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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 18, 2013 3:40PM

1.  From the age of 14 on, have your child balance your bank statement.  This will teach them where money comes from.


2.  If you have a teenager and you do ANY laundry or dishes, then you have failed as a parent.


3.  Your house should ALWAYS (and I mean EVERY freaking time) be cleaner just because your children, who are old enough to be there, are there.  This should be a house rule for everyone.  You are required to clean up after yourself, and you are required to do a little bit more.


4.  You should have a check list that you follow in a small child's formative years.  This will include toilet training by 30 months, tying shoes before the 6th birthday, and telling time before the eighth birthday, knowing times-tables before the semester break of the 3rd grade, etc. 


5.  You should always vote, and always take your children with you when you vote.  You should always go to the religeous institution of your choice and always take your children with you.  You should always take your children grocery shopping and teach them about what you are buying, how to look at lables, and why.


6.  Every 5 year-old should know how to set a table. Every 10 year old should be able to do some simple cooking, and every 14 year old should be able to cook dinner.


Jan 15, 2013 4:23PM
I'm still having a problem with a recent news story about a guy who bought his 8-year-old daughter an assault rifle.  You think he's indoctrinating her to join the military?   Yes, parental doting can get way out of line.  I would have dearly loved to have started my grandkids in a tough love direction, but they were too busy playing with their endless electronic toys, gadgets, fancy parties, given anything their whims of the moment craved.  Too late perhaps,  but I'm still praying for their future.
Jan 15, 2013 2:06PM
Stop being your kids freind! Spank if absolutley necessary, like if the kid did something REALLY bad. Let them fail! And no, it's not someone else's fault, it's yours! Be responsible for your own actions! Teach morals and values, sometimes you gotta be hard on em', NOT cruel, just be authoritive!
Jan 13, 2013 6:26PM
To Venom.  There is no guarantees in life.  Life is not fair.   However, if you sit on your butt and complain guaranteed you will go nowhere.   Nobody ever starved to death by working too hard.   If you cannot find a job, go back to school and learn something that will get you a job.    The U.S. is the land of opportunity.  If you do not think so, just ask millions of immigrants who came to the U.S., worked hard and do well.   Sometimes you have to pick crap with the chickens.  So what?    You must get off your knees and you do that by getting off your butt.
Jan 9, 2013 6:35PM
These same young people seem to think it is also alright to speak to other adults and people in the service industries the same way they speak to their parent(s). This is a lesson that needs to be taught at a very young age. It's very simple. It's called the Golden Rule. Hint: not a video game.  If only these children know how to "look it up".

Jan 9, 2013 5:18PM
Thank you for this article. Young children should also be paddled when necessary. I was, when I did something wrong, and I learned to obey my parents, which is a precursor to learning to accept authority.
Jan 9, 2013 5:17PM
THANK YOU!  I will be printing this and handing it to my 10 year old to read.  She seems to think I should be her friend even though I've told her that no, I'm supposed to be your parent and get you ready to be an adult.  I get a blank look. Maybe this will help her to see the light!
Jan 9, 2013 5:13PM
How can a parent do their job, when all the kid has to do is cry they abuse me. Now the parents are monsters and everyone judges them. Because kids don't lie.
Jan 9, 2013 3:44PM

Has anyone ever heard of social services? Our education system spends a lot of time teaching our children about abuses. Makeing your child do something do something they do not want to do, can and will be termed abusive. My wife and I were called in by the school counselor for being mentally abusive to our daughter. Our abuse was going to look for a pony but, never buying one for her, of course that made her very sad. My wife and I were required to submit to a year of parenting classes which our daughter was to attend [which she did not]. She was also allowed to become a legal runaway at 14 years old until we completed said classes. My wife and I were given a written apology after the year was up, but by that time we had completely lost our daughter. My take away, be careful what you think is good to teach a child, because what I was informed she was not our child. She belongs to the government .  


Jan 9, 2013 3:36PM

and that's why the US is so messed up. No discipline, no respect, no interaction. Kids now are pansies, teach your kid to stand up for himself, bullying wouldn't be a problem. I fought in school, I got hit as a kid, I learned and turned out fine. People are getting married to early having kids to early. Parents don't know how to raise them, Dr's are too quick to diagnose a prescription, media and health people say everything is bad for kids. Everything is so damn political. People need to mind their own business.


I drank out of a garden hose, I had toys with lead based paint, I walked to school in 3rd grade, I ran all over the neighborhood unsupervised, I got hit, I ate dinner at the table every night with my family, I wasn't diagnosed with ADD or ADHD cause I was never taught how to respect or listen. I got my first job at 14, bought my OWN car. I am doing just fine. I'm 35 own my own home 2 cars and toys, have a good job.

Jan 9, 2013 3:31PM
My children are 3 and 6. I know I give them too much, but they also know what is expected of them. I think you have to start young with little things. One of our little rules is 'you brought in the car, you take it out of the car'.  Another little rule is 'if you don't clean up your toys then you don't appreciate them and they go in the box'.  Both kids help with setting the table.  The 3 year old will put napkins on the table for dinner. The 6 year old has to put the silverware out on the table for dinner.  My 6 year just started helping feed and put out the dogs. They both have to put their cups in the sink, their jackets on the hook, and their shoes in the closet. They are small things, but it is about taking care of you and your stuff. I don't expect my 3 year old to fold laundry, but I do expect his angry bird toys to be off the floor when he is done playing. As they get older they will learn how to do more. I expect both my children will be able to manage a bank account, cook a full meal, do laundry, and repair minor issues with their cars and homes before they leave my house, otherwise, I failed them.
Jan 9, 2013 3:26PM
i'm 20 years old and i didn't get a cell phone until i was 14 and the only reason i got it was so my parents could keep tabs on where i was when i was out with friends.; i had to even make a list of why i should even be able to have a cell phone.  i had chores from the time i was 6 until now. i still live at home but i pay for my groceries, my car insurance, gas, and any other expenses i have. i work hard for the money i make. i work a full time job. i can manage my money and i can't stand not having a job not to mention i constanly am picking up after my step siblings and parents. I can't stand a dirty house. I'm going back to school this spring because i want to further my career. Where as my step sister who is 17 works at mcdonalds, never helps clean, refuses to make her own food and is constantly lashing out at her mother. stuff that i got in huge trouble for when i was her age. and not to mention she constantly is stealing stuff from my wallet and my room. yet her mother does nothing. its good to know that at least i got a good up bringing. its sad seeing 5 or 6 year old kids with ipods, kindles, cell phones and all these extra electronics. no wonder kids are over weight. your giving them stuff to stay inside and not have to go out and play.
Jan 9, 2013 3:23PM
My parents were tough on me and oh wow am I thankful!!!
Jan 9, 2013 3:12PM

I love this article!!  I often wonder what happened to parents.  They have become so concerned about being their childrens'  friends and not their parents.  I have 2 men  and I say men- 28 & 23.  The 28 year old is married (college graduate) with children and my 23 year graduate from college and working.  My husband and I decided to relocate to another state and my youngest did not want to come. He stayed in our home and is learning what life is really about and the responsiblities involved.  I think this is great. 

We had a conversation one day and he asked me if this is weird because his co-workers thought it was weird that he lives on his own (at the time, he was 22) and was cooking his own meals.  I told him absolutely not that is part of being adult.  We cannot have our children saying they are adults and cannot handle the task of boiling water.  He cooks, clean and pay us rent.  Our job as parents is to love our children, nuture them and help them to become responsible, independent adults.  Start when they are young and parents can enjoy their lives when their children are adults.

Jan 9, 2013 3:02PM

My husband and I are fortunate to have a good income coming in.  We are able to give our kids the things that they want.   We do, however limit their consumption.   They are three and five, and they have chores.   They are given rules and know what will happen when the rules are broken.   There can be a happy medium for people who can AFFORD it.  

Jan 9, 2013 3:01PM

To the author of this article: You are incorrect that children are this way. Just read the comments below and you will see that everyone is a strict parent. Now I'm going to break the mold. I have spoiled my child rotten BUT he still knows how to do laundry, dishes, clean, etc. Now if I can just get him to manage money (sigh).... Hey, at least I'm honest (lol).

Jan 9, 2013 2:44PM
If anyone asks either daughter of mine, "What is your dad's favorite word?"
They would reply, "Well there's NO, and the other one we're not
allowed to say."
Jan 9, 2013 2:24PM
I was OUT OF THE HOUSE by age 18...never returned...during college I worked at Dining Clubs and lived with college roomates...I did not MOOCH off my parents nor move back in with them like today's 'coddled' generation does...
Jan 9, 2013 2:23PM
I can't help thinking back to my WWII generation grandparents and the lessons now lost. They lived in small homes, rarely ate out, never bought the latest gadgets, had one used vehicle and saved their money.  If you left a light on over their house in a room you walked out of expect a tongue lashing on waste.  Is it child abuse to teach these values today?  It shouldn't be and the younger you can teach these values to your kids the better prepared they will be for adult hood.
Jan 9, 2013 2:03PM
The problem with the kids started when society deemed it "cruel and unusual punishment" if you busted thier butts when they didnt do what they were told.  As the bible states, "spare the rod, spoil the child".  It is coming full circle.
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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.