Mom confession here: I am writing this story in line at a video game store, where I’ve been sitting for two hours before it opens, to just pre-order the new PlayStation 5 from Sony. I’ve got deadlines to attend to, and it’s not easy to concentrate in an open-air strip mall, plus the internet reception is spotty. But my 14-year-old child pleaded for this, and quite frankly I knew if I got the damn thing ordered as his Christmas gift, I’d make him happy (translation: I wouldn’t have to hear him badger me about it for the next few weeks). Is this optimum parenting? No, it is not—so I hit up some licensed professionals to explain the ways we all (by which I mean, I) might be spoiling our teens today, and why that’s even bad, anyway.
First, a definition. According to Los Angeles-based family therapist Hank Olwell, spoiling “would be considered like coddling or overdoing it to see the child is always happy or pleased or doing enjoyable things for themselves. These days, parenting is more focused on ‘Is my kid happy?’ than in past generations.” Why is it bad, though, exactly? “The end result is that though we seem to be giving them everything, they actually become more insecure and anxious in the end. They aren’t really prepared to deal with how life really flows, or to take responsibility and be okay with delayed gratifications.”
Carl Pickhardt, an Austin clinician and author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence: How to Understand and Even Enjoy the Rocky Road to Independence, has developed what he calls the anchors of adolescent growth. These are consistent behaviors set in place by parents and followed by their teens that Pickhardt says are able to “stabilize adolescent growth.” While Pickhardt says that each of these practices is helpful in getting your child through the turbulent passage from childhood to adulthood, done all together, they help your loved one have a smoother growing-up process. Here’s a list of parenting don’ts, according to Pickhardt and other mental health professionals. Which of these applies to you?
1. You Don't Make Them Complete Their Homework
More than just learning trigonometry or the details of the Punic War, the practice of homework helps teens to develop a strong work ethic and instills a habit of self-discipline. Practice saying this: That’s right, teenager, you might not need to use polynomial equations in daily life, but you will need to learn to turn your attention to something boring for a while, and studying polynomials is helping you do this!
2. You Don't Make Them Clean Up Their Room
Pickhardt says that the teenage years are stereotypically messy and disorganized, but that a teen who understands their room needs to meet your (reasonably achievable) neatness goals is understanding that they need to abide by the rules of others whom they depend on.
3. They Don't Do Chores
Unpaid chores are your teen’s way of contributing to home maintenance and being part of a family unit. Stipulate a regular requirement of time and energy you expect from your teen. Julie Wright, LCSW, a clinical social worker at West Los Angeles Veteran’s Administration and the mother of two teen boys, says that she makes clear expectations and sees that her son and stepson live up to them. “Once a week, I have cooking night with the kids, and I don’t care if they don’t want to do it,” she says. “Also, I expect them to do their dishes and their laundry. It’s really hard implementing in the beginning, but I just said okay, if you don’t, say, do the dishes, then no takeout burgers and no computer.”
4. They Don't Have to Join Family Activities
It’s important to require your teen to participate in a trip to see family members, say, or a family getaway. “Socially participating in family events affirms primary social affiliation,” Pickhardt writes in Psychology Today. In other words, it’s how teens understand the importance of being part of a family, which is a lasting bond, over the often transitory bonds of friends.
5. They Have Unlimited Screen Time
Josh Shipp, author of The Grown-Up’s Guide to Teenage Humans, admits that every generation’s new technology is feared by older generations. However, it's a fact that UV light interacts with your teen's optic nerve, signaling that it’s not time to sleep, even though it’s 11 p.m. and there is a big test in the morning. Remember: Your goal as a parent is to help your teen become a well-rounded person who can coexist with technology and not be ruled by it, so your first step is to observe your teen’s interaction with technology. If they are holing up in their room for long stretches, blowing off responsibilities like family meal time and school work, it’s time to rein in the screen time until a healthy balance is reached. You can control your teen’s phone usage from your phone, and set up gaming time limits with easy-to-use devices like Circle Home Plus.
6. They Aren't Required to Do Community Service
When you’re “spoiled,” you think only of yourself—your needs, your gratification. It’s a parent’s job to help lead a child out of this prison of self, toward a sense of community. Not only does helping the community re-focus a teen outward, it gives them a feeling of accomplishment at having helped someone.
7. They Aren't Required to Save Money
Setting aside a little bit of money earned by doing odd jobs for family and neighbors, as well as money gifted by relatives, is delayed gratification in its most plain form. It teaches self-restraint, prioritizing and even, in best case scenarios, planning ahead.
8. They Aren't Building Skill
Resiliency is a pop psychology buzzword lately, with everyone from teachers to employers bemoaning how young people seem willing to, at the first sign of non-success, just give up. There’s even the half-joking term of the “snowplow parent” who swoops in ahead of their child before any obstacles can even get in the way. That’s exactly backwards—instead, teens need to learn to prevail over obstacles, beginning with the practice of building some sort of skill at something they enjoy. “Working to do something well or know something thoroughly,” Pickhardt writes, “the young person builds self-esteem and self-confidence.”
9. They Can't Relate
The sheen of a well-mannered teenager who can hold a conversation for 20 minutes when a guest of their parents comes over for dinner is considerable. “What a polite and well-mannered child!” your friends will say. Well, that’s not why your kids need to be able to talk to adults (although it doesn’t hurt). Your kids need to practice socializing with grown-ups, since they won’t be just living in a world of their peers. Plus, IRL social connections to adults other than their parents can be useful when casting about for internships and educational opportunities.
10. You, As a Parent, Aren't Practicing Self-Care
Both Olwell and Wright emphasize parental self-care as a necessary foundation to supporting your teen’s growth. “You have to remain calm when dealing with your kids,” Wright says, detailing how she’s careful to get enough sleep, maintain connection to supportive friends and get regular exercise. “I am all about the parent getting into their own self-care, their own support system,” Olwell says. “In the end, it benefits the kid…If I am, as a parent, insecure and anxious, then my teen is going to feel that also."
11. You, As a Parent, Aren't Holding Boundaries
Olwell defines a boundary as being an identifiable consistent limit on what is acceptable behavior. “For example, you don’t get to go out with your friends this weekend if don’t have C’s or above on your report card,” he says. Say the grade doesn’t go up, and the teen is really upset they don’t get to go out, and the parent feels bad, so they relent and let the teen go out with her friends? Olwell says this is a classic case of selfish parenting. “It’s actually selfish, because we want to appease the child, instead of teaching them how to sit in the uncomfortableness of not getting what they want. The lesson you want them to get here is ‘So I don’t get to go out this weekend, but if I work on my grades, then I can go out next time.’” Wright says her teens try to argue or emotionally manipulate their way out of consequences. “Sometimes they will fight with you as a way of procrastinating. But I just say ‘We are not getting into this anymore. You can cry if you want to, but you still have to do the responsibility,” she says. After the teens have calmed down, she says, “they see that this responsibility is still there.”
Post Script: Ah, bitterest of ironies, all the PlayStation 5 pre-orders were sold out, and my teen wasn't assured of getting his console. After he still badgered me about getting one for the rest of the afternoon, I took all my learnings to heart and said, "I have done all I can at this point, and we won't be talking about this any more today. I need you to learn to breathe through the worry of not getting your video console, even though if you'll recall you've never gone without in past video releases. And if you don't respect my wish to move off this topic, I'll need to shut down your phone as a consequence of your not listening." And, reader: For the rest of the day, I didn't hear another PS5 peep.