I think the big change in how parents treat their children took place in Victorian times; it was the Victorians who spread the modern idea that a family is more a temple of love than an economic or political unit. Since then we have had a slow trend from rural to urban living -- farm kids still do more chores than urban or suburban kids -- and toward more and more education. But otherwise I see little evidence for much difference between the generations.
The revelation that people were saying almost exactly the same things a century ago ought to make us stop talking and sit down -- hard. So let's consider three questions: Are parents unduly yielding or overprotective? Are kids today unusually narcissistic? And does the former cause the latter?
Everyone has an anecdote about a parent who hovered too close or tolerated too much. But is it representative of American parents in general? Does research tell us how pervasive permissiveness really is? My efforts to track down national data -- by combing both scholarly and popular databases as well as asking leading experts in the field -- have yielded absolutely nothing. . . .
What we do know about discipline is that corporal punishment remains extremely popular in this country. In a 1995 Gallup poll, 94 percent of parents of preschoolers admitted to having struck their children within the previous year, a fact that's not easy to square with claims that parents have become softer or more humane.