Who's In Charge Here?

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Here is a parenting parable for our age. Carla Wagner, 17, of Coral Gables, Fla., spent the afternoon drinking the tequila she charged on her American Express Gold Card before speeding off in her high-performance Audi A4. She was dialing her cell phone when she ran over Helen Marie Witty, a 16-year-old honor student who was out Rollerblading. Charged with drunken driving and manslaughter, Carla was given a trial date--at which point her parents asked the judge whether it would be O.K. if Carla went ahead and spent the summer in Paris, as she usually does.

That settled it, as far as Mark Marion and Diane Sanchez, also of Coral Gables, were concerned. Their daughter Ariana, then 17, knew Carla, who was described in the local papers as the "poster child for spoiled teens." Ariana too had wanted a sports car for her 16th birthday, not an unreasonable expectation for a girl with a $2,000 Cartier watch whose bedroom had just had a $10,000 makeover. But Ariana's parents had already reached that moment that parents reach, when they wage a little war on themselves and their values and their neighbors and emerge with a new resolve.

Maybe Ariana would just have to wait for a car, they decided, wait until she had finished school and earned good grades and done volunteer work at the hospital. "We needed to get off the roller coaster," says Diane, and even her daughter agrees. "For my parents' generation, to even have a car when you were a teenager was a big deal," Ariana says. "Today, if it's not a Mercedes, it's not special." She pauses. "I think," she observes, "we lost the antimaterialistic philosophy they had...But then, it seems, so did they."

Even their children level the charge at the baby boomers: that members of history's most indulged generation are setting new records when it comes to indulging their kids. The indictment gathered force during the roaring '90s. A TIME/CNN poll finds that 80% of people think kids today are more spoiled than kids of 10 or 15 years ago, and two-thirds of parents admit that their kids are spoiled. In New York City it's the Bat Mitzvah where 'N Sync was the band; in Houston it's a catered $20,000 pink-themed party for 50 seven-year-old girls who all wore mink coats, like their moms. In Morton Grove, Ill., it's grade school teachers handing out candy and yo-yos on Fridays to kids who actually managed to obey the rules that week. Go to the mall or a concert or a restaurant and you can find them in the wild, the kids who have never been told no, whose sense of power and entitlement leaves onlookers breathless, the sand-kicking, foot-stomping, arm-twisting, wheedling, whining despots whose parents presumably deserve the company of the monsters they, after all, created.

It is so tempting to accept the cartoon version of modern boomer parenting that it is easy to miss the passionate debate underneath it. Leave aside the extremes, the lazy parents who set no bounds and the gifted ones who are naturally wise when it comes to kids. In between you hear the conversation, the unending concern and confusion over where and how to draw the lines. Have we gone too far, given kids more power than they can handle and more stuff than they can possibly need? Should we negotiate with our children or just inform them of the rules? Is $20 too much for lunch money? What chores should kids have to do, and which are extra credit? Can you treat them with respect without sacrificing your authority? Cheer them on without driving them too hard? Set them free--but still set limits?

Some of these are eternal questions. Today's parents may often get the answers wrong, but it's also wrong to say they're not even trying. You don't have to get far into a conversation with parents to hear them wrestling with these issues. And you don't have to look hard to see a rebellion brewing. Just as the wobbling economy of the past year made conspicuous consumption a little less conspicuous, it also gave parents an excuse to do what they have wanted to do anyway: say no to the $140 sneakers, fire the gardener, have junior mow the lawn. The Wall Street Journal calls it the Kid Recession: overall consumer spending rose slightly last year, but it dropped about a third among 8- to 24-year-olds. The Journal cited a November survey that found that 12% of kids said their allowance had been cut in recent months, while 16% received fewer gifts.

This is a war waged block by block, house by house. If it is too much to try to battle the forces of Hollywood or Madison Avenue or the Nintendo Corp., at least you can resolve that just because the kids down the street watch unlimited TV doesn't mean your kids should too. You can enforce a curfew, assign some chores and try hard to have dinner together regularly. And then hope that the experts are right when they say that what kids mainly need is time and attention and love, none of which takes American Express.

The historians and psychologists have lots of theories about how we got here, but some perennial truths persist: every generation thinks the next one is too slack; every parent reinvents the job. Parenthood, like childhood, is a journey of discovery. You set off from your memories of being a kid, all the blessings, all the scars. You overreact, improvise and over time maybe learn what works; with luck you improve. It is characteristic of the baby boomers to imagine themselves the first to take this trip, to pack so many guidebooks to read along the way and to try to minimize any discomfort.

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