Are Parents to Blame for Their Spoiled Rotten RugBrats?

Rachel Canning’s case has parents worldwide wondering if their kids’ rotten behavior is all their fault. But experts say nature is as much to blame as nurture.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Right now if you do a Google search for “spoiled teen” one name dominates the first few pages of results: Rachel Canning. That’s quite an accomplishment considering Canning is a part of a generation that’s been dubbed one of the most entitled and narcissistic ever. Yet apparently by suing her parents for financial support, despite being 18 years old and no longer living under their roof, she has managed to leap frog ahead of her peers and own the “spoiled brat” label—for now.

After long-running tension in her household, Canning began living with a friend’s family. Her parents allege she declined to cooperate with the “If you’re going to live under my roof, you’re going to live under my rules” standard set by millions of parents before hers. They also claim, to virtually no one’s surprise, that a boy became a bad influence on her. She claims her parents were verbally abusive. According to reports, an investigation into abuse claims led authorities to determine Canning was merely “spoiled.”

In an initial ruling last week, a judge seemed to agree, declining to award Canning any monetary award from her parents at least now, and expressing concern at the precedent a ruling in her favor might have set. (He mentioned kids suing to finance for Xboxes.) But while Canning’s suit has evoked outrage and eye rolls from many, there are plenty who are blaming the parents. A quick sampling of comments about the case seems to hit upon a familiar theme that can be summed up as follows: Yes this girl is a spoiled brat, but the parents only have themselves to blame.

One example that captures this general POV can be found in the ever-growing comments section of a recent Daily Mail article.

“What went badly wrong is the parents have spoiled her rotten and given her everything she ever demanded. It starts out when they're young when they pitch a fit for a toy in a store, to an 18-year-old who thinks she's entitled.”

As Judge Judy often likes to remind parents who appear before her suing their offspring: “He’s an idiot. But he’s your idiot. You raised him.”

But is this true? Is it always parents’ fault when they find themselves with a spoiled teen turned adult on their hands? According to the experts interviewed by The Daily Beast it’s simply…not that simple. The best parents, with the best intentions, can end up raising a child that does not turn out to embody the best when it comes to values and appropriate behavior.

Dr. Janet Taylor, a psychiatrist who has worked with troubled teens and their families said, “Even the parents who had the most rules and tried to be fair and balanced and tried to have consequences still end up with kids who still break the rules, try to push against authority, seem entitled and seeming have no respect for anyone.”

The reality that she and other therapists stressed is that ultimately parents will never be the sole influence over their kids. There will be classmates, pop culture and other influential factors. There will also be the uncomfortable reality all of us have the least control over: nature.

“When a child turns out in any way—good, bad, different—it is a result of some combination and interaction of nature and nurture,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Citing the multitude of outside forces besides parents that shape who we are, in addition to our genetic makeup, she concluded, “while a parent could certainly create an entitled child, they are not always the cause of an entitled child.”

Family therapist Dr. Jeff Gardere meanwhile, cautioned that not setting enough boundaries may not be the problem, but setting too many. “Sometimes if parents set too many boundaries and discipline too much, they will then also rebel and spiral out of control.” He then added, “The bottom line is that we don't know what really happened in this family. Thus I do not project guilt to either party. This is pure family dysfunction.”

Gardere expressed serious concern that the Canning family has ended up in court at all, when what they really need, he believes is therapy. Dr. Taylor agreed, saying of the family financing her lawsuit, “I would say they are doing more damage to that relationship than her actual parents are.”

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Asked if this is the ultimate parental nightmare come to life, the idea that you can spend years trying to raise a child with what you consider the right values and they don’t turn out well, Taylor had this to say: “It’s beyond a nightmare. It’s a reality for many parents. I deal everyday with good people, good parents who have kids who may psychologically have some impulse control disorder or ADHD or have none of the above and are choosing to act out. There are millions of parents who deal with it everyday. There are parents everyday who struggle with parenting and disciplining and trying to instill in their children some sense of right from wrong and doing the right thing.”

Agreeing with the notion that counseling can help this family she adds, “At the end of the day most parents just want to have a happy, healthy child or teenager.”