.Ed -which thank God I did by the time she turned 12. These tough experiences catapulted her into a prestigious, private girl school, earned her a full scholarship to two renowned colleges where she completed a B.Sc in Anthropology and Biology as well as an MPH in Epidemiology by the age of 23. Today, this strong, independent, 25 year old young lady travels locally/ globally, resides in another city where she works as a HealthCare Policy Analyst. Thank God she is no problem to me but a great asset to this country in which she was born! 

Jan 9, 2013 10:42AM
We tell our children that they are special.  They are as long as they stay in our house.  Once they leave they are just like everyone else.  We tell them they control their future.  Most of us understand that there are many things that an individual cannot control.  We just know they will be happier if they try their best.  It has gotten sad in that many are being set up to fail and have no idea how to cope with it. 
Jan 9, 2013 10:14AM
Jan 9, 2013 10:13AM
This is a good start. Many of our problems in society today began in the home whhen the kids were young. Kids need rules and dicipline and consequences. Parents, grow up and take that reponsibility to the kids. Schools don't need to be babysitters either. It starts in the home. Want a better society, it starts in the home. Your kids wiill love you for it later on,
Jan 9, 2013 9:51AM
Jan 9, 2013 9:35AM
My 11-year-old son has been cleaning up after his dogs and himself since he was 7.  I've yet to teach him how to use the washer/dryer but he just turned 11 so I think it might be time.  He started being able to cook his own breakfast and things in the microwave at 9, and believe it or not, he's very wise with his allowance.  Near vacation time, he starts saving it so he can spend it on whatever he wants while on vacation instead of asking us (his parents) to get it for him.  I also believe a lot of parents today are NOT teaching their children proper etiquette, manners, and respect for others.  I'm 33-years-old and had my son at age 22, he was taught to say please, thank you, you're welcome and must address an adult old enough to be his parent or older by Mr./Ms., Sir/Ma'am.  I feel it is unacceptable for a child to be handed something and they NOT say thank you for it or want for something by demand and not say please.  If my son is so much handed a drink, he always says "thank you!" and when asking for something, always says please.  In my book, he will not receive anything demanded and will be reprimanded for not saying "thank you."
Jan 9, 2013 9:30AM
Jan 9, 2013 1:37AM
Why won't people listen to this ???  These kids are rude and disrespectful because of getting away with it .   Even elementary school kids !   People keep bending the rules, keep making things easier for kids - there are no consequences to learn common sense.   Watching these kids struggle through school and life is scary,  pathetic, and "inappropriate"!!

Jan 9, 2013 1:28AM
99% of parents today overindulge their already spoiled and over-privileged children. The do it because of they way it makes THEM feel, not for the children. The cycle of stupidity continues. Welfare  money and bridge cards are used to load carts full of toys. Rent, utilities, insurance, and car payments don't get made, but you have 2 carts at Wal-mart full of every toy they carry. The parents take whatever money they get and spend it on themselves first---that is what they teach their children to do generation after generation--and pay bills only if money is left over. I know parents who cannot afford tires for their vehicle; the tires are bald, with the treading coming out, so the vehicle is parked because they don't want to drive the kids in it. they have friends and neighbors take the children to and from school. But guess what: all 4 of their kids, ages 5-9, all have iPads, and 3 of them have iPod touches. Their only son (age 5) has his own X-Box 360, while the girls share a a Wii. They also made plans to visit a large water park over Christmas vacation for a 3-day stay. Do the kids know  how to behave? Absolutely not. Whose fault is it? The parents' fault.
Jan 9, 2013 12:41AM
Parents today have no control over there children, children are controling parents, they get what they want! parents today are not home and too busy playing! I am glad I was tuff on my children and proud of it! feel so sorry for the generations that are growing up... crazy country and we allow this garbage that is about to ruin the children of today!
Jan 9, 2013 12:20AM
i know friends that do stuff for their kids...and they're grown, some are still teens.They over indulge them with most things but would NEVER admit they do.  the parents believe they are "helping" their kids, but they really are setting them right up to fail
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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.