How to Prevent Spoiled Rotten Kids in an Age of Plenty

Many parents report having problems with their grown kids. More often than ever before, I hear of grown children moving in with their parents, not for specified reasons or defined periods of time (e.g., to attend graduate school), but because they’re lost and aimless. When I first began counseling people in the late 1980s, I rarely encountered this phenomenon other than in cases of medical illness or substance abuse. Nowadays, and for the past decade or so (prior to the big economic crash of 2007-08), I see it all the time.

This raises a question appropriate for any era, regardless of social trends: What’s the best way to guide children into independent, self-responsible adults?

Consider one example.

Francis L. Thompson is an engineer at Northrop Grumman Corp. He led the teams that designed the first Direct TV satellites and missile defense satellites, as well as ground control for these systems.

At 1/12/14, Thompson wrote an article entitled, “How I made sure all 12 of my kids could pay for college themselves.”

He wrote:

“We loved the children regardless of what they did. But would not prevent consequences of any of their actions. We let them suffer consequences and would not try to mitigate the consequences because we saw them suffering. We would cry and be sad, but would not do anything to reduce the consequences of their actions.”

This is very different from the attitudes of parents I typically encounter in middle class families today. The sentiments I most frequently hear from parents (and sometimes grandparents, or other relatives) of grown kids are, “He’s depressed. He’s fragile. Somebody has got to strengthen him. Somebody has got to cheer him up, and motivate him.”

When I hear things like this, right away I think: “They assume the problem (as well as the solution) comes externally — from the outside, somewhere, somehow. This is probably the thinking they had all along, when raising their little child who’s still a child today.”

This is the precise opposite of what Thompson articulates in his article. Thompson taught his kids to take care of themselves. He could easily afford to buy them cars and computers. And, in fact, he did so while they were growing up. But there were strings attached. For example, he’d buy them an old wreck of a car they’d be required to fix up before driving. Or he’d require them to build or otherwise learn how to operate a computer, on their own, before actually having it.

This is wiser than I can say. To most middle class parents, this sounds positively 19th century, cruel and irresponsible. But think about it. The only way we, as human beings, can ever value anything is by actually becoming intellectually and emotionally invested in it.

In the “good old days, ” people were generally poorer than they are today. In America particularly, the standard of living — even with booms and busts along the way — has always been upward, on the whole. By and large, each new generation of young people has been better off materially than the prior one.

This is a good thing. I don’t yearn for the “good old days” — i.e., most of human history — where each generation of young people was as poor (if not poorer) than their parents.

But given the fact that we still have (as of now, at least) an upwardly mobile society, parents must find ways to teach their children to become invested in what they have.

In other words, it’s not enough to give your child a computer, a car, or whatever it is. You have to develop a way to enable them to become invested in that object or activity. If you don’t, then you have no business whining, crying or complaining when your 30-year-old “child” comes home to stay, or (if married and with a family of his or her own) is constantly asking you for loans, gifts or even monetary sums based on entitlement.

As Thompson writes:

Even though we have sufficient money, we have not helped the children buy homes, pay for education, pay for weddings (yes, we do not pay for weddings either). We have provided extensive information on how to do it or how to buy rental units and use equity to grow wealth. We do not “give” things to our children but we give them information and teach them “how” to do things. We have helped them with contacts in corporations, but they have to do the interviews and “earn” the jobs.

Didn’t pay for their children’s weddings? Now that’s a shocker, to most people. But if something is given away as an entitlement, people will not appreciate it. It’s just human nature. You cannot appreciate what comes too easily to you. You cannot appreciate what you didn’t produce, or provide for, yourself.

It sounds perverse and shocking to many, but the # 1 rule of being a parent — from a psychotherapist’s point-of-view here — is to let your child suffer and fail. It’s not that you should deliberately impose suffering on them. That would be cruel, and it’s unnecessary. But leave them free to fix problems themselves, as much as humanly possible.

Life, by its nature, is full of challenges and the potential for failure and disappointment. That’s why we value what we achieve. We value it because we might not have obtained it. To attain and keep something (material or non-material) despite the difficulty is precisely how and why we value things in the first place.

The more you try to do everything for your child, the less of a “can do” adult your child will become.

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