american children culture of disrespect
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
December 12, 2023 ·  8 min read

Physician: American Children ‘Immersed in a Culture of Disrespect’

Dr. Leonard Sax has been a family physician for over 30 years, and in his three decades of practice he has had the opportunity to observe hundreds of parent-child interactions. In 2015, he wrote about his observations in the Wall Street Journal, and they are discouraging, to say the least.

In the piece entitled “Parenting in the Age of Awfulness Sax describes a ten-year-old boy named Kyle who had come into his office with his mother.

Kyle was absorbed in a videogame on his cellphone, so I asked his mom, ‘How long has Kyle had a stomach ache?’ Mom said, ‘I’m thinking it’s been about two days.’ Then Kyle replied, ‘Shut up, mom. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And he gave a snorty laugh, without looking up from his videogame. Kyle is 10 years old.”While some may be shocked to hear a child talk to his mother that way, Sax, unfortunately, was not. He explains that while this sort of language from a child would have been very rare in the eighties, nineties, and even a decade ago, today it has become commonplace [1].

Sax Isn’t the Only One Who’s Noticed

Sax isn’t the only one who has noticed the change in today’s children. In an article for Psychology Today, Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., writes about his wife’s experience as an elementary school teacher. He provided this example:

Students who are disruptive are seated at a desk in the back of the room for a timeout for a short while. At the end of the day, the teacher found the words ‘F*ck you teacher’ written on the desk. Of course, the child denied it, parents were called, and the parents immediately came to the defense of their child.’“He would never do that!’ ‘He doesn’t even know how to spell that word!’” [2].

There was another instance when his wife had to reprimand a child on the playground. As she turned her back, she heard a voice behind her say “I want to kill that teacher!”. That child, of course, was sent to the office and his parents were then called, but nothing ever came of it. This occurred only a couple of days after another student flipped off a teacher, ran off of school property and had to be brought back by the local police.

These are not rebellious teenagers, nor are they kids from rough areas or broken homes, they are seven-year-olds from an affluent, upper-middle-class neighborhood [2].

Why Are Kids Acting This Way?

Psychologists could point to a number of reasons, but Sax believes that kids today have been immersed in a culture of disrespect, not just for their parents and teachers, but even towards each other.

They learn it from television, even on the Disney Channel, where parents are portrayed as clueless, out-of-touch or absent. They learn it from celebrities or the Internet. They learn it from social media. They teach it to one another. They wear T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like ‘I’m not shy. I just don’t like you.’” [1]

Sax compares that to the types of entertainment children used to watch thirty, forty, and fifty years ago. Shows like “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Family Ties” depicted parents as authority figures, and supported them in those roles.

Kids are not born knowing how to be respectful,” explains Sax. “They have to be taught.” [1]

In his book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grownups, Sax argues that parents have essentially become an afterthought.

“In American culture today, same-age peers matter more than parents,” he writes. And parents are reluctant to change the rules … because parents are suffering from ‘role confusion.’ … They are unsure what authority they ought to have and how to exercise it.” [3]

He continues to explain that kids are mistakenly raised to believe that they can do anything and be anything. Their parents bestow upon them an inflated self-esteem, leading their children to believe that their opinions are better or more important than that of their parents.

Inflated self-esteem,” Sax writes, “is the opposite of humility. Belief in yourself – to achieve your dreams, to succeed where others fail – is sold to children as their birthright. Parents are just here to deliver children to their predestined greatness” [3].

Read: The Sunday Family Dinner Is Nearly Obsolete, But it’s One That’s Worth Bringing Back

Millennial Parents Are Doing Things Differently

Every generation of parents has had its own style of raising their kids. There was the silent generation, who demonstrated their love by working hard to provide for their families, but who were, all things considered, fairly laid-back, allowing their kids to play unsupervised in the neighborhood and often left them up to their own devices [4].

Then came the Baby Boomers and Gen-X, who essentially did the exact opposite. It was this generation that gave birth to the term “helicopter parent”, and these parents tried to control everything in their kids’ lives, from playdates to extracurricular activities, their school lives- right down to the contents of their lunch boxes. These parents sacrificed their own hobbies and social lives for their children [4].

Today, we have entered full-swing into the age of the Millennial Parent. Ditching the helicopter-parenting style of their parents, Millennials’ child-rearing style has made way for a new term: “Drone Parenting”. Today’s young parents still hover over their children, but rather than direct them, they try to be more responsive during their parent-child interactions [4]. 

And while many parents, as Sax has noted, are having a difficult time treading the line between disciplining their child and giving them room to make their own decisions, there are many ways this new generation of parents is excelling:

Millennial parents are spending more time with their kids. A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that, despite many households having two working parents, moms and dads are spending more time with their children. In fact, mothers spend about one hour more with their children than their grandmothers did, and fathers are spending up to an hour every day with their kids, compared to their grandfathers who spent time with their children for an average of sixteen minutes per day [5,6].

Millennials are talking to their kids about money. Having reached adulthood during challenging economic times, it appears that millennial parents are talking to their kids about saving money earlier than previous generations. In a study conducted by Capitol Group, researchers found that today’s parents are starting to teach their kids about saving money as young as twelve years old [5,7].

Millennial dads are helping out around the house more. In previous generations, much of the housework fell on the mother’s shoulders. While this still holds true, the needle is starting to move in the other direction- even if it’s just a little bit. A 2015 survey by the Working Mother Research Institute found that today’s fathers are more likely to help out around the house than those of previous generations [5,8].

Millennial parents value togetherness. With two working parents, the traditional six o’clock dinner hour has become increasingly difficult to make happen, but today’s young parents still value family time just as much as previous generations. In place of nightly dinners, millennials have allocated weekends for family time [9].

Millennial parents are safe. Very safe. While some parents in previous generations have rejected things like mandatory car seats, bike helmets, and wide-brim hats to protect their kids’ skin, today’s parents have the internet as a constant source for safety information and they are listening. There is no doubt, millennial parents are very concerned with doing things right [9].

Millennial moms care more about their kids’ nutrition. A study Influenster found that millennial moms say nutrition is more important than price when they are grocery shopping for their kids [5]. On top of that, they are breastfeeding longer. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that from the year 2000 to 2010, breastfeeding rates jump by nearly fifteen percent [10].

Read: How a parent’s affection shapes a child’s happiness for life

Some of the Kids are Alright

As with the generations of parents before them, millennial parents are doing really well in some areas and are struggling in others. They tend to lean toward reinforcing positive behavior over authoritative discipline, and the jury is still out as to whether or not this is an effective parenting strategy [9].

And while there does seem to be a trend toward disrespect and entitlement among today’s youth, as exemplified through the stories from Sax’s medical practice and Riggio’s elementary school teacher wife, rest assured they’re not all bad. 

But don’t give up hope,” assures Sax. “Just as I see children like Kyle in my office, I also see children who are courteous, respectful, happy and confident. Same race, ethnicity and household income.” [1]

Sax believes it is just a few differences in the way the parents interact with these respectful kids that make the difference. Here is what he has learned from these parents:

  • It is ok to agree, but never ok to be disrespectful. Require respectful behavior at all times.
  • Instead of trying to constantly boost self-esteem, teach humility.
  • Prioritize the family having meals together.
  • Turn screens off and put your cell phone away when you are with your child to teach them face-to-face interaction.
  • If you’re making changes, do not be subtle about them. Sit your children down and explain to them the new rules of the house regarding how everyone speaks to each other [1].

Although it may not be easy, it is possible to create an atmosphere of respect within the American household today, and eventually, when your children reach adulthood, they will thank you for raising them that way.

Read More:

Children Need Structure More Than Warmth, Says Child Psychologist

Our Daughter’s Nightly Struggle (Screen time and mental health)