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Parents of the past used to worry about how their kids treated others, but now they're often more focused on 'ferociously advocating' for their child, says Dr. Philippa Gordon, a long-time New York pediatrician.
By contributor
updated 5/6/2009 8:53:46 AM ET 2009-05-06T12:53:46

The little wagon seemed abandoned.

So when Ada Calhoon’s 1-year-old son spotted it during an outing to a neighborhood park, he began playing with it. But almost immediately, they heard a little boy on a far-away swing set shriek “Noooooooooooo!” sending his mom storming toward them.

“Rather than saying, ‘We’re swinging now. You can let that baby look at your wagon,’ [the mother] took the wagon out of my son’s hands and brought it to her son in the swing,” says Calhoun, the editor-in-chief of the popular parenting Web site

It wasn’t the child’s fit that left Calhoun speechless: It was the mother’s.

Parenting blogs — and grandparents — echo that shock. A commenter on a recent New York Times’ blog recounted seeing a preschooler purposely trip a woman in a crowded restaurant, and chortle, “‘Mommy, did you see me trip that woman? I tripped her!’” — with no corrective measure from the mother. On, a mortified grandmother recently asked for advice on how to handle her grandson’s relentless public insulting of his own mother, who apparently seemed unable or unwilling to stand up to the mistreatment.

Many experts say today’s kids are ruder than ever. And it may have something to do with popular parenting movements focusing on self-esteem and the generation that’s embracing them: Generation X, or those born between 1965 and 1977.

On paper, it doesn’t add up. After all, by many accounts Generation X may be the most devoted parents in American history. They are champions of "attachment parenting," the school of child-rearing that calls for a high level of closeness between parents and children, Many Gen-X parents co-sleep with their children, hold them back from entering kindergarten if they feel their children’s emotional maturity is at stake and volunteer at their kids' schools at record rates. Gen-X moms have been famously criticized by early feminists for dropping out of the workforce to care for their young children.

Yet, their kids are, well, rude. It may be that today’s parents are so fixated on their children's emotional well-being that they’re teaching them that the well-being of others is comparatively unimportant, says Dr. Philippa Gordon, a long-time pediatrician in Park Slope, Brooklyn, an urban New York neighborhood famous for its dense Gen-X parent population.

Parents 'ferociously advocating'
“I see parents ferociously advocating for their children, responding with hostility to anyone they perceive as getting in the child's way — from a person whose dog snuffles inquiringly at a baby in a carriage, to a teacher or coach whom they perceive is slighting their child, to a poor, hapless doctor who cannot cure the common cold,” says Gordon. “There is a feeling that anything interfering with their kid's homeostasis, as they see it, is an inappropriate behavior to be fended off sharply.”

Such defensiveness represents a radical departure from Gen X’s parental forebears, who, experts say, were more concerned about their children’s behavior toward others, rather than the other way around. But it also may highlight what makes many of today's parents tick, as a group — specifically, how they themselves grew up.

Many researchers consider members of Generation X to have been among the least nurtured children in American history with half coming from split families, 40 percent raised as latchkey kids — literally, home alone.

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“They are trying to heal the wounds from their own childhoods through their children,” says Dr. Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist and chair of the Television and Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

In indulging their children’s moods, Brody argues, some parents may be trying to protect their children from experiencing the kind of anxiety and neglect that they themselves suffered as youngsters.

Attachment parenting or enmeshment?
But not being able to separate their own feelings from their children’s has its costs. “Generation X parents seem to have mistaken emotional ‘enmeshment’ for ‘attachment parenting,’” he says.

To be fair, such a response comes from an understandable place.

“Our parents, the Boomers, didn’t pay so much attention to us — they were getting divorced and working and respecting independence, so they left us a lot of times to Scooby Doo,” says Calhoun. “But we’re going a bit far in the other direction and paying so much attention that we’re picking up on every blip in our kids’ whims.”

But not all this can be laid at Generation X’s door. Dr. Susan Linn, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, points out that children learn societal values not just through parental modeling, but also from the stories and toys passed on to them.

“Commercial culture tends to glorify negative behaviors on the continuum from rudeness to violence,” says Linn. “Anti-social behaviors capture the attention of viewers and add to audience share, and in a world where physical violence reigns, rudeness seems ordinary — it becomes a behavioral norm.”

Just take a quick survey the most popular commercial offerings for kids, Linn says. On "American Idol," which, according to Nielsen ratings, is a top program among 2- to 11-year-old viewers, the judges aren’t just rude but truly scathing to contestants.

And, of course, a best-selling line of dolls is, literally, named Bratz. That message pales in comparison to the video game franchise “Grand Theft Auto,” a perennial best-seller among teens and pre-teens who spend hours engaging in virtual behaviors ranging from bullying to having sex with a prostitute and then killing her. Younger siblings who emulate their older brothers and sisters are peripherally, but routinely, exposed to such violence in large numbers, says Linn.

Preschool delinquents?
It is also worth underlining that rudeness can have more serious behavioral consequences. As a 2005 Yale study demonstrated, preschool students are expelled at a rate more than three times that of children in grades K-12 because of behavioral problems.

What does this mean for their future as adults? We may be starting to see some of the effects in Generation Y, those born between 1980 and 1996, whose self-centered — if not downright arrogant — workplace behavior has been well-documented in the popular press since the mid-2000s.

"They've grown up questioning their parents, and now they're questioning their employers. They don't know how to shut up, which is great, but that's aggravating to the 50-year-old manager who says, 'Do it and do it now,' " says Jordan Kaplan, an associate managerial science professor at Long Island University-Brooklyn in New York, in a USA Today article.

As for today’s little kids? “No one will want to hire them,” says Brody. That's not an encouraging thought, especially in these economic times.

Economic climate does seem to have an effect on manners. Indeed, some experts believe that trend of rudeness among kids first emerged with the rise of Wall Street and its culture of entitlement in the mid-1980s, which is when Generation X began having children. It has been building since then, they say. But today’s downturn may inspire renewed prudence.

“I think that people who lose their wealth, their jobs, and other emblems of success that gave them a mindless assurance about their social status — plus with the new standards in the White House — may examine their values more seriously,” predicts pediatrician Gordon. “It will be less easy to fob off your inner questions by purchasing an expensive education, summer camp or horseback riding classes.”

It may also be easier if Gen X parents start implementing the popular campaign that they grew up with themselves: “Just say ‘No.’ ”

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