Of course, the process of socialization—beginning with going to preschool and having to share your favorite classroom toy with others—eventually serves to cut down outsize egos. But what happens when every child is raised to be the leader of the pack and a source of limitless pride to his or her parents? As boomer parents have learned the hard way, not every student, however gifted, can get into Harvard, even with the best tutoring money can buy. Are their children doomed to think of themselves as failures if they don’t come in first? A friend of mine, the mother of a 23-year-old, says that for her son’s generation everything was all “ ‘hip-hip hooray!’ Everyone was so afraid of inflicting psychological damage—forget the physical—that we overcompensated by praising our children’s every effort. Everything your child did had to be extraordinary.”
On the face of it, children have clearly become more precious, their individuality and self-esteem promoted as never before. They’re stimulated from the womb on with Baby Mozart CDs, bombarded with cleverly educational toys while still in the cradle, and dressed in designer togs even at spit-up age. Once the wee ones start talking, piano lessons and art classes no longer suffice in the way of enrichment; these days, kids work out with personal trainers and are taught Mandarin.
Then again, one might argue that the very meaning of having a child—once seen as an expected outcome of marriage—has changed now that in vitro fertilization, sperm donors, and surrogate mothers are enabling previously unlikely candidates for parenthood (gay, older, or infertile couples) to produce offspring. Children who are brought into the world with greater difficulty are not necessarily going to be valued more, but the chances are good that they will be less taken for granted and that their every step will be watched with high anxiety or anticipation. Parents of such children tend to assume that other people are as fascinated with their progeny as they are and see nothing strange in e-mailing daily photo updates of their child’s progress to one and all.
Not everyone views the blinding focus on children and their budding selves as a positive development. One busy Upper East Side child analyst, who humorously refers to her patients as “pampered poodles,” notes that “children who are overindulged are left unprepared and unprotected in the real world. Parents who baby their children want to make them dependent on them and thereby maintain their own power and authority as parents.”
Sheilagh Roth, who runs the English Nanny & Governess School in tiny, picturesque Chagrin Falls, Ohio—one of only three such schools in the country—believes, paradoxically, that parents “have abdicated responsibility.” She adds that “the wealthier they are, the worse they are.” I went out to the school on a crisp day in early December to see if I could get a sense of the latest thinking about “proper” child rearing. Who would know better than someone who specializes in training women and even a few men to become certified caretakers for other people’s children? Roth grew up in Yorkshire, England, with a beloved nanny of her own (in stark contrast to my experience, which led me to write a piece called “Nanny Dearest”), and has been running the school for 28 years. Her clients include the royal family in Abu Dhabi, which hires one nanny per child, and well-off families in Nigeria and Singapore, as well as more ordinary American couples (a doctor couple, for instance) who are willing to fork out between $600 and $1,500 a week for one of Roth’s graduates.