"You don't know how good you have it," parents have long told their children. Or, as Bill Cosby famously riffed: "My father walked to school, 4 o'clock every morning, with no shoes on, uphill, both ways, in 5 feet of snow - and he was thankful."
Joking aside - and Cosby came out with that one 30 years ago - as advanced technology continues to create unprecedented comfort, convenience and choice, how can parents instruct children in the value of hard work and discipline? And how can they do so when they have to compete with the cacophony of messages, many of them contrary, aimed at their kids?
"The people the kids look up to in popular culture are basically spoiled brats, whether it's Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus or professional athletes or reality TV stars," says Jim Taylor, a San Francisco-based psychologist and author of "Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You" and "Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-Fueled World."
Many of these popular icons meet Taylor's definition of a spoiled child, which is: "Whether they do good, bad or nothing, they get what they want." And according to him, "pop culture drowns out all the other positive messages" that kids previously absorbed through their communities. And parents are often too pressed for time to transmit lessons in moral behavior, he says. "If you have to choose between getting dinner on the table or giving your kid a bath or sitting down and talking through values and expectations and consequences, you're going to choose the bath or the meal."
Plus, there's an onslaught of advertising these days, titillating children about this or that toy and making it that much tougher for taxed parents to resist pleasing them. "It's like a tsunami we're up against," says Richard Bromfield, a psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and author of "How to Unspoil Your Child Fast: A Speedy, Complete Guide to Contented Children and Happy Parents." "All the parents of my parents' generation were saying 'no' ... They would say 'no' before they heard the questions."
How do you know if your kid's behaving badly? Well, you know. But there are some red flags , according to Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions in Raleigh, N.C. and the author of "If I Have to Tell You One More Time." Among them: You often indulge your child to avoid a scene, your child speaks in a sassy way or thinks she or he is "the center of the universe and tends to rule the roost."
"However, sometimes perceived 'bratty' behavior is merely an age-appropriate response to feeling overwhelmed, tired or hungry," she writes in an email. "It's important for parents to think about why the behavior may be happening in the first place."
From there, parents should instruct their child in age-appropriate behavior for a given situation, then role play a situation and explain the consequences for misbehaving. For example, you might tell your child not to climb in and out of the seat when dining out, or else the two of you will leave the restaurant and wait in the car until everyone else finishes dinner. If, during dinner, the child chooses to climb in and out of the seat, McCready advises calmly following through.
When trying to curb bratty behavior, Bromfield offers this rule of thumb: "Buy less, do less" - though he admits it's easier said than done. Still, "A child who gets everything is never going to get gratitude," he says. "A child who never waits is never going to learn patience."
Don't make deals with your kids, and definitely don't bribe them, he says. Rewarding behavior that's expected of them only makes the cost go up later, he explains. Rather than promising ice cream for completed homework or chores, let them reap the internal reward of doing good things.
Also, don't interfere with natural consequences. So, for example, if a toy breaks, sympathize with your child, but don't run out to replace it, he says. The idea is for children to learn resilience and overcome challenges now, while they're in the context of a supportive and loving home.
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The key, experts say, is to set boundaries and enforce them.
Chores, allowances and summer jobs (preferably manual labor to teach empathy and perspective) all help show kids the link between actions and consequences - a critical ingredient for empowered children and adults, Taylor says. "Spoiled children are fundamentally scared children because they have no real control of their lives. Their actions don't matter. And a fundamental component to mental health is the belief that we have control over our lives ... If something's not going well, we can do something about it."
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