The Power of No

Eloise Goldman struggled to hold the line. She knew it was ridiculous to spend $250 on a mini iPod for her 9-year-old son Ben. The price tag wasn't the biggest issue for Goldman, a publicist, and her fund-raiser husband, Jon. It was the idea of buying such an extravagant gadget for a kid who still hasn't mastered long division. If she gave in, how would Ben ever learn that you can't always get what you want? Goldman knew there was a good chance the iPod would soon be lost or abandoned, just like Ben's toy-of-choice from last year, a bright blue drum set that now sits forlornly in the basement of their suburban New York home. But Ben nagged and pestered and insisted that "everyone has one." Goldman began to weaken. Ben's a good kid, she reasoned; she wanted him to have what the other kids had. After doing a neighborhood-mom check and finding that Ben's peers were indeed wired for sound, Goldman caved—but not without one last attempt to salvage some lesson about limits. She offered her son a deal. We give you an iPod, you forfeit your birthday party. "Done," he said. Then, without missing a beat: "Now what about getting me my own Apple G4?"

It's an unexpected legacy of the affluent '90s: parents who can't say no. With school starting, the annual assault on the family budget to fill backpacks with all the cool stuff that "everyone" else has is just beginning. This generation of parents has always been driven to give their kids every advantage, from Mommy & Me swim classes all the way to that thick envelope from an elite college. But despite their good intentions, too many find themselves raising "wanting machines" who respond like Pavlovian dogs to the marketing behemoth that's aimed right at them. Even getting what they want doesn't satisfy some kids—they only want more. Now, a growing number of psychologists, educators and parents think it's time to stop the madness and start teaching kids about what's really important—values like hard work, delayed gratification, honesty and compassion. In a few communities, parents have begun to take action by banding together to enforce limits and rules so that no one has to feel guilty for denying her 6-year-old a $300 Nokia cell phone with all the latest bells and whistles. "It's almost like parents have lost their parenting skills," says Marsha Moritz, 54, who helped found the Parent Engagement Network, a support group in Boulder, Colo. "They want to be their kids' best friend and make sure they're having fun, but what the kids really need is for parents to be parents."

While it's certainly true that affluent parents can raise happy and well-adjusted children, the struggle to set limits has never been tougher. Saying no is harder when you can afford to say yes. But the stakes have also never been higher. Recent studies of adults who were overindulged as children paint a discouraging picture of their future. Kids who've been given too much too soon grow up to be adults who have difficulty coping with life's disappointments. They have a distorted sense of entitlement that gets in the way of success both in the workplace and in relationships. Psychologists say parents who overindulge their kids may actually be setting them up to be more vulnerable to future anxiety and depression. "The risk of overindulgence is self-centeredness and self-absorption, and that's a mental-health risk," says William Damon, director of the Stanford University Center on Adolescence. "You sit around feeling anxious all the time instead of figuring out what you can do to make a difference in the world."

Today's parents—who themselves were raised on Greatest Generation values of thrift and self-sacrifice—grew up in a culture where "no" was a household word. Goldman remembers that as a teenager, she had to beg for a phone in her room. In a world where families spend "quality time" at the mall instead of in the backyard, her request seems almost quaint. Today's kids want much more, partly because there's so much more to want. The oldest members of this Generation Excess were born in the late 1980s, just as PCs and videogames were making their assault on the family room. They think of MP3 players and flat-screen TVs as essential utilities and they've developed strategies to get them. One survey of grade-school children found that when they crave something new, most expect to ask nine times before their parents give in. By every measure, parents are shelling out record amounts. According to market researchers Packaged Facts, families with 3- to 12-year-olds spend $53.8 billion annually on entertainment, personal-care items and reading materials for their children. This is $17.6 billion more than parents spent in 1997. Teens are spending huge amounts of money themselves, some of it cadged from their families and the rest from after-school jobs. Last year 12- to 19-year-olds spent roughly $175 billion, $53 billion more than in 1997, according to Teen Research Unlimited.