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.
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.
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.
Encouraging your child to reach up to your world rather than your hunching awkwardly into his isn't as tough as it sounds. Lynn Brownstein, a former teacher in Jersey City, New Jersey, still kicks herself for playing a constant rotation of children's CDs when her son, Isadore, was a baby. "A few years later, I thought, 'Why are we listening only to kids' music?' " Since then, she has largely nudged Isadore toward her tastes instead of the other way around. "I made a conscious effort to raise a child who'd eat everything," says Brownstein, whose blog, Izzy Eats, is subtitled "the art of raising a gourmand, one bite at a time." She's been taking him to restaurants since he was an infant -- and has always waved away kids' menus as soon as they were offered. Now, 10-year-old Isadore does the same. His favorite dish at the French restaurant down the street is escargots.
Brownstein has never taken Isadore on the more classic kid-friendly vacations (a certain resort in Florida comes to mind) for one simple reason: "These aren't vacations I'd want to go on. I think your child can miss out if you only do so-called kids' activities. My rule is that as long as you give them time to run around in a playground for part of the day, they're fine doing some grown-up stuff." Denying a child her week at Disney may seem extreme, but there's something to be said for equal-opportunity activities.
Dr. Kennedy-Moore agrees. "Kids really do have a better time when they know you're having a good time too," she says. Because, come on, how engaged can you really be on your 15th romp around a bouncy castle? Even children can be tickled by a peek into a more adult universe. Experts have plenty of suggestions for introducing little ones to more exotic experiences. For starters, keep expectations reasonable. Planning a field trip to an adult museum can be a blast, even for a preschooler, if you choose the right exhibits, like chunky sculptures and colorful portraits. One mother I know used to take her 6-year-old on scavenger hunts during visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. She'd let her daughter choose five postcards from the gift shop, then search the galleries for the original works of art, which I thought was pretty brilliant.
When you sense your child's stamina is flagging, check in with her. Try something like: "How are you doing? Are you up for looking at the dinosaurs, or do you want to go outside for a while?" And don't wait until she throws a tantrum, warns Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "It's better to leave with them wanting more than when they're worn out and whiny."
Anytime you change up the program on your children, the key is to transition gradually, experts say. A kid used to dining exclusively at Johnny Rockets will inevitably melt down if you tote him to your cousin's sit-down wedding reception. So, during the months leading up to the event, plan some early suppers at the local casual family restaurant, and set your little guy up for success. Get there early, before he becomes too tired or ravenous -- and before the adult dinner crowd rolls in -- and alert the wait staff that you're on the clock. "Keep the meal short. This way, you can tell your child on the way home how much you enjoyed his company and how respectful he was of the other people at the restaurant," advises Dr. Kennedy-Moore.
Role-playing can also go a long way. Use stuffed animals and other fun props to re-create a fancy restaurant, a theater, or the local library. ("Do we use a quiet or a loud voice?" "Doggy is running around the table -- maybe this coloring book will help him stay in his seat for a few more minutes.") "Focus your instructions on what to do rather than on what not to do. For example, 'Listen to the music,' instead of 'Don't bother anyone.' And go over one or two key reminders just as you're about to leave the house so that it's in the front of your child's brain," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.
Or, don't go out at all. Not surprisingly, experts say that nudging a kid out of his comfort zone begins at home -- with parents who are at once adventurous, curious, and not afraid to let a little boredom set in. Rather than reflexively firing up the iPad or the DVD player just before making dinner, see how your child handles several minutes of distraction-free downtime. Give him time to ponder, "Wow, Mom's cooking, there's nothing on TV, what can I do?" suggests Merryman. Hand him an empty pot and a wooden spoon so that he can "cook" while you do. Better yet, you might get him to cook with you for real.
The fact is, raising mature, worldly, empathetic kids hardly means detaching from them. And it's not about retreating back to the land of seen-and-not-heard. Instead, it's about making them feel like valued members of the household. Because even a 2-year-old can place the napkins on the table while you put the finishing touches on dinner. Chances are, he'll enjoy it -- and so will you.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Parents magazine.