Much blame is laid to Benjamin Spock for cheerleading the rush to permissive parenting, but take away his spare-the-rod approach to child rearing and one must still factor in how families have changed. "Guilt is a biggie," says "No More Misbehavin' " author Borba. "You've got moms and dads doing two or three jobs, they come home frazzled, and they're feeling guilty because they know the children aren't getting as much attention as they should. They don't want to spoil the time when they feel they ought to be creating warm family memories by disciplining their kids and making a scene."
Stearns agrees. "Particularly in the last 15 or 20 years, parents have definitely become more guilty about how they treat their kids, particularly when mothers work, so they don't think it's right to deny them attention."
The time crunch may have as much to do with contemporary children's encroachment on adult space as anything. I was a child in the '60s but not of them; my parents grew up in post-Depression America and embraced what now are fairly antique ideas about "boundaries," a word they never used, but a concept of which they had full command. When guests came over, kids were exiled to the basement. The stairs were the DMZ, and if we crossed into adult territory, somebody's father was sure to bellow, "No kids in the living room!"
This is a far cry from the father who allowed his 8-year-old son to interrupt conversation by asking, "What makes the wind blow?" and then gave him a detailed explanation worthy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, as I observed during a recent visit with some suburban friends. But then, my mother worked only intermittently, and when she did, it was at the family business, which was within walking distance from school and home. My parents didn't have to schedule "quality time" except for themselves.
But back, for a moment, to the subject of basements, or rather the lack of them or other rooms where kids were traditionally sent off to be, well, kids. "Since the mid-1980s, partly because it's cheaper and they're becoming smaller, more and more houses are designed to have a great room instead of a parlor and a den or a playroom, which might normally segregate children from adults," says Calvin Morrill, professor and chair of the sociology department at UC Irvine. This could be a subtle factor in further obliterating the barrier between children and adults, says Morrill, who along with David A. Snow and Cindy White, edited a book due out in spring 2005 from University of California Press, which includes a chapter on how parents control children in public places.
Still, many professionals agree that today's children are overindulged and suffering from a dearth of boundaries, which means adults suffer with them. As with most things, there is a way to blame it on the boomers. Permissiveness and indulgence is an overcorrection for the autocratic parenting styles to which many of those now raising their own children were subjected, says Michel Cohen, a New York pediatrician and author of "The New Basics: A-to-Z Baby & Child Care for the Modern Parent," which advocates a sterner approach. "A lot of today's parents come from a flower power background where they think they have to talk and explain everything to their children," he says. "Also, many of us came from a much more rigid background, so the reaction is to go the other way. And definitely, I think people are just too busy, so they take the path of least resistance."
All of the explaining and negotiating, Cohen says, ultimately reinforces bad behavior. "Say a kid is banging on the television. The parent may give five or six inconsistent responses. All the child remembers is the attention he got from banging on the TV, so now he's totally engulfed in testing his parents just to see how they'll react because it's different every time."
"The whole concept of self-esteem over the past 10 years really got corrupted," says author Borba. "It's become a marshmallow thing. Too many parents subscribe to the myth that if you discipline children, you're going to break their spirit. Children thrive with nurturing, but also with structure and consistency. 'Overindulged' doesn't necessarily mean that the kid has every toy; it's making him think that he can get away with what's not good for him. The 'Me Generation' is raising the 'Me-Me-Me Generation.' "
Now, the airplane story.
Maria and I were on a flight to Hawaii a couple of summers ago. Directly behind Maria was a woman, about 30, attractive and well-dressed. Riding in her lap was her daughter, probably about 2, and they had carried onboard roughly half the Toys R Us inventory in the child's age category. Before takeoff, the child was restive. She thumped, bumped and wriggled. But we let it pass, saying to ourselves that kids usually settle down and are lulled to sleep once the plane lifts off.