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'90s FAMILY : The Spoils of Self-Esteem : Yes, you want your kids to grow up to be confident, responsible adults. But the trick is not to give them everything they want--no matter how much they whine.

December 14, 1994|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Call it the self-esteem backlash.

In lovingly trying to raise children with healthy self-esteem, experts say more and more of the nation's middle-aged parents are overdoing it and, in the process, producing sour kids whose words and actions ooze with selfishness, snotty indifference and an attitude of entitlement.

Experts say this spurt in spoiled kids was spawned after a decade of media pundits, educators and psychologists extolling the importance of tots through teens loving themselves: \o7 Self-esteem is the basis for a happy and fulfilled life.

\f7 Oprah raves about it, as do hairdressers, bartenders and others who dole out advice. Self-esteem curriculum has flourished in school districts. Publishers spew out self-help books, but often not fast enough for needy readers.

"Parents are so educated--almost too educated--about self-esteem that they're taking it to the extreme," said therapist Sandra Volgy Everett, director of Clinical Education at the Arizona Institute of Family Therapy and co-author of "Healthy Divorce" (Jossey-Bass, 1994). "They're allowing children to believe they're the center of the world."

One mom, Barbara, recently bemoaned her confusion about self-esteem during breakfast in a Manhattan Beach diner.

"Sometimes I don't like my (12-year-old) son because he doesn't seem to care about anyone but himself. I'm afraid that if I tell him, 'Don't act so important,' I'll ruin his self-esteem. And life."

A "slightly distorted" way to view the phenomenon "is that kids today have so much self-esteem, they don't give a damn about anybody else," said Susan Ginsberg, education consultant and publisher of Work & Family Life, a monthly newsletter. "All because parents are afraid of emotionally harming their children."

Such is the fear of raising a child who has no self-esteem that parents "do almost anything to save their kids' feelings from getting hurt," said Fred G. Fosman, a father of two "slightly spoiled" sons and author of "Spoiled Rotten: Today's Children and How to Change Them" (Villard, 1992).

That includes forgoing discipline because it's "too mean," as one Santa Monica father described it. Or too time-consuming: "After a long day at work, it's just easier to be lenient," said Julie McGraw, a Los Angeles mother of two teen-agers. Or, even when families are broke, paying $110 for sneakers that will save their children from scarring sneers by peers.

"It's easier just to buy," McGraw said. "Buy to make them happy."

It's a sentiment shared by many parents, said Ray Valdez, a national award-winning principal at Fern Bacon Basic Middle School in Sacramento. "Parents let their child decide what clothes to buy and how to act."

Mostly, experts said, these are parents who matured in an era burnished by prosperity and hope, who work 70-hour weeks so kids can don designer booties and book bags, who don't want to be as frugal and limiting as their parents.

"These are good parents who want to give their children choices and opportunities that they never had. These are also parents afraid that society will take away children's self-esteem," said Ginsberg, emphasizing that the recession, increased urban blight and two-income households have relaxed parental authority.

It's a reality that worries Erika Williams, a stay-at-home mother of two in Newport Beach. "Parents let their kids do whatever they want," said Williams, 51. Consequently, they're raising a generation "of aloof, conceited kids who have no values and no respect for others."

Daughter Heidi likes to study her peers at Corona Del Mar High School. "I've figured out that being spoiled has the most to do with a snobby attitude," the 17-year-old senior said. "They get snobby because a lot of parents like to make their kids feel good with money instead of just loving them."

Experts agree. Heidi's theory also explains a finding that more than half of 8- to 18-year-olds nationwide have their own computers and video-game machines. "Kids have more stuff in their rooms now than ever before," said Heather Kluter, a researcher at the Fullerton-based Verity Group Inc., the marketing firm that conducted the survey last July.

In the past five years, Peter Pham has noticed more kids of all economic backgrounds acquiring their own entertainment systems, complete with hi-fis, multiple CD players, double cassette decks, TVs and, sometimes, VCRs. "Electronic toys used to be a luxury," said Pham, a regional sales manager for Lasonic Electronics Corp., a wholesale distributor in Alhambra. "But not now."

Also, a U.S. study of 1,200 13- to 18-year-olds found that 78.6% said they have more time and (parents') money to spend--an average of $32.68 per visit--in malls than two years ago, according to the November, 1994, issue of Chain Store Age Executive, a magazine for retail management.

"It's easier for parents to spend money than to understand how children gain self-esteem," author Gosman said. "Parents rarely say no because they don't want to see their feel children bad."

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