Looking up from her desk at the front of the classroom, the teacher lets out a frustrated sigh. Less than a minute after asking her Year 6 students to read a book, they're restless and fidgeting. Unable to concentrate, several are talking, one is staring out the window and another digging in his pocket for an illicit mobile phone. Picking her way past colourful art projects, the teacher approaches a boy relentlessly poking his neighbour with a ruler, telling him to get on with his work. Red-faced, he throws back his chair, screaming, "You can't make me!", pushing roughly past her and storming out.
The scene is reminiscent of others played out in classrooms all over as teachers grapple with a new breed of student. Meet Generation Z – born roughly from 1995 to 2009, branded by British psychologist Dr Aric Sigman as the West's "little emperors" and predicted by demographer Hugh Mackay to be the "most rebellious and obnoxious group of teenagers ever". But before we all shake our heads and lament "kids these days", the experts have a sobering message – it's our own fault.
Today's children are growing up in a very different world, where technology is ubiquitous, materialism is rampant and "happiness" is the ultimate goal, to be pursued at all costs. It's a world where many schools no longer have an "F" (for fail) grade, preferring to use the less confrontational "E"; all layers of pass-the-parcel have a prize and parents demand all kids in an athletics carnival be given ribbons. The BBC even rewrote the children's classic Humpty Dumpty, so he could be put back together again, lest the littlies be upset.
The complaints about today's demographic punching bag, Gen Y – the short attention span and need for constant stimulation, feelings of entitlement, use of credit to instantly gratify their desires – are likely to be exaggerated in Gen Z as they grow up.
As Mackay points out, a child who is never told "No", allowed to fail or made to face consequences – who is always praised and has never had to share or wait for anything – grows into an adult unprepared for the realities of life. "We are fond of attacking these generations and criticising them, as though we can overlook the fact that they are products of the world we have created for them, of our society – and of their parents," he points out.
Parenting, as well, has changed dramatically, morphing into the "art of parenting" and spawning books, television shows and millions of dollars, says Dr Sigman, author of The Spoilt Generation (Piatkus, $35). "Even as we chanted 'put children first' ever louder, we have actually retreated from parenting. We used to parent far more. Something we did unknowingly and intuitively has been elevated to a fine science and become the subject of political fashion, the province of gurus, experts and TV nannies."
That focus on boosting children's self-esteem is "one of the great problems of the age", says Mackay. "We're not talking about self-respect. Self-esteem says kids have to feel good about themselves regardless of what they've done. So-called 'positive psychology' has created a happiness industry – gold stars for everybody, always praise, never criticise, never talk about failure. It's completely absurd and this generation of kids is the victim of that movement because they'll be less equipped to cope with the inevitable failures and disappointments of life."
Dr Sigman argues the rabid promotion of self-esteem has parents confused, scared to punish kids, believing it will "be counterproductive – even harmful – quashing their character and preventing them from expressing themselves".
Teachers told marie claire of children unable to concentrate long enough to follow instructions as simple as getting a yellow pencil from their desk. Others feel such intense pressure to succeed they refuse to attempt challenging tasks. Even kindergarten teachers report that "I don't want to and you can't make me" has become a common refrain, and more children are not toilet-trained.
Overindulgent and permissive parenting is also affected by the dual agonies most working mums and dads are familiar with – guilt and a lack of time. Generation X, largely the parents of today’s kids, are older (the average age of a first-time mother has jumped from 27 to 31 in 25 years) and more likely to both be working. They're also the most divorced generation, with 22 per cent of children under 15 in single-parent households, compared to just 14 per cent in 1986–1988. It's a recipe for over-stretched, guilt-ridden parents who feel they're spending too little time with their children and are looking to make up for it.
It's led to a fixation with being "liked" by their kids, shying away from confrontation and punishment, says psychologist Renée Mill. "We live in a culture where parents believe they've got to be a friend and are scared to be a parent," she says. "I suggest they do something with their four or six year old, and they say, 'If I do that he won't like me.'"
Professor Matt Sanders, head of the successful Triple P Positive Parenting Program, says when the pendulum of children's rights swings too far, the notion kids can and should have responsibilities can be lost. So-called "helicopter parenting" is rife, particularly for parents who are always in a rush. "Kids need discipline to learn to regulate their emotions, so just because someone says 'no' doesn't mean you should go into a rage of disappointment," he says.
Teachers report parents doing their children's homework and also complaining of "bullying" for minor incidents. One principal was screamed at by a mother who thought it unjust that her son was being punished for hitting someone with a metal ruler.
Mackay says Generation X are over-protective, anxious and busy, therefore they give in to their kids, but shield them at the same time to make things easier for themselves. "They believe the world has become a dangerous place, so they think, 'I'm more relaxed if they're at home, even if they're playing video games or watching TV.' That's understandable, but it is a burden for kids and it slows their natural development towards independence."
Several experts cited "stranger danger" as a negative for children. A study by the University of Wollongong's Dr Karen Malone in the Melbourne suburb of Brimbank found that two thirds of children aged four to eight aren't allowed to play outside their yard, with one girl saying, "I would like to go outside my garden, but I might get killed."
Angelina Jolie with her daughters, Zahara and Shiloh.
Judy Snell, a primary schoolteacher in Melbourne, says parents often put their children in after-school activities instead, sometimes every day of the week. "There's a tendency for parents to feel if they're not observing their child at all times they're not fulfilling their duties," she explains. "But when children don't have that opportunity for free and creative play, when it is highly structured and supervised, they lose out on the joy of being a child, where they learn a lot by making mistakes, solving problems and testing their boundaries."
As parents try to keep their kids close, they're spending more of their time in front of televisions, surfing the internet and playing video games. But Dr Sigman says screen entertainment can make kids less aware and concerned about their effect on other people if it replaces face-to-face relationships, because eye contact and real conversation increase oxytocin, a hormone important for establishing social behaviour, as well as teaching children how to read facial expressions.
Professor Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist from Oxford University, is also concerned constant stimulation will rewire Gen Z's brains into that of a small child, "attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have small attention spans and who live for the moment".
Rather than pornography and online paedophiles, the greatest danger to kids is more insidious: advertising and product images have created, states Dr Sigman, "the most demanding, acquisitive, materialistic and entitled generation we have ever seen". And parents are giving in. An Australian study commissioned by Bankwest last year found half admitted to trying to "buy" good behaviour with toys (10 per cent to improve "immediate behaviour", such as a tantrum).
Mandy, whose husband also works full-time, says it's particularly challenging when kids' friends have all the latest gadgets. "My kids do have everything they want and need, and they get nice birthday and Christmas presents, but if Harry wants something today, he has to save up his pocket money. But then there are times when you're just exhausted and you do give in, and it definitely sets a precedent for next time."
Eddie Gallagher, a family therapist for more than 35 years, says while today's kids are spoilt compared to previous generations, a lot feel poor. "I remember one girl saying her parents were 'povo' because they only had a small pool," he says. "They look to Hollywood as a realistic picture of what they should have."
It's often the most well-intentioned parents who experience the worst when their indulgence backfires. Gallagher, who deals with children who are physically and/or verbally abusive, says a lot of it comes down to the child's temperament. Many parents of abusive kids are well-educated professionals, with other children who are well behaved.
While older generations may complain about Generation Z, the effect of their upbringing and societal pressures is taking its toll on the children themselves. Renée Mill says she has seen an increase in anxiety and depression in children, which she largely attributes to the breakdown of families. Lyn Milne from the Positive Parenting Network says kids become stressed when they're not given boundaries, and are often also starved of time with their busy parents, so behave badly to get attention. This is backed up by a UNICEF report, released last year, which found the wellbeing of Australian children lagged behind other rich countries, including family relationships, finishing 21st out of 27 for children eating a meal with their parents and 18th for parents spending time with kids.
A wave of disillusioned and potentially depressed adults may also be on the way, as Gen Z finds out the hard way that their unrealistic expectations are going to go unmet. "They see being rich and famous as an achievable lifestyle; all you have to do is unleash your unique talent on the world," says Neer Korn. "One out of a million might achieve that, but the rest of them will have to go to work in jobs that might not always be satisfying or successful. They're also taught from a young age to be outspoken and to demand their claim, so they may be even more challenging to employers than Gen Y."
But experts point out many difficulties Gen Z face are redeemable, simply by parents committing to switching off TVs and computers to talk to children and spend time together in an unstructured way. Several told marie claire the greatest gift would be bringing back family dinners, where children could learn, among other things, vital life lesson skills, such as conversation, waiting until others have finished, serving others first and deferring gratification. Solve these problems, and Gen Z has a lot to offer. Teachers still report children are largely bright and creative, particularly if the lessons involve multimedia, rather than the old "chalk and talk" method.
Korn agrees. "People lament the loss of communication skills, but it's not a loss, it's an evolution. It will redefine how we think about the right and wrong way of communicating, because Gen Z don’t see any difference between SMS and instant chat and face-to-face," he says.
"This generation will expand Gen Y's cultural acceptance – there won't be racism and religious and ethnic barriers because they celebrate the individual. We tend to be down on this generation, but they will create so much. When you don't have to wait to be heard, you can say a lot of good, interesting things. They are just as polite as they ever were, they push the boundaries, but usually within reason. They're quite remarkable kids."