Spoiled Children?

A thoughtful and provocative discussion on the subject of spoiling children appeared last week in the Health section of The New York Times.  Dr. Perri Klass, a pediatrician who writes frequently for the Times, refers to the frequency with which the question of spoiling children is raised by mothers in her office.  She observes that, “We’re clearly having another of those moments – and they do recur, across the generations – when parents worry that they’re not doing their job and that consequently the next generation is consequently in grave danger.”

Dr. Klass reminds us that historically an image of the spoiled child has appeared in literature, and that parents who now are worrying were members of the generation that was accused of being spoiled by the theories of Dr. Benjamin Spock.  As parents ourselves, we seem to remember the frustrations or deprivations of our own childhoods more than the indulgences or gratifications that are blamed for spoiling children now.

Certainly, the last several years have brought an onslaught of criticism of contemporary children and, therefore, their parents.  We’ve been told about the superiority of Chinese and French parenting.  We have heard about “helicopter” parenting, over-privileged children, failures to set limits, and lack of frustration tolerance, to name a few of the things that are blamed on parents.  What accounts for current concerns, and are they justified?

Undoubtedly, there are many factors that have contributed to the lack of confidence expressed in today’s parents and perhaps more importantly to the lack of confidence parents have in themselves.  A characteristic of our culture is the ongoing search for, and belief in, new and better ideas.  No longer is there a cohesion of traditional culturally influenced methods of child-rearing transmitted from one generation to the next.  The mobility of society and the distance from extended family has changed that.  But so, too, has the belief in modern, “scientific” ideas which are latched on to as superior to “old fashioned” ways.

“Experts” interpreting “science” have replaced family as the source of the “right” way to raise children.  Yet not only do experts often disagree, but new ideas keep replacing old ones.  Dr. Spock, himself, wrote a number of versions of his original book, his ideas changing along with research findings and changes in the culture.

Certainly, a major change has come about with the changed role of women and with the many mothers of young children who are now in the work place.  Those who are unhappy with this development attribute current problems with children and/or family life to mothers’ absence from the home.  The result has been even more mother blame than usual.  However, the fact remains that the old division of labor no longer exists.  We, as a society have not yet truly confronted the changes that must be made, such as new forms of childcare, to accommodate that reality.

The pressures of the economy, as well as of social changes, have had an impact on parents’ relationship with their children.  It may be true that giving material things to children can become a way of compensating for an inability to give the time or attention that may be needed.  But perhaps more important are some fundamental questions about raising children that parents struggle with because of the idea that there is some “right” answers to these questions, and a failure to have confidence in their own judgment.

Dr. Klass points out that parents often bring up spoiling in reference to young babies’ sleep and feeding.  She writes, “It’s as if the later, more confusing questions about how to respond to a child’s demands crystallize in those early months when the new baby cries and the parents worry.”  It is true that these early months bring the first confrontation for parents with questions about gratification and frustration.  Do we spoil babies by picking them up when they cry?  Are we damaging them by letting them “cry it out?”  Even the answers to those questions have changed over the years – and continue to change.  Parents’ concerns during those early months about the physical survival of their babies contributes to their insecurity in trying to answer these questions.

As children grow, these same questions come up in more complicated forms.  Children seek to have their wishes gratified.  Parents enjoy being gratifying – and also don’t enjoy the reaction they may get when children are not gratified.  The concern about children’s frustration is less about their physical survival than their emotional well-being.  Questions about setting limits arise in response to demands by children for immediate gratification and also as children push for greater independence.

Part of the problem is the focus on the children themselves, rather than on their  relationships to others in the real world they live in.  We set limits on children’s behavior because what they want and do impinges on others.  To function successfully in life they have to learn to consider the needs and wishes of others as well as their own.  In the end, the real question is one of finding the balance in what, at times, is the conflict between the goals of each, a balance that changes as children grow. 

That is the question and challenge parents confront on a daily basis.  There is no “right” answer, only knowledge of one’s child and the realities of one’s life.  Dr. Klass calls this a “tricky assignment”, and writes, “We get it wrong some of the time, no matter what we do.”

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