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One of the key arguments against the unreformed welfare state is that it creates a culture of dependency – turning adults into children and the state into their parents. But what if actual parents have been creating a parallel culture of dependency among their children?

You might think that children are meant to be dependent – and, of course, they are. Except that the point of childhood, of growing-up, is to become less dependent. And, that according to Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, is exactly where things have been going wrong:

  • “With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff—clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods. (The market for Burberry Baby and other forms of kiddie “couture” has reportedly been growing by ten per cent a year.) They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority.”

As in America, so in Britain – where one can’t help noticing that in many households the traditional relationship between parents and their children has been turned on its head.  As we all know, power corrupts and when placed within the hands of children it corrupts absolutely:

  • “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call. This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults fear that it isn’t working out so well: according to one poll, commissioned by Time and CNN, two-thirds of American parents think that their children are spoiled.”

Who’s to blame for this mess? Well, popular culture doesn’t help – sitcoms and adverts are full of wise-cracking infants making fools of adult authority figures, especially fathers. Public policy also undermines the idea that children should take their lead from adults, not the other way round. Thanks to Michael Gove things are changing – but for many years it was all about ‘child-centred learning’, ‘children’s commissioners’ and ‘managing challenging behaviour’. The low point came in 2007 with the rebranding of the Department for Education as the Department for Children (complete with infantile logo).

And yet despite this outpouring of nonsense, parents have always had a choice – which is why the behaviour of children from near identical backgrounds can vary so much from family to family.

Elizabeth Kolbert concludes with a very simple explanation for the overall decline in standards:

  • “Letting things slide is always the easiest thing to do, in parenting no less than in banking, public education, and environmental protection. A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just about every aspect of American society. Why this should be is a much larger question, one to ponder as we take out the garbage and tie our kids’ shoes.”

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