"If we don't start to correct these five grave parenting mistakes, and soon, the children we are raising will grow up to be entitled, selfish, impatient and rude adults." - Emma Jenner, British Nanny, Huff Post
"In a poll commissioned by Time and CNN, two-thirds of American parents said they think that their children are spoiled." - Elizabeth Kolbert, Spoiled Rotten, The New Yorker
Are American kids spoiled rotten? Every year a new article goes viral by preying on parents' fears. Are we being too permissive? Are we raising a generation of brats?
These articles don't cite research that substantiates their claims that parents are actually being permissive. In fact, surveys estimate that 80% of American parents have spanked their child at least once and about a quarter of parents of young children spank on a weekly basis. That doesn't sound like permissiveness to me.
So what are the permissive practices that are supposedly ruining our children? Invariably, these articles attack parents for giving children choices and listening to children's emotions. As Emma Jenner says, "Who is in charge here? (Say no to the sippy cup, and) let her have a tantrum, and remove yourself so you don't have to hear it."
Accepting our children's feelings -- and, heaven forbid, empathizing with those feelings -- is presumed to mean we automatically give our child what she's asking for. There's also a taunt here: You, the parent, aren't doing your job, which is to control your child. (Never mind that attempts to control other humans inevitably trigger resistance and make cooperation less likely.) Accepting our kids' emotions, and not controlling them, we're told, will raise "entitled, selfish, impatient and rude adults." So will going to our crying baby, since "Babies must learn to self-soothe." (Italicized phrases are Jenner's.)
Except the research says exactly the opposite. We now know that babies grow the neural wiring to soothe themselves in response to being soothed by their parents. It's now well established that children grow up empathic when parents respond to their emotions with empathy. Responsive parents raise caring kids.
Of course, responsible parents don't respond to their child's tears by giving them everything they want. Of course we say no, most of us many times a day. But we can still listen and empathize, as we would to any other human being. The bottom line on raising caring kids is responding to them in a caring manner.
So why do these articles go viral? Certainly, there's a backlash against the respect more parents give their children these days. But there's also a very real fear, that most of us share. Since the "results" of our parenting won't be obvious for many years, how do we know we're doing the right thing? How can we be sure our child isn't becoming spoiled?
So let's address this issue head-on. Parenting is hard. You want to be compassionate, but you also want your child to learn appropriate lessons and not to be "spoiled" -- meaning a person who cares only about himself, isn't resilient, doesn't pitch in, or is discontented and greedy. You want him to feel deserving, but not to think he deserves at the expense of someone else, which we might call "entitled." So you want a child who is resilient, self-disciplined, and willing to work hard to achieve. At the same time, you want your child to be caring and generous toward others. Oh, and happy! Right?
We actually know how to raise that child. And it isn't to crack down and leave your child crying. Based on what we now know about child development, here are your ten guidelines to raise a self-disciplined, caring adult.
1. Raise a child who's self-disciplined -- by setting empathic limits. Self-discipline is giving up something we want, for something we want more. Every time your child shifts gears internally to stop doing what she wants because she wants to follow your lead instead, she's internalizing self-discipline. Repeated experience is what builds her brain's ability to use self-discipline in tough situations.
So yes, kids need limits. Your three year old shouldn't go on playing in the sandbox when he's just smacked another kid with his shovel. Your five year old shouldn't think it's okay to taunt his little brother. Your eight year old shouldn't go to inappropriate movies. Your twelve year old shouldn't be at a party without adult supervision.
Setting limits is hard, because naturally children resist them. But it never needs to be mean. In fact, the more empathic your limits are, the less your child resists them -- so the faster she develops self-discipline.
So what's an empathic limit? You set a boundary, and you accept the child's emotions, with understanding. "You wish you could have the pink sippy cup, but it's not clean...You're so disappointed, you're crying."
2. Raise a child who can regulate her own behavior by helping her learn to regulate her emotions. When a child has a meltdown in response to a simple limit like not getting the sippy cup she wants, it's not about the sippy cup. It's about all those big emotions that her frontal cortex isn't quite developed enough to handle, and the solution is usually a good cry. Remember the last time you were really upset and had a good cry in the arms of someone who loved you? Now, how would that same experience have felt if that person had said "I'm going where I don't have to hear this....Come find me when you're ready to act right." Crying in isolation isn't healing. Crying with a parent who empathizes helps a child to feel comfortable with her emotions, which is what helps her begin to manage them. And until she can manage her emotions, you can't expect her to manage her behavior.
3. Raise a child who can solve his own problems by supporting your child in problem-solving instead of rushing in to rescue. When your child has a problem, what if you could manage your own anxiety? Then you could help him brainstorm solutions, rather than stepping in to fix things. This does NOT mean abandoning your child to manage things he's not ready for. Your goal is to foster independence with scaffolding, which means you give as
much support and structure as necessary while he's learning each new skill. So, for instance, let's say she wants the pink sippy cup and it's dirty. Why not empower your child? "You really want the pink cup. It's in the sink. Here, why don't you take it in the bathroom where you can climb on the stool, and wash it yourself? Here's a squirt of soap." For more on this,
4. Raise a child who's confident in her abilities, by having high expectations AND giving her all the support she needs to meet them. This isn't about raising the bar, and it's not about being uncompromising. It's about noticing what's important to you -- Being kind to her siblings? Handling the morning routine more independently? -- and giving your child the support she needs to develop in those areas. For more on this, please see Where's the sweet spot between permissive and strict?
5. Raise a child who can soothe himself, by soothing him. If you want your child to be able to self-regulate, he needs to be able to soothe himself when he gets anxious. Kids build the neural pathways to soothe themselves every time we soothe them, so responding with empathy to your little one's upsets is the way to raise a child who can self-soothe. (Leaving kids to cry does NOT teach kids to self soothe; it heightens their stress response.)
6. Raise a good citizen by expecting your child to help around the house. Kids who take responsibility at home are more likely to notice when others need help and offer it. 6 Reasons Kids Don't Help Around the House -- and What You Can Do About It.
7. Raise your child to feel deserving, not entitled, by teaching values and evaluating your family's relationship with "stuff":
8. Raise a child who WANTS to cooperate by staying connected, even while you set limits. Don't give your child the cold shoulder to "teach a lesson." The only reason he behaves is because he feels connected to you. Obedience: Why Do You Have To Tell Them Five Times? and 10 Secrets Every Parent Needs to Know about Saying No.
9. Raise a child who's resilient by honoring her tears. Sometimes you just have to be the grown-up and say No. Sometimes your child will be terribly disappointed by life. If you can let your child cry -- and empathize with her disappointment -- she'll learn that disappointment can be weathered, and the sun comes out again.
10. Raise a child who treats others with caring and respect -- by being caring and respectful to her. Yes, this means you listen to your child's preferences, and you look for win/win solutions, when you can. It might even mean you let your child choose her own sippy cup!
The good and bad news is that kids learn what they live. You're the role model. Kids won't always do what we say, but they will always, eventually, do what we do. So if you treat your child with caring and respect, she'll treat you, and other people, with caring and respect. (The opposite, unfortunately, is also true.) Sure, she'll forget herself now and then and raise her voice, but if you respond by lowering yours, acknowledging her upset, and seeking to reconnect, those incidents will be few and far between.
Reminder: Kids who are listened to with respect EXPECT to be listened to and respected. That's not "spoiling." That's raising a child who has self-respect and doesn't let people victimize her. At the same time, she respects others. Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world full of people like that?
Notice that some folks would call this kind of parenting "spoiling"? But this isn't permissive parenting. It's compassionate parenting, with limits AND empathy. Research shows that kids raised this way are more emotionally intelligent and resilient. They're certainly not spoiled. By contrast, kids raised by authoritarian parents are more likely to be rebellious and and kids raised permissively may not learn self-discipline. That's what I call spoiling a perfectly good human!
This is the end of our series Are Kids Today Spoiled and Undisciplined? If you missed any of the other 8 posts, the links are below. If you'd like to read more on this topic, please check out Alfie's Kohn's latest book,
In closing, I'd like to point out that despite the big fuss the media likes to make about kids being spoiled, there aren't any studies showing that kids today are more spoiled than kids in the past. In fact, adults through the ages have probably always thought that the kids of their time were spoiled, when the kids were simply being kids. Consider these quotes:
“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”- Plato, 5th Century BC
“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint.” - Hesiod, 8th Century BC
“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.” - Peter the Hermit, 13th Century AD
This article is part of the series Are Kids Today Spoiled and Undisciplined? Did you miss?