“You can do exactly as you want, as long as you do it with a smile.” So says Mr Smyle, the billionaire philanthropist who, in the second volume of The Runaway Children trilogy, takes the children under his wing. But will having it all bring happiness? Will material riches make the children forget what really matters? Can they morph into A list celebs and still be nice people? The Runaway Children are purely fictitious of course, as is the over-indulgent Mr Smyle. But such questions are well worth considering for real life families too...
When, during a recent survey, a group of young adults were asked their foremost goals in life, 81 percent put ‘getting rich’ top of the list, rating this more highly than helping others. This view seems to be reflected throughout the younger generation, especially in the developed world where materialism continues to increase despite economic pressures.
At the same time, fewer school leavers seem content to find regular 9-5 jobs, preferring to set off on a glamorous career path in the belief that they deserve to ‘live the dream’ as portrayed so enviably by film stars, pop idols and assorted celebrities. You only have to watch the thousands of ambitious youngsters queuing to audition for talent shows such as X Factor. Even people with little or no talent are utterly convinced they have a right to be icons.
How did this attitude come about? Are children born this way? Well, most babies do enjoy the centre of attention, as is only natural and completely necessary; but there comes a point for every child when he or she needs to realise they’re not the Managing Director of the universe. It’s at this critical phase when parents need to appreciate that too!
And this is the problem. Starting with the post-war Baby Boomers of the 1950s, followed by the self-regarding ‘free love, anything goes’ permissiveness of the 60s and 70s, and the ‘Must Have, Me Generation of the 90s’, then capped by the current ‘you’re so worth it’ zeitgeist of the western world, children have been ever more indulged - prima donnas before they even hit Kindergarten. And from then on, it’s all downhill.
They did not roll down it on their own. A toddler who gets that toy or sweet whenever they scream for it will continue to get that new iPhone, designer label, spray tan, car when they reach their teens. No, it is the parent who scurries off at a second’s notice to procure these treats for their difficult-to-please precious ones who are sowing the seeds of discontent along with a ruinous sense of entitlement.
The fact is, according to the The Narcissism Epidemic, “Parents want to make their children happy, and children want stuff. Thus parents buy them stuff. And children are happy but only for a short period of time. Then they want even more stuff.” When ‘stuff’ can be acquired so easily, children fail to learn one of life’s most sobering lessons: Things cost. Teaching them the value of money, how to save for the things they want and how to budget for necessities is the kindest way to raise a child, equipping them for a debt-free future.
Another problem identified by the book Generation Me is giving a child too much praise. Of course, self-esteem is important, but to laud a child’s every modest achievement as a work of genius and giving them the impression they’re better than anyone else is cruel, unnecessary and unlikely to win them friends at school or college. Just coming back to the X-Factor/Pop Idol shows again – how many talentless youngsters audition, convinced they deserve to become superstars? Tell someone they’re brilliant and they’ll believe it, leaving them wide open to ridicule later in life. The kinder, more balanced course is to commend children for genuine accomplishments, and, instead of overlooking poor behaviour or performance, help them see where they can improve. Says Generation Me, “True self-confidence comes from honing your talents and learning things, not from being told you’re great just because you exist.”
In his book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, Dr Joseph Allen recalls holding a job interview with a young candidate who said: “I get the sense that sometimes parts of the work can be a little boring and I don’t want to be bored.” Says Dr Allen, “He didn’t seem to understand that all jobs have some boring elements. How did one make it to age twenty-three without knowing that?”
Sadly, many youngsters leave school unprepared for any work that falls short of their overinflated view of themselves, no doubt feeling that menial tasks such as brewing beverages and running errands are beneath them.
The problem is often the parents’ over-protectiveness, coupled with an unwillingness to blame the child for any misdemeanour or neglect. On no account is their precious darling ever to be upset, either by getting poor grades, or a speeding fine. The answer is to tackle the teacher and insist they up the marks, or pay the fine the budding Jeremy Clarkson has incurred. It’s always someone else’s fault and the youngster feels he or she can do exactly as they please without facing the consequences.
This is something I feel particularly strongly about, having witnessed the decline into fecklessness, alcoholism and eventual death of someone dear to me. As the youngest son of an older couple, he was over-indulged, over-protected and consistently excused from any blame for anything whatsoever. It was always someone else’s fault.
If only his parents had heeded the advice in Positive Discipline for Teenagers: “Instead of learning that they can survive pain and disappointment, and even learn from it, such children grow up extremely self-centred, convinced that the world and their parents owe them something.”
Had they allowed him to take responsibility for his actions, he might still be alive today. One thing’s for sure; children who work through their problems become more resistant to adversity and more confident in dealing with life in general – assets which will set them up for life.