Taking the blame for brat pack
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: its worse. Much worse.
Its 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 cant 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 worlds
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 theres plenty of money but simply not enough parental
time. Thats 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 Enfields uncommunicative comic creation, Kevin the
Edinburgh child psychologist Jean Bechhofer believes sweeping generalisations
about a whole generation of childrens shortcomings can be
damaging and alienating, but she does highlight some of the same
"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 thats not parents
fault. Its 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 didnt have
as much time for kids and that tends to be forgotten. Its
quality rather than quantity that matters. Quality time with kids
is whats truly important."
But she adds: "Its very dangerous to be general on these
matters. Shaw is talking from the basis of a clinical practice:
hes seeing the worst case scenario, hes 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 dont 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
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, theyre 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:
theyre neither allowed to get on with life and explore the
world on their own, nor are they given clear guidance for what they
"Were sending a signal to society that parents are bumbling
amateurs, so its much more difficult to be confident about
what youre 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
theyre getting and trust their instincts - thats how
you build confidence. Kids need to be told whats right and
whats 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 its up to you to make them."
Furedi, though, doesnt agree with Shaws premise that
parents have produced a generation of joyless, selfish, emotionally-stunted
children. "Thats a bit of an exaggeration. The kids are
basically all right but they just havent 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 its 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
its all about consistency. "Most parents know what the
boundaries are and can tell them to their kids, but its 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 Ive 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 Shaws concerns, although the programmes approach
was different to the psychiatrists. 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.
Its 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 Idols 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
Parenting organisations, meanwhile, say parents are being hit with
a barrage of confusing, often conflicting advice and it doesnt
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 its an extremely challenging job.
Parents are constantly being told what they should and shouldnt
"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 cant 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 - its 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."
published in the Edinburgh Evening News, 23 April 2004