Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Taking the blame for brat pack
Miranda Fettes

Emotionally bereft, socially stunted, devoid of empathy or any sense of duty, sulky, selfish, rude, morally deficient and full of anger. It might sound like a description of a psychopath dreamed up by Hollywood, but brace yourself: it’s worse. Much worse. It’s a whole generation of youngsters.

This is the controversial diagnosis of the current crop of youngsters according to American psychiatrist Dr Robert Shaw. After a lifetime of observation based on years of family psychiatry, he believes society is facing a damaging epidemic of sullen children. "Our society has spawned an entire generation of cognitively smart but emotionally-stunted children who can’t appreciate the feelings and needs of other people," he says. "We are in the middle of an epidemic that is devouring the children of comfortable, affluent and educated parents."

And he believes absentee, permissive and over-indulgent parenting is to blame. He argues that as more parents work away from home for longer hours and spend less time with their children, they are failing to set out the fundamental moral parameters of love, respect and behavioural boundaries. Drawn into the western world’s obsession with career success, they work hard in order to provide for what they believe to be their kids’ every material need, while a carer raises their children.

Stressed and exhausted when they come home, according to Dr Shaw they stick their kids in front of the telly for hours on end and yield to their demands for the latest gadget or trainers to absolve their guilt for not spending enough time with their little darlings.

Dr Shaw claims in his book The Epidemic - which has swept America - that parents are terrified of accusations of neglecting their kids and embrace consumerism as a solution.

The result, however, is rude, ungrateful, demanding kids.

Ironically for parents, he is also talking about the children of families which in the past would have been expected to turn out the most fully-rounded youngsters, the middle and upper class families: "Comfortable families where there are two working parents, where there’s plenty of money but simply not enough parental time. That’s where the problem lies."

So is he right? Have parents created a generation of joyless, selfish, over-indulged monsters - real-life aggressive, resentful versions of Harry Enfield’s uncommunicative comic creation, Kevin the Teenager?

Edinburgh child psychologist Jean Bechhofer believes sweeping generalisations about a whole generation of children’s shortcomings can be damaging and alienating, but she does highlight some of the same issues.

"There is some concern that kids are not getting the parental skills training that they require to bring up the next generation. A lot of people do have concerns that kids spend too much time interacting with machines and not with each other or their parents. Kids’ boundaries have been drawn in, but that’s not parents’ fault. It’s a change in the way that we are all living.

"I have had concerns about the long working hours that British society demands of parents, but if you think back, mums had a hell of a lot more to do in terms of house tasks and didn’t have as much time for kids and that tends to be forgotten. It’s quality rather than quantity that matters. Quality time with kids is what’s truly important."

But she adds: "It’s very dangerous to be general on these matters. Shaw is talking from the basis of a clinical practice: he’s seeing the worst case scenario, he’s not seeing all children. A lot of children communicate pretty well."

Sociologist and author of Paranoid Parenting, Dr Frank Furedi, is similarly wary of pointing the finger of blame at parents.

"I don’t think the fact that parents are working is the problem, because there are many societies where parents work very long hours without having any negative consequences for their family. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, women in Eastern Europe and Russia used to work all the time. Nobody made a point that because of that children had an emotionally diminished life or were out of control."

He denies that parents are not spending enough time with their kids and says British research indicates the opposite.

"Even though a growing number of women are working, mothers and fathers spend far more time with their children today then 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. If anything, they’re spending too much time with their kids rather than too little."

The problem, he believes, boils down to a lack of parental confidence. "When parents are told they are responsible for everything that happens to their children, they lose confidence and they become scared of drawing lines. You have a situation where children are not really challenged or confronted. They get the worst of two worlds: they’re neither allowed to get on with life and explore the world on their own, nor are they given clear guidance for what they should do.

"We’re sending a signal to society that parents are bumbling amateurs, so it’s much more difficult to be confident about what you’re doing. Most parents intuitively know when they should say no but they are too scared about doing it.

"I think the solution is for parents to ignore all the advice they’re getting and trust their instincts - that’s how you build confidence. Kids need to be told what’s right and what’s wrong and they need to have much clearer lines drawn."

Shaw agrees. What parents need to do is listen to their own common sense, he says.

"Be clear that as a parent, you always know inside what the right thing is to do. With children there have to be some rules and it’s up to you to make them."

Furedi, though, doesn’t agree with Shaw’s premise that parents have produced a generation of joyless, selfish, emotionally-stunted children. "That’s a bit of an exaggeration. The kids are basically all right but they just haven’t been given the opportunity to gain the confidence and the independence that a more relaxed childhood would give them."

He adds: "I think too much of anything is a bad thing - television included. But it is not this monster that it’s often made out to be. The issue is that there are problems with parenting when so little energy is given to allowing kids to be outdoors."

But he says strictness is not the solution. Instead, he believes it’s all about consistency. "Most parents know what the boundaries are and can tell them to their kids, but it’s sticking to your guns and being consistent with it [rather than giving in]."

Shaw, though, maintains that atrocities such as the Columbine High School tragedy, in which two teenage boys slaughtered 12 fellow pupils and a teacher, are the inescapably real, brutal, chilling proof of this "epidemic". And while horrors such as Columbine are an extreme and rare manifestation, he says the epidemic is visible and in evidence everywhere, albeit in a diluted form.

"To commit this cold-blooded crime, these boys had to be extremely detached and alienated from everyone around them. They must have been completely cut off, totally lacking in the understanding that there were people they could talk with about their feelings of loneliness, emptiness, despair, resentment and rage.

"But as sad as the events were, they did not surprise me. These children were not an aberration. They were the natural outcome of the way we have been raising children from comfortable and even affluent families today. They were developmentally crippled by the child-rearing attitudes and practices that have spread like a virus from home to home." Shaw adds: "Over the past ten or 15 years I’ve become more and more aware of this epidemic, but now it has reached the point that calls for us to intervene. The behaviour of these discontented, joyless children is so common these days that many people no longer consider it abnormal."

Recent Channel Four series Brat Camp, which centred around spoilt, aggressive, disaffected youths, could be considered a contender to back Shaw’s concerns, although the programme’s approach was different to the psychiatrist’s. Its premise is that all the "brats" needed was to be toughened up and would be as right as rain after a month surviving in the desert.

Shaw, on the other hand, believes the answer lies in simply loving, respecting and spending more time with children. His decades of clinical experience have led him to the conclusion that children flourish best in a nuclear family, where one of the parents stays at home to look after, love and morally guide them, and where traditional family values rule.

It’s a theory that seems to be going down well in the States, where parents are apparently getting fed up with the "children are king" idea. Bizarrely, that was brought to the fore by Pop Idol’s Simon Cowell when he criticised spoilt, overconfident kids. To British viewers of the show, the talent judge is notorious for his brutally honest put-downs. But to US parenting experts, he is pioneering a cultural revolution against precocious kids who have always had their way. Indeed, he is being hailed as the first person to have the guts to publicly state what for 30 years has been unutterable.

Parenting organisations, meanwhile, say parents are being hit with a barrage of confusing, often conflicting advice and it doesn’t help to blame them further and make them feel even more guilty.

Christian Jenner, a spokeswoman for the National Family and Parenting Institute, says: "There is a lot of evidence that parents are spending more time with their children rather than less. We very much try and avoid blaming parents where possible because most of them do a very good job and it’s an extremely challenging job. Parents are constantly being told what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

"We are currently looking at marketing and advertising to children and would say that a lot of the pressures on children and families nowadays come from the industries which promote products at children, some of whom can’t even talk. We are campaigning to get that changed."

But Shaw is adamant: "Our society has become crippled. Yet there is hope, since this epidemic is not a disease of children themselves - it’s a problem of how they are being raised.

"The need is urgent; the time is now. A look at the nightly news - or even a walk down your block or into your neighbourhood stores - will show you why."

First published in the Edinburgh Evening News, 23 April 2004