The Worst Parents Ever

Overindulgence Gone Bad

In the September 2007 issue of Philadelphia magazine, the words The Worst Parents Ever grace the cover. At the bottom of the page there's a cute kid in jeans and a red warm-up jacket. He looks like he's 9 or 10 years old.

And he's giving us the finger.

Yes, this kid is flipping the bird to a huge metropolitan and suburban Philadelphia audience. There's a small "censored" box that just barely covers the top of the offending finger. Regardless, the message is very clear.

You can't help but want to read this article, can't you?

So I bought the dang magazine. And the article on worst parents -- a controversial piece by Tom McGrath -- was one of the most jolting (and best-written) I've ever read.

Oh, and there's another twist. "Worst Parents Ever" has nothing to do with deadbeat dads, alcoholics, child abusers, or any other characters you'd expect to find on Jerry Springer.

McGrath's article instead focuses on a different group of parents that's messing up big time: wildly successful, Ivy-league educated, super-affluent parents from the Main Line and surrounding Philadelphia suburbs.

We're talking about something called affluenza here. It's what happens when overpampering parents indulge their kids so much that they lose all ability to think independently, show empathy, demonstrate effective problem-solving skills, and adapt to all of the curveballs life usually throws at you. It's a destructive pattern that's messing up an entire generation of children. We're talking about Generation G, as in Gimme.

The Worst Parents article opens with a description of a high-priced SAT tutor. By "high-priced" I'm singing to the tune of $4,990. Yes, this is what parents are paying so their Ivy League-bound kids can nail the 2,400 score that'll get them into Harvard. And even more shocking: the tutor doesn't actually teach anything of educational value. He instead trains his students how to observe patterns on the multiple choice test which allows them to figure out when the answer is A, B, C, and so on. (Never mind learning - just get into Hahvahd, baby!)

It gets uglier from there. There's a picture of The Annotated Main Line Child which highlights the cost of raising such a child. $2,325 for a Michele watch at Neiman Marcus, $15,500 for Jack Kellmer 1.5-carat diamond earrings, $4,199 for a college admissions counselor, $54,975 for a Mercedes 2008 CLK350, and more. They actually listed a one-month supply of focus-enhancing ADHD drug Adderall at $128.99 because hey, "gotta get into Penn, right?"

That's the irony of Worst Parents; they're trying to give their kids as much as they possibly can. They sign their kids up for an endless series of overly-structured sports leagues, ballet, gymnastics, foreign language tutoring, and so on. Not that the aforementioned things are bad; in moderation, nothing wrong with taking up a sport or a class here or there. But oftentimes, people forget that just letting the kids play outside in their own backyard, without a coach or nanny breathing down their necks, can be just as (if not more) beneficial.

The downside to all of this overindulgence is that ultimately, the kids suffer. As McGrath puts it, this style of parenting "robs kids of something crucial: the opportunity to be alone with other kids, the chance to figure out the world on their own."

Take sandlot baseball, for example. McGrath shares his own childhood experience of playing ball with the neighborhood kids; if there weren't enough players and no one was in right field, his friends simply adapted and made up a rule that any ball hit to right field was automatically an out. If there was a dispute of any kind, and no umpire around to resolve it, it was up to the kids to figure it out. This could mean rock-paper-scissors or a simple agreement that "You get this call, next time it goes our way." (Problem-solving skills in action right there, folks!)

Before we move on to the main point of this article (yes, I actually intend to do more than just poke fun at rich people), there's one more story in the Worst Parents article that I couldn't believe.

There was a reference to an infamous Haddonfield party. A group of affluent teenagers at a party in a well-to-do neighborhood decided to do an extreme home makeover in the worst imaginable way. They trashed the house, peed on the furniture, ejaculated on stuffed animals (geez, even I couldn't make this stuff up), and defecated in a grand piano.

Let me repeat this for dramatic effect:

These kids crapped in a piano.

All in all, they did $18,000 in damage. What do you think the appropriate consequences should be?

Me, personally, I think they should clean the piano with a toothbrush.

At the very least, you think they'd be held accountable for total cost of the damages and do some sort of repair work and/or community service, along with whatever legal consequences there could be for the crimes that were committed.

But no... McGrath reports that the parents of these kids (who, need I repeat, crapped in a piano) "lawyered up" and got away with a $75 fine and probation. These parents appeared to be more worried about soiling (sorry, I couldn't resist) their kids' resumes and their chances to get into an elite college than they were about actually teaching these piano crappers a lesson.

McGrath wrote such a great article that you need to read The Worst Parents Ever from start to finish to truly appreciate this phenomenon he uncovered. Also included in this remarkable piece are quotes from professionals and research-based results that reveal what happens to these overindulged kids later in life. Eye-opening stuff, but we really shouldn't be surprised.

And now, the deaf angle.

The Worst Parents Ever reminded me of something I discussed with a group of friends before: we're actually glad to be deaf. Yes, we're culturally Deaf, but that doesn't innoculate us from adversity. We face it all the time. Discrimination, ignorant attitudes, an inconvenience here and there.

Some people go Oh, those poor deaf kids! and want to do everything in their power to fix us, to make life better for all of us.

But maybe, just maybe, wouldn't you think that the adversity we deal with actually makes us stronger?

I also thought of a deaf kid I know who was overindulged in a mainstream program. They actually helped the kid by providing an interpreter, which was great. But they also went out of their way to turn the interpreter into a private tutor (yes, like the ones you can hire for $4,990 in the Main Line).

The 'terp practically wound up doing the kid's homework for him. (There's a line between Interpreter and Public Servant. It was crossed in this situation.) The kid got used to what in essence was a safety net. If he blew off his assignments, someone would swoop to the rescue and all but do it for him instead of holding him accountable.

This kid eventually went to college. And he promptly flunked out. Without a personal valet around to clean up his mistakes, he was lost. It was sad because I believe he had to brains to succeed. He just didn't have the ability to do it on his own because no one allowed him to face a challenge (or a consequence) when he was in high school.

So if you don't want to join the ranks of The Worst Parents Ever, I leave you with this humble advice:

The best gift you can give to a kid is not to give him something, but to allow him to become something.

Best regards,

Mark

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