There was a time when my daughter didn't know the meaning of the term kids' menu. As a 2-year-old, she'd be content with a grilled shrimp appetizer or scavenge my plate for bits of avocado or halved grape tomatoes. I can't remember when mac 'n' cheese first made it into the rotation, but it is her restaurant meal of choice these days, preferably served with a coloring place mat and a side of crayons.
What can I expect? My daughter is 4 now, in the prime of her mac-'n'-cheese years. But a small, vocal bunch of child-rearing experts say kids' menus are just the beginning. With the seen-and-not-heard approach to parenting a blip in our collective rearview mirror, we've cruised headlong into a kid-centric land where little ones drive and grown-ups are along for the ride, where a child's boredom ranks on the childhood blight scale with BPA and lead.
In our quest to entertain and appease 24/7, we've become a culture with kid-only smartphone apps, kiddie music piped through our homes and cars, Dora and Baby Einstein streamed nonstop on our flat screens. "We've got things like Walking Wings -- strings you use to hold up a toddler learning to walk that promise 'fewer falls for Baby' -- tethering us to our little ones as if they're marionettes," says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry). "The message kids get is that they're not competent or safe without us right there. When you think your parents don't believe in you, that's demoralizing. Down the line it can even undermine kids' budding confidence, empathy, and sophistication." Not to mention that it's tedious for the adults hovering above.
The Road to Kidville
Once upon a time, adults pulled the strings in a different way. Children were a part of their parents' life, not the other way around, says Paula C. Fass, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of California Berkeley and author of Reinventing Childhood After World War II. Then came a postwar boom that brought Disneyland in 1955, mushrooming suburban yards dotted with swingsets, and an explosion of kids' movies. By 1965, millions of women were taking the birth-control pill, allowing parents to plan more actively for (and spend more time with) their children. But back then, adds Dr. Fass, "Moms typically kept an eye on their kids from the kitchen window."
Even by the 1980s, my mom never wanted kids' music anywhere she could hear it -- and certainly didn't worry about how we'd occupy ourselves on Sunday mornings when she and my dad slept in. Then again, my mom also smoked Trues while we rattled around unbelted in the backseat of our Toyota.
Dr. Fass says our kid-centric culture grew when more middle-class moms hit the workforce. Feeling financially flush and perhaps a little remorseful for time spent away from the family, they felt obligated to do everything on behalf of their children and they stocked up on the influx of cheap toys from China. Before long, they allowed their kids -- and their accoutrements -- to overwhelm them, Dr. Fass explains.
Fast-forward to today, when parents spend significantly more time with their kids than they did 20 years ago. College-educated moms logged in an average of 21.2 hours a week in 2007, compared with 14 hours in 1995, according to a University of California, San Diego, study. (Dads also registered gains.) We spend less time enforcing chores -- kids spend 12 percent less time helping out with housework than in the mid-1990s, finds University of Maryland research -- and more time shadowing them on the playground or at home. Dr. Fass points out the effect of TV and online advertising on kids: "You walk into a household and every room is filled with toys. Grandparents' houses too. This is really new."
Does all this stem from fears that we're not good enough parents? It could. But Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a psychology professor at San Diego State University and coauthor of The Narcissism Epidemic, believes the coddling is more about our well-meaning beliefs in individualism. Consider the popularity of über-unique baby names and the anti-vaccine movement, two ways parents signal "My child deserves special consideration." Combine that with how our culture emphasizes the importance of equality: "This works great for gender and race but not as well between parents and kids," says Dr. Twenge, a mom of three. "Being an authority figure seems weird to our generation." Instead, we focus on bringing the adult world down to the child's level and on nurturing his uniqueness and self-esteem.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Perhaps. We go overboard trying to make life and all of its complexities more palatable and less stressful for our kids, says Ashley Merryman, coauthor of NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. But in our quest to boost self-esteem and stave off frustration, we may be setting our kids up for a fall. Dr. Twenge bristled when her daughter brought home a sheet from school with the lyrics to a little ditty that read, "I am special. Look at me, look at me," to be sung to the tune of "Frère Jacques." In a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers found that adults who scored high on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory were more likely to say that their parents had showered them with empty praise when they were children. The portion of college students scoring high on that inventory has risen from 17 percent in the early 1980s to 30 percent now. Her message to parents smothering their children with the "special" label: "Just say 'I love you.' That's what you mean, anyway."
And while we all know that a $3.99 iPhone app is worth every penny and more when you're trapped inside with a preschooler on a rainy day, Merryman suggests we let go of the pressure that "all kids must be occupied at all times with wall-to-wall distractions and interactions." In fact, the opposite is true: Imagination flourishes during those dull moments when you can't rush over to entertain your child. She cites research from the University of Oregon Imagination Lab, in Eugene, which shows that having imaginary friends when you're little predicts verbal skills in college. Besides, "a young brain literally can't handle a constant barrage of information, lights, and video," she adds. "It requires time for quiet. The reason babies sleep so much is because they need to process what they've learned."
What's more, by assuming that kids are happy only when we're tailing them at the playground or taking them to a blinged-out Chuck E. Cheese's, "we can no longer recognize what our children are truly capable of doing and understanding," says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a Princeton, New Jersey, child psychologist and coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids.