Driving down Preston Road, I was dutifully transporting children to school with my then-14-year-old son sitting shotgun, when I learned how this kid defines the American Dream. As is typical of this particular area in Dallas, we were surrounded by opulence: on our left was a Lexus, on our right a Porsche, and directly in front, a silver Maserati.
“Mom.” Abandoning his pose of boredom, my son perked up. “Which one of those do you think I’d look best in? I think the Porsche … Yeah. That’s what car I’m going to get when I’m 16.”
Fighting back nausea, I looked at him. “What planet are you on? And how do you think you will pay for one of those cars?” A question I knew had no answer, since his primary activity involves a screen and remote control.
Who is raising this kid? I thought. Is materialism and money all he thinks about? Where have all my words of wisdom gone? The hours of volunteer service, the countless lectures on being content with what you have, and all the brilliant soliloquies I’ve delivered on the fact that “stuff” will never really satisfy you—has none of that penetrated his brain?
After dropping him off, I passed through the last school zone on my way home and dialed my sister-in-law, who is also one of my best friends. Not only did I need to vent my frustration, I needed reassurance that I wasn’t crazy and that there is a light at the end of this self-centered teenager tunnel. After we exchanged similar stories, I had a sobering epiphany.
“I think I’m raising little socialists,” I said, “the serve-me kind that are numb to the benefits of ingenuity and hard work, the kind that don’t just need to be taken care of—they expect it.”
And why not? That’s what I have apparently been raising them to expect. In that moment and in the days that followed, I came to realize that not one of my five children knew how to do their own laundry. Not one could clean a bathroom—I mean, really clean it. Not one could cook, serve, and clean up after a full dinner. I wasn’t sure my 8-year-old could even cut his waffles.
To be fair, my children can do a lot of amazing things. They are genuinely great kids. But they’d been getting a sweet free ride, especially in their home life. With me stepping in and doing for them—rarely, if ever, putting genuine responsibilities on their plate—they didn’t have a chance to realize their potential.
As I’ve since discovered in conversations with other parents, ours was not an isolated case. Raising independent kids is countercultural these days. Instead of teaching our children to view themselves as capable, we step in to do everything for them. We start when they’re still young, using safety as our lame excuse (“She’ll fall if I don’t hover”), then we continue “protecting” them (“If I don’t help him get As, how will he get into college?”). We pave a smooth pathway, compulsively clearing away each pebble of disappointment or difficulty before it can impede their progress. By the time they reach adolescence, they’re so used to being taken care of that they have no idea they’re missing out on discovering what they can do or who they can be.
What message are we sending our kids?
Incidents like these and countless others brought to my attention a malady that had infected my home. Youth entitlement seems to have reached epidemic proportions in both my family and society as a whole—and I was appalled to realize that I, like many of today’s well-meaning parents, am a primary carrier of the germ.
With the greatest of intentions and in the name of love, we have developed a tendency to hover, race in to save, protect from failure, arrange for success, manipulate, overprotect, and enable our kids. Freeing their schedules for sports, school, and increasingly important time with friends, we strive to make our children’s lives easier or to make success a sure thing by doing it all for them. We shower them with accolades, proclaiming how wonderful they are—yet we rarely give them the opportunity to confirm the substance of that praise. All our efforts send the clear, though unspoken and unintended, message “I’ll do it for you because you can’t” or “No sense in your trying because I can do it better and faster.”
Those messages are really the opposite of what I want my kids to hear from me. I want them to hear the truth—that with hard work, perseverance, and discipline, they can do anything they put their minds and muscles to.
We impart the message that achievement is paramount. Then we do everything in our power to ensure their success—by sticking ourselves smack-dab in the middle. The result? A group of kids now labeled as “Gen Me,” because they behave as if the world revolves around them. Some experts even use the term narcissistic. Is their behavior worthy of a clinical diagnosis? Maybe or maybe not. But evidence clearly suggests we now have a group of overserved kids who are struggling once they leave the nest to find their place in life.
This realization convinced me of the need to redefine my parenting approach. Instead of communicating “I love you, so let me make life easy for you,” I decided that my message needed to be something more along these lines: “I love you. I believe in you. I know what you’re capable of. So I’m going to make you work.”
Whatever happened to teaching, directing, and modeling rather than doing everything for our children?
Remember taking driver’s ed? I learned how to drive in Wichita Falls, Texas, at the local driver’s education school. After enduring hour upon hour of boring lectures, students moved to the hands-on portion of the class: actual driving. Our instructor pulled up to the curb, hoisted the gigantic Student Driver sign onto the roof of the car, then climbed into the passenger’s side, which was equipped with an extra brake pedal. Off we went.
On those countless white-knuckle rides, our instructor rarely employed the safety brake as he calmly guided each nervous driver onto a freeway, into a parallel parking spot, and through our small downtown—all while enduring ridiculous teenage humor, jeers, eye rolls, snickers, and under-our-breath comments. The old guy patiently taught us how to navigate a car by ourselves. Why? Because he knew that one day soon he would be sharing the road with us … as oncoming traffic.
Thanks to his approach, by the time I took my driver’s test, I could do it all and do it well. Would I have eventually learned how to drive if, during our driving sessions, he had been doing it for me? Probably. But it would have been much harder. Because I was allowed to do it myself—and occasionally fail, or at least hop a curb or two—with a capable instructor by my side, I gained significant confidence and valuable experience.
Yet as a parent, I’m constantly surprised by an inexplicable desire to take the driver’s seat for my kids. A desire to basically do everything for them. I can barely stop myself from stepping in, even though I know my meddling doesn’t help them in the long run. Maybe it’s my need to control it all, to get things done quickly and efficiently, and to maintain order. Whether it’s ordering for them at Chick-fil-A, making their beds, all but brushing their teeth, I’m surprised at the lengths to which I’ve gone to make life easy for my kids.
When I catch myself muttering under my breath, “I told them to pick this up,” and then proceeding not only to pick up pajamas, towels, and shoes but also to organize their closet while I’m at it, I’m solidifying my children’s expectation that someone will always be around to do their work for them. I also make it harder for them to put things away, since I’ve basically stolen the chance for them to organize their closets based on their own logic. When I step in, not only am I doing the work, but I’m inviting the countless whines of “where are my kneepads?” It’s the same with cooking or sweeping or mopping or bush trimming. I’m not sure any of these things have ever crossed their minds as tasks they might need to know how to do.
None of us want needy kids. We want them to be equipped to conquer the world rather than waiting for it to serve them.
The only way to conquer youth entitlement is one house at a time. What a privilege we have to celebrate all that these kids have to offer and to help them realize their potential by bringing on the work. It’s incredibly exciting to consider the abundant possibilities just around the corner for a generation empowered by parents and other adults who believe in them, support them by teaching real-life skills, and then pile on the responsibility. Think about the ramifications of unleashing this tech-savvy crew on global economic issues, seemingly incurable diseases, and age-old political conflict.
So here’s to seeing what can happen when we tell our kids, “I believe in you, and I’m going to prove it by putting you to work.”
Adapted from Cleaning House. Copyright © 2012 by by Kay Wills Wyma. Used with permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this adaptation may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.