Flinging Apples Far from the Tree

“With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world.” 
Elizabeth Kolbert

I have to point you to this article Spoiled Rotten by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. When I first moved to New York, I heard a mom on the subway begging her young daughter to make a decision about what they were going to have for dinner. 

"Should we eat at home?"
"What about McDonalds?" 
"Rosa took me yesterday."
"Do you want Chinese?" 
(Sticks tongue out.)
"Should I make mac n' cheese? You love mac n' cheese."
(Kid looks away, shoving Annie's organic homegrown wheat bunnies with real-aged cheddar down her throat.)
"We could go to that cute Mexican place with the big mirror...Let me see if Daddy can meet us down there."
No response.

And I thought to myself - What the h*ll is going on?

It was my stop at that point, so I never heard whether the mom (in my memory, she was literally crouched on the floor, pleading to her daughter) ever managed to sell her daughter on the idea of eating dinner that night or whether the girl just kept munching on those real-aged cheddar bunnies and then moved on to Annie's organic fruit snacks*, then Pirate Booty (formerly known as cheese curls) and finally to dessert. 

And it wasn't an isolated incident. It was everywhere. Kids were bratty and pouted and ran off when their parents said it was time to leave the playground and hid in their rooms when their parents asked them to come say hello to the company and refused to refill the dog's water dish so the parents did it grudgingly saying "She wanted a dog..." meaning it really was up to the kid to at the very least refill the water dish because it was her idea to get the dog but the kid didn't want to so...it defaulted to the parent/servant.

(Actually -- Disclaimer: This happened in my house growing up! Dara and I wanted a cat and my parents did all the caretaking. They spoiled us. We helped so very little -- a few chores on weekends and setting the table. That's about it. Why did they do this? Topic for another post...yet I'm going to claim that it wasn't nearly as bad as what's going on now because isn't that always the point of these sorts of arguments...)

In my head I called it "peer parenting" -- where the parent seemed more intent on being liked by their child than in being a good parent. Like those pushover teachers who pretend they don't see you throwing paper airplanes when they turn their back or ignore it when you swear so they can be cool or easy or whatever but the end result is you don't respect them and in most cases you don't learn as much from them.

Back in those early days in New YOrk I babysat a little but didn't pay all that much attention to parents or kids in those days. From the little bit I saw, it became clear that parents not only conferred with their young kids about every decision, but often deferred to them. The kids were in charge. And when I had a kid and did start paying more attention, I saw that in most cases, the more power the kids had--the closer they were to being the center of the universe-- the unhappier they seemed to be. Just like the old fairy-tales about the miserable spoiled princess and the happy scrappy little son or daughter of the gardener. (Not to idealize actual poor people -- the 80 million who do not go to school, 220 million who work full time jobs, or 100 million homeless-- really just talking about trends in affluent families here, like Anne-Marie Slaughterhouse talking about the work/life balance in her recent Atlantic article "I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.") 

And now I wish I had started a list of preposterous peer-parenting statements I've heard like defending the possession of a violent video game "He wanted it", or driving rather than taking the subway "They [the kids] didn't want to have to walk". Or saying, with a shrug of the shoulders and a defeated look, “She had ice cream for dinner, can you believe it?” Or watching a toddler wear a nice hat into the sprinkler and saying, "He wasn't supposed to wear that in there". It's like - then why did he? Why didn't you take it off of him? Or better yet, tell him to take it off and have him do it?

My parents recently pointed out to me that we still (Alex and I) feed Wally on occasion. As in, he just sits there like a little king while one of us takes his fork and stabs a green bean with it and brings it up to his mouth. Even though he's perfectly capable of doing it himself, and has been for years. I really don't know why we do it, except that he's tired, and would otherwise stop eating. So, the obvious answer is, let him stop eating. Maybe he's not hungry. Or maybe he just likes to be spoiled. It's fun to be king for a day. Kids don't--should not be expected to--always know what's good for them. Sure he may have "wanted" us to feed him, just like the little girl across the street "wanted" to take gymnastics AND dance AND swim class AND art. But that doesn't mean it's what's best for either one, does it? Father Knows Best is outdated and sexist, but Child Knows Best is a ludicrous surrender, a renunciation of our responsibility as parents. We're making their ladybugs for them, and letting them make major life decisions. Something is clearly not right.

Though my parents spoiled us in some ways, the boundaries around what we were allowed to do were still clear. And they decided what was for dinner (except on our birthdays). If they told us to do something (until our defiant teenager years, worse for me than Dara), we did it. And it would NEVER have crossed our minds not to do something another adult asked of us. And yet I see the erosion of that practice -- that kids listen to adults -- everywhere, even with my young cousins, my nieces, and Wally.

I was so surprised about 10 years ago when my three cousins (ranging from 4 to 9) flagrantly disobeyed me. They were on their bikes, and were supposed to stay near me as they rode around in front of The Casino by our cottage near the beach. Within seconds they all three scattered off into the distance while I stood by myself yelling at them to come back, a defeated substitute teacher with absolutely no control. I met up with them later at the cottage where there was little discussion about what had happened. I wasn’t the only one without authority in that situation. Their parents, after all, had told them to listen to me.

Kids don't feel they need to listen to adults. We’re not really authorities anymore. Something has radically changed.

And there are just so many pieces to it. One hypothesis presented in this article has to do with the achievement-mania I've discussed other places. That parents are so intent on getting their kids into good schools they'll do anything for them, including following them around, picking up the dirty clothes they carelessly fling off. Elizabeth Kolbert talks about A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting by Hara Estroff Marano here:

“High-powered parents worry that the economic opportunities for their children are shrinking. They see a degree from a top-tier school as one of the few ways to give their kids a jump on the competition. In order to secure this advantage, they will do pretty much anything, which means not just taking care of all the cooking and cleaning but also helping their children with math homework, hiring them S.A.T. tutors, and, if necessary, suing their high school.”

The review begins with a look at an anthropological study comparing tribes in the Peruvian amazon to upper-middle class kids in Los Angeles and ends brilliantly, pulling back to provide a framework for our own behavior in anthropological terms:

Letting things slide is always the easiest thing to do, in parenting no less than in banking, public education, and environmental protection. A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just about every aspect of American society. Why this should be is a much larger question, one to ponder as we take out the garbage and tie our kids’ shoes.”

It really is pretty complex and there are surely many variables that have conspired to get us to this point. Perhaps each generation considers the following one spoiled. My mom always mentions how her mom woke them up at 6 am on Saturdays to start helping around the house. Probably her mom got woken up even earlier. But I don't think what we're seeing now is part of the continuum. I think there has been a radical shift. And it's the parents--at least right now--who can do something to reverse it, while we still have a tiny bit of power, if only to stop tying shoes of people shorter than us. It's not even peer parenting; that would imply some kind of equality. The apples aren't falling far from the trees...we're hurling them out there. 

Lots to think about (or chew on), as we feed “fruit”** that doesn't spoil to children that clearly do.

***Annie’s Homegrown Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks
Organic Tapioca Syrup, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Tapioca Syrup Solids, Organic White Grape Juice Concentrate, Pectin,Citric Acid, Ascorbic Acid, Color (Black Carrot Juice Concentrate), Natural Flavors, Sodium Citrate, Organic Sunflower Oil, Carnauba Wax (From Palm Leaves).


  1. Annie's Organic looks pretty much like straight-out sugar, which will go down easily but make you sick in the long run, just like the peer parents you so wonderfully describe.

  2. Hawkeye, your comments are always so great. Thank you.

  3. One of the things I've been most shocked about since becoming a parent and spending more time with other people's kids as well as my own (on play dates, etc) is how many kids come to play at my house and boss me around. A comment at my 2nd graders recent birthday party from one of her guests "I only want strawberry icecream, will you take off the vanilla and chocolate?" - It was that Neopolitan stuff.

    My husband and I looked at each other thinking, "this is icecream! All kids like icecream -unless they are truly allergic to it - get over yourself little 7 year old."

    I tend to give other parents permission to set as many limits as they need to with my kids when they are at their house. And yet no one ever gives me the same permission. (I'm not cruel with kids, really.)

    My older kids are in or getting into adolescence and no longer listen to my parental wisdom as easily. Since they've hit adolescence I've been so glad that there is somewhat of a village around them to set limits with them. For example, our neighbor down the street who has my son go back over the lawn he's been paid to cut, but hasn't done all that well. This is how kids learn afterall.

    I still find it so strange that so many parents are hesitant to let other parents "give their kids feedback" in the form of limits, etc. I guess I'm still figuring this out.

    Thanks for your post!

  4. Your recount of the subway conversation was very timely.
    Two weeks ago, a close friend was visiting us for the weekend with her twin 9 year old girls who I have known since they started Kindergarten with my daughter. We went out to bakery in a local historic town, and the girls and my daughter selected a treat from the bakery for morning tea.
    After my friend had paid, one of the twins changed her mind when she saw another treat that she wanted and had a massive meltdown, screaming and crying because her mum wouldn't go back and change the bakery treat. ( There were also lots of customers in the shop).
    This culminated in her running off down the street, screaming and having the most massive tantrum that would put any 2 year old to shame. People were stopping in the street and looking at her, my friend tried to talk to her, as did her twin sister, who ended up in tears because she was scared that her sister was trying to run away. During the time that my friend was trying to talk to her daughter, her daughter screamed in her face, " I hate you and I wish you were dead!". Some passerbys also stopped to talk to the girls, which upset my daughter, because I have talked to her about stranger danger, and not to talk to strangers, and she thought that they were trying to steal her away.
    Parenting is not an easy job. Having twins is not an easy job. But some tough love is needed , as if she is behaving like this at 9, it is not going to get any better at the current rate.
    By the way, when she had calmed down, her mum gave her the treat she had already bought.
    Personally I would have put it in the bin, and no iPod touch or electronic gadgets for a week!

  5. Wow - what wonderful comments. Thanks for taking all that time Suzita and littlegreenvillage to share your thoughts. .

    Suzita - I am totally with you on that! I too am shocked at other kids bossing me around. That ice cream thing is just outrageous. I had something sort of similar happen with a family I adore. The child wouldn't take ice cream from anyone but me (this was a second helping) but I was busy. The parents, however, taking orders from their 3-year-old, kindly asked if I could serve their daughter, seeing as that's the only way she'd take the ice cream. I thought -- I have to be missing something--isn't there another option, i.e., skip the second helping if she refuses to accept it from the person trying to give it to her?

    Baffling! I too am very open to others setting limit for my 4-year-old, though I see how hesitant people generally are to do it. I really like the "it takes a village" mentality, though I almost see a fear of stepping in at all, these days, even when safety is concerned. It's nuts! I'm glad you are talking about it. I wonder how Denise Shipiani (author of Mean Moms Rule) feels about it...I'd be curious if she's an advocate of "mean" (authoritative) moms of other kids setting boundaries for hers.

    littlegreenvillage: Thanks for sharing that story. That is truly outrageous! I have to admit I was relieved at the end when you said the mom gave her the original treat...I was terrified you were going to say she gave her the one she kicked and screamed about wanting to have instead!! Still, what an insane scene...clearly she's gotten away with that kind of behavior. And I agree, tough love seems to be needed at this point. I'd be curious if you saw out of bounds/testing behavior all throughout the visit or just with that one incident. I'm trying to visualize a 9-year-old acting the way you describe. Was the mother mortified?

    1. Yes, there was an incident earlier in the day at my daughter's netball game, over how much blanket she was sharing with her sister, same twin,involved walking off into the car park, having to be chased by her mum.

      My dear friend was very embarrassed at the treat incident.

      I can't say that I have seen too many 9 year olds acting like this. Thank Goodness.

      I think that next time I want to spend some time with my girlfriend I will suggest a "Girls ( grownup)" weekend away in a little cottage somewhere.

  6. With sugary treats emerging as a motif in this parenting discussion, I'd like to recount an incident I witnessed yesterday in the playground:

    Mom to three-year-old totally engrossed in eating his cup of ice cream, "How is that watermelon flavor?"
    Three-year-old: ""Good."
    Mom: "Can I have a bite?"
    TYO: "If you want some, go buy your own."
    Mom: Painfully, good-natured laugh.
    After a pause, the TYO takes the flat-wooden spoon from the Dixie cup of ice cream on which is sitting a nearly microscopic dab of ice cream.
    TYO: "You can have a bite."
    Mom: "Really," same laugh, hoping the TYO was teasing and would come out with an actual visible bite of ice cream.
    TYO: "Yes." Dead serious.
    Mom takes spoon in her mouth. Microscopic dab is no longer visible.
    Mom: "Mmmm, yes, it is good; that watermelon flavor is good."
    Punch line. TYO fnishes half the cup. Mom puts on cover of cup. In the 90 degree blazing sun in which the ice cream might last another five minutes, says, as they walk over to sandbox for another half-hour of play, "we'll save this for later."

    One might imagine/expect that sugary treats would be free from conflict, since the event is intrinsically rewarding. Nope. The battles are powerful. Have some parents abandoned all hopes of controlling kids in non-treat situations, and this is their last stand? And back to your point in LAC how this reversal robs kids not only of childhood, but of joy itself. Even sugary treats don't seem like much fun if they serve only as another battleground.

  7. i still want to hear about the tiger mom on the farm.

  8. Hawkeye - Great addition to the discussion...I will answer soon.
    Bearette - Thanks for remembering..it's always nice when someone reminds me of a thread I dropped...I will try to get that out today. Tiger Mom on the Farm - gives support to your argument re: life in the city

  9. What a great post, Rachel (full disclosure: my book, Mean Moms Rule, is mentioned in that New Yorker article). The stories about small folks ruling the roost, bossing around parents (not their own, too!), and being selfish and entitled is a big issue. And let me tell you, when I buy my kids ice cream, they KNOW Mama is taking a BIG bite, no matter what fuss they put up. I just say, "Mommy bought it, mommy owns it, you share it." And wonder of wonders, they get over it!

  10. Thanks Denise! Yes - I thought that was awesome that your AMAZING (finally got it) book was mentioned in that article. These are big issues and I'm so glad you've taken them on in your book and on your blog. Funny re: ice cream discussion -- Hawkeye's example and yours -- we usually any ice cream that we bought. It's just automatic-- buy an ice cream and we both (or all 3 of us, if Alex is there) eat it. Since that's what we've always done, it's not questioned. Though maybe at one point he'll catch on to the fact that it's not the norm. It really is kind of awful to see these parents so eager to please and be liked by their kids...like the Mom in Hawkeye's example who gets the sliver of watermelon ice cream she bought...that they end up being such ...what is the yiddish word...shlameil? shlemazel? Anyway - ends up being this weak, ineffective, uncool person that no one can respect. Denise, you make such a great point in your book that kids don't need more friends, they need parents. Now over to check out your post on this same subject.


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