No one looks the way I do.
I have noticed that it’s true.
No one walks the way I walk.
No one talks the way I talk.
No one plays the way I play.
No one says the things I say.
I am special.
I am me.

Gen Y – people born between 1978 and 1997 – grew up singing that nursery song. Today many parents and psychologists wonder if songs like that were not big mistakes.

In the 1980s world of child rearing, the catchword was “self-esteem.” Unconditional love and being valued “just because you’re you!” was the prevailing philosophy. In practice, it involved constantly praising children, not criticizing them under any circumstances, emphasizing feelings, and not recognizing one child’s achievements as superior to another’s. At the end of a season, every player “won” a trophy. Instead of just one “student of the month,” schools named dozens. Teachers inflated grades from kindergarten through college: “C” became the new “F.” No one ever had to repeat a grade because staying behind caused poor self-esteem.

The result of these child-rearing practices has been a measurable increase in narcissism and a generation that has a deeply embedded sense of entitlement, according to authorities like Dr. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable Than Ever. Dr. Twenge of San Diego State University studied more than 16,400 students who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006. In 1982, only a third of the students scored above average on the test. Today that number is over 65%.

The new trend toward self-centeredness and self-love might be bad for society. Dr. Twenge warns that narcissists lack empathy, overreact to criticism, and favor themselves over others. They are incapable of cheering anyone else’s success. Ultimately, they led miserable lives because they cannot form and maintain healthy relationships.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, corporations like Lands End and Bank of America are hiring “praise teams” to keep up with Gen Y’s demand for constant positive reinforcement. Other generations believed that as long as no one fired them, their work must be okay. Gen Y needs constant praise in the form of emails, awards, celebration balloons and other such tangible recognition of their work or they become anxious.

The constant stream of praise has resulted in what psychologist Dr. Linda Sapadin calls “a runaway inflation of speech.” No girl is pretty: she’s drop dead gorgeous. That guy is a genius (not merely bright). Dr. Sapadin says the word “nice” is a put-down.

Gen Y’s need for affirmations often accompanies an intense sense of entitlement. A therapist with the Aspen Education Group describes it as “I want it now! Now! I have to have it right now!” A Gen Y with a sense of entitlement will also refuse to take responsibility when he makes a mistake. For example, if he gets a speeding ticket, he expects his parents to pay for the ticket and increased insurance premiums and to keep on driving as if nothing happened.

Refusing to stand up to the demands of Gen Y is causing financial problems for many parents. Ian Pierpoint, an executive with market research company Synovate, coined the phrase “gold-collar kids,” who insist on expensive brand names like Versace or Dolce and Gabbana. The problem is that many gold-collar kids have blue-collar parents who go into credit card debt to meet their children’s demands (many of whom still live at home well into their twenties).

Because Gen Y parents have always treated their children as friends and equals, by the teen years they have learned to use bad behaviors to get what they want. As Dr. Susan Jennings says, “If the kid gets what she wants, she’s all sweetness.” If not, she’ll tantrum, sulk, and otherwise torture her parents until she gets her way.

Therapists who work with troubled teens often talk about their sense of entitlement as a major hurdle in the struggle to help them. Teens feel entitled to their life-styles, no matter how self-destructive. If a parent reared her child with the attitude “I don’t want to interrupt his happiness for even one moment,” the teen will have a hard time establishing the discipline and willpower necessary to work through addictions and behaviors such as alcoholism, substance abuse, promiscuous sex, mismanagement of anger, compulsive shopping, and so forth.

The advice from experts is for parents to “toughen up” by following some general guidelines:

  • Put limits on spending by giving your teen an allowance. When it’s gone, there’s no more until next time.
  • Let your teen face the natural consequences of his behavior. If he bangs up your car, let him pay for it.
  • Teach your child to apologize to others, to understand their point of view, and otherwise demonstrate “emotional intelligence.”
  • Watch how you use praise. The late prominent educator John Holt warned parents that praising a child is a massage to parental egos: building up the child becomes a form of building up yourself. Give specific praise for a specific piece of work or action. For example, tell the child, “You did a great job on that picture,” and not “You’re a great artist.” Don’t use praise to manipulate as in “You’re so brilliant, you could be a doctor.”
  • Let children earn self-esteem from working hard and achieving in a real way.

The bad news is that most Gen Y parents will be unable do these things.

“You have to be willing to have your kids not like you,” Dr. Jennings said. “Today’s parents aren’t willing to do that.”