Millennials are gentle parenting—is it producing entitled kids?

It’s the stuff of nightmares for frequent flyers and vacationers alike: you’re trapped in a claustrophobic metal tube for eight hours, hurtling through the air at 35,000 feet. All you want is to enjoy a movie, some music or a good book.

Instead, a toddler is transforming the plane into his personal trampoline park, jumping on his tray table and shouting. And his parents? They’re in chill mode, totally unfazed by the tiny terror’s behavior.

Yet this nightmare is all too real—and according to some, all too common. Such incidents have become staples of communities such as Reddit. “I hate parents who let their kids run wild and become everyone else’s headache,” vents one user, while another, a battle-hardened parent of three, declares, “It’s 100% on the parents, no question.”

The phenomenon has been blamed on the rise of so-called “gentle” or “permissive” parenting, and research for Newsweek suggests it’s increasingly raising alarm. It’s also opened a new front in America’s culture wars, as others say it’s a welcome change from the stern approach that they blame for emotionally stunted adults.

So, are the parents of today raising a generation of entitled children—or simply learning the lessons of their own childhoods?

The Importance of Boundaries

The majority of people aged 43 and over believe children are more badly behaved than previous generations, with two-thirds of boomers and 57 percent of Gen X saying that behavior has worsened, according to a poll for Newsweek by Redfield & Wilton Strategies. Almost three-quarters of Boomers and Gen X—71 per cent—suggest that parents being too gentle with their kids is to blame.

Meanwhile, more than a third of Gen Zers—35 percent—wouldn’t tell their children to stop running around a restaurant or other indoor venue, 38 percent would let their children watch videos without headphones in public, and a third would not tell their children to stop kicking the seat in front of them on public transport, the poll of 1,500 eligible U.S. voters found.

Those attitudes are reflected—albeit to a much less extreme degree—among millennials, who are most likely to be raising young children today. For example, 10 percent wouldn’t tell their children to stop running around a restaurant or other indoor venue, and 26 percent would let their children watch videos without headphones in public.

Clinical psychologist, bestselling author and mother-of-three Becky Kennedy, known on Instagram by her two million followers as Dr Becky, is a proponent of sturdy parenting. She launched Good Inside to help parents treat children with respect and maintain boundaries. She has observed that some parents have swung to permissive parenting, perhaps as a reaction to the strict households in which they were raised.

“Validating feelings is so important,” she says. “But it’s an incomplete parenting approach. It’s why I place equal emphasis on setting and holding firm boundaries. None of that is mean or scary. I do think some parents have leaned into validation and not equally into boundaries.”

However, she is clear that historic parenting techniques that used fear to control children have led to problems in adults.

Dr Becky Kennedy sitting down
Clinical psychologist, bestselling author and mother-of-three Becky Kennedy, known as Dr Becky. She is a proponent of sturdy parenting. Clinical psychologist, bestselling author and mother-of-three Becky Kennedy, known as Dr Becky. She is a proponent of sturdy parenting. Becky Kennedy

“People didn’t understand that ‘bad behavior’ was a sign of dysregulated feelings,” she says. “So they added fear: ‘Go to your room,’ ‘You’re punished,’ maybe even hitting. Short term, fear can be powerful enough that a kid tries to get rid of those feelings, because they believe they are to blame. But long term, this has a whole host of problems.

“Authoritarian parenting doesn’t feel good to kids, nor does it set them up to be sturdy, confident, resilient adults. Instead, fear is wired next to love, children learn to mistrust themselves and don’t feel connected to their parents because they don’t feel seen or safe. We have whole generations of dysregulated adults.”

Tantrums, she says, are feelings a child hasn’t yet learned to regulate. “Kids are born with all the feelings, and none of the skills to manage those feelings,” she says. “When feelings overpower the skills we have to manage them, they explode out of our body in the form of behavior.” So as parents emotionally coach their kids and they build more skills, they see fewer dysregulated behaviors.

Breaking the Taboo

Parenting attitudes have shifted hugely over the past half century. Heidi Snellenburg, 65, works in advertising and has two adult sons, aged 33 and 25. “The age of spanking was still in place when I was brought up,” she remembers of her childhood in Cleveland, Ohio. “If I was really bad I got the paddle—more like a couple of swats—but I came to fear it. Instilling fear is an effective tool in suppression. Life between parents and children was very separate, it was not until I reached 10 that sometimes I would be taken out with my parents.”

In contrast, her generation was the first to take children to New York restaurants. “It was still somewhat taboo. We expected our children to be quiet, so would bring crayons and playdough to occupy them,” she says. “Gradually, restaurants got with the program. Now parents feel it’s OK for children to scream and cause disturbances rather than whisk the child outside.”

The Four Parenting Styles

There are four broad parenting styles, say Amy DiBernardo, New York City adolescent psychotherapist and mother of an 11-year-old.

Authoritarian Parenting

Authoritarian parenting, where boundaries are set without much explanation, was common in previous generations. An authoritarian parent, when challenged, might reply: “Because I said so.”

Permissive Parenting

Permissive parenting is the complete opposite, with no boundaries or rules.

Neglectful Parenting

While a permissive parent is involved with their children, neglectful parenting means that they are completely hands-off.

Authoritative Parenting

The fourth style of parenting, known as authoritative parenting, sturdy parenting, or gentle parenting, is what DiBernardo describes as “warm, firm but fair parenting, characterized by the ability to set boundaries but be flexible, so if your teenager has an 11 o’clock curfew but there’s a concert, that might a reason to stretch the boundary.”

Kids need boundaries, DiBernardo says. “But there’s value in saying no and here’s why: it’s collaborative. We know authoritative parenting provides optimal parent-child outcomes.”

Children are growing up in an intense world, she says. “Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 12-18-year-olds in the U.S., according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. There’s an increase in anxiety and depression and an explosion in opioid addiction.

“There’s a huge emergence of dual working households, of divorce and many people don’t have the same familial support down the street. Technology and social media also bring challenges. Parents are trying to do the best they can, in the reality of the world they have to fit into.”

However, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book, believes children now are faring better than their parents and grandparents. “People have been complaining about ‘the kids of today’ for centuries,” she says. “It’s a weird phenomenon to think children are worse behaved when more teenagers finish their education and fewer are arrested for violent crimes.”

Sarah Ockwell-Smith behind her books
Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book. She says children today are doing better than their predecessors. Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book. She says children today are doing better than their predecessors. Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Juliette DeCarlo, age 46, lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has three children—twins aged 12 and a nine-year-old. “It might seem like I coddle my kids but issues of mental health are more prevalent,” she says. “It’s a different world, with many more harmful things from social media to the type of drugs out there.”

She believes childhood is more intense than when she and her sister grew up in Buffalo. “There’s so much pressure on kids to be the best athlete and practice multiple times a week,” she says. “My parents loved and nurtured us, but were not living out their dreams through us. We weren’t my parents’ identity.”

However, she doesn’t believe letting kids run riot is acceptable. “I had three kids under three, I didn’t have anything under control,” she admits. “So I would just remove my kids from situations.”

Juliette’s father, Louis DeCarlo, 72, agrees that children’s behavior in public has changed. “Even in public, kids are loud, often screaming,” he says. “Discipline is often lacking and children are treated like debutantes with piano and dance lessons; all their time is planned.

“Kids are definitely ‘consumered’ out of their minds, but on the positive side, they are a lot more comfortable around adults, articulate, have amazing memories and are fun to be around.”

Louis DeCarlo has concerns that electronics may replace reading. “The iPad is like a tranquilizer on car rides, but I don’t think it’s fair to kids in the long run,” he says. “But I feel like a dinosaur: we should be comfortable that kids understand technology, they might be at a real disadvantage with their careers if they don’t.”

As for children growing up entitled, Kennedy believes this can arise from well-meaning parents misguidedly going to great lengths to stop their children experiencing uncomfortable emotions.

“I don’t think our job as parents is to keep our kids happy,” she says. “When my kids are frustrated, I think: I can help them sit with this feeling and learn to tolerate it, rather than be fearful. When we respond to our kids’ frustrations with an immediate exit into comfort, our kids learn: ‘My parents are fearful of me having this feeling. Look how they are contorting their lives just so I don’t have to feel this.'”

So she suggests that while a parent might be tempted to respond to their child’s sorrow at not making a sports team by suggesting they try out for one in a different neighborhood, or soften the blow of not being invited to a party by having friends round, it might be more helpful to let them build skills to tolerate life’s frustrations.

Entitlement Fears

Brent Trimble, 51, lives in New Jersey, works in software and has two sons, age 13 and 11. He has noticed that shielding children from misfortune is becoming increasingly common amongst younger parents.

“If they’re struggling in school it must be the teachers; if they’re struggling with sports it’s the coach or club’s fault,” he says.

“I’ve taught my kids they must never leave the sports field unless they’re knocked unconscious or have a bone protruding, it doesn’t matter if it’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Life is not played under ideal conditions. Our kids try hard, are respectful and kind—but if we ever got asked to go to a meeting because my son was disruptive, we’d go under the presupposition that the teacher was correct. Our kids would be terrified because of the consequences.

“With grade school parents coming up, it’s the inverse—they think their child would never do something wrong. Younger parents also give their children so many choices. That is remarkable to me: if I asked my sons what they wanted to do on a Saturday it would be Xbox, candy and ice cream.”

Rebecca Graham, 38, taught in high schools in Brooklyn, New York, until becoming a parent herself. “I worked at a highly competitive college: I’d be getting emails from parents at all times of night arguing about a point taken off their homework,” she remembers. “There was a difference with the other two schools I taught at, which weren’t as affluent or competitive.”

Her son is now 21 months old. “I wouldn’t follow the parents who argue for grades: children can advocate for themselves in high school. But neither would I follow parents who say: ‘I believe you, you’re the teacher, everything goes’. I felt bad for kids who didn’t have a chance to give their side of the story. A lot of teachers suck, and that’s also not that fair. Neither extreme is right.”

Graham now teaches music classes to preschool children. “When three-year-olds start running around and screaming, I wonder why some parents aren’t even making an effort to redirect their child. If my son was there, I’d take a break then come back in. If it’s taking away from others’ experience that’s not OK.”

And as for those of us who might, sometimes, have felt the disapproving gaze of older generations while our child is the one running around, Kennedy recommends we question what we’ve done to prepare them.

“It’s important for children to know the expectations and, if they have the urge to explore, know what they can do instead. We can teach them skills,” she says, which is far more helpful than sending a child to a room for misbehaving.

Kennedy asks: “What do we think our four-year-old or eight-year-old is doing in that room? Googling how to stay calm at restaurants? No, they feel like a bad kid, because they’ve been sent away, which only makes them more likely to act out.”

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.