Whenever I write or talk about treating children as if they are fully formed humans and not just incomplete adults, like I did yesterday, there are some who ask me about (or even accuse me of) "spoiling" the kids. They then go on to tell me horror stories about how permissive parents have let their rotten kids take over their lives, bossing them around, dominating their households, terrorizing their peers, and frustrating their teachers.
It's hard, I think, for some people to understand the world without a hierarchical framework: someone has to be the boss -- if it's not the parent, it's the child. When I suggest paying attention to the words we use with children, avoiding the language of command, and instead choosing statements of fact which allow children to practice taking responsibility for their own actions, I understand how some people fear that it will become a slippery slope down which the whole carefully constructed family org chart will slide. I understand how it might seem that if you're not bossing your child, she will take advantage, gain the upper hand, and assume the scepter. To believe this takes a view of human nature that I've not found to be true, but I understand it.
So let me state right here: I'm all for fewer "spoiled" children in the world (although I'd like us to retire that label along with "bully," "aggressive," and "shy"). These children are characterized as self-centered and demanding, inconsiderate of others, see their needs as most important, and will resort to often extreme behavior to get their way. These are not happy children and they tend to grow into unhappy adults who struggle with relationships, have a hard time holding jobs, and are generally miserable to be around.
The common wisdom, it seems, is that these behaviors come from not enough "tough love;" from parents who are afraid of their children, and are too namby-pamby to put their foot down, an approach popularized by such pop-psychology sensations as Dr. Phil. Sadly, this is not what psychologists who actually do research have found. So-called "spoiled" behaviors," in fact, result from things like not enough proactive attention from parents, not expecting children to do things for themselves, and a lack of clear limits, not a dearth of bossy parents.
Not enough proactive attention
The best parenting advice I ever got was from my mother, who said, "All children want is attention. If you don't give it to them, they'll take it." And indeed children, from the moment they are born, are designed to get attention from the adults around them. From a biological point of view, this makes perfect sense: they are born utterly incapable of keeping themselves alive, except to the degree that they can get adult humans to feed, clothe, and protect them. This instinct doesn't go away as they get older. When they feel ignored, they correct that problem through tantrums, whining, clinging, and other "spoiled" behaviors. They don't really care if the attention they get is negative or positive, frankly, they are just biologically driven to get your attention. So for your own sanity (and to avoid "spoiling" your child), I'd suggest proactively giving them the kind of attention you choose, because otherwise they'll choose it for you and you're probably not going to like it.
Doing too much for your kids
Awhile back, I met a woman who works in the admissions department at the University of Washington here in Seattle. She told me that increasingly freshmen are showing up on campus without such basic life skills as using can openers, cooking on a stovetop, and operating a washing machine. She said the problem is so bad that many universities have had to institute remedial life skills classes. Instead of learning to do things for themselves, "spoiled" kids have turned to mastering the skills required to get things done for them, which will often look a lot like being self-centered, demanding, and even tyrannical. So for your own sanity (and to avoid "spoiling" your child), I'd suggest teaching him to do as much for himself as his age and abilities will allow.
Lack of clear limits
As Goethe wrote, "It is within limitations that he first shows himself the master." This is where we all agree, and we can all point to examples of parents, who in the sincere interest of teaching their children independence or giving them "freedom," err on the side of a household in which anything goes. This is not a good environment for children. It tends to make them feel nervous, uncertain, and to generally demonstrate "spoiled" behaviors.
Where we tend to disagree is in how we create those limitations and how we work with those limitations. I suppose the traditional model is for parents to lay down the law and create a system of punishments for violations. It doesn't have to be that way. In our school, for instance, all of the rules are made by the children themselves, through a process of consensus. In a decade of doing it this way, the adults have never found the need to dictate rules beyond those the children create, indeed, if anything we find we need to moderate many of their more extreme legislative efforts. Our process is one that many of Woodland Park's families have adopted in their own homes, keeping a running list of family rules on the refrigerator door to refer to as needed.
Do children break the rules? Of course they do. The adults, however, don't need to then punish them to do the job of teaching about limitations. Instead our job as adults is to point to the list of rules and say, "You and your friends agreed . . ."
So what do you do if a child keeps breaking a rule? Certainly there's a consequence, a punishment. If we do that, if we resort to punishment we put the focus on the punishment and the punisher, rather than where we want it to be, on the behavior. Instead we do what makes sense, we just keep reminding them until they remember on their own. No one would think of punishing a child for not, say, remembering her A-B-C's; we would patiently keep working with her until she got it. Why should teaching about limits be any different?
In other words, children aren't "spoiled" because they haven't been sufficiently bossed around by adults.
Creating a world of facts, instead of a world of commands
A mistake many of us make (and one of the things that drives critics of this approach crazy) is to think that all of this means that everything is open to negotiation, that our child gets to decide such things as when to get dressed, whether or not they go to the doctor, or where the family will eat dinner. In our effort to be super parents, we forget that we adults are fully formed humans as well. Our opinions, needs, and emotions are not made lesser because we seek to honor those of the child, but are rather equal, and to the degree that they diverge from those of our child, must often take precedence.
There are also realities of which we are aware that our children are not: schedules, for instance, courtesy to others, safety. Sometimes we must insist that we know best, but that doesn't mean we need to use the language of command. Statements of fact are not commands, such as:
"It's time to go."
"What you said hurt her feelings."
"If you do that you might die."
I statements that convey our opinions or feelings are also statements of fact, such as:
"I don't want to be late."
"I feel sad when she's crying."
"I don't want you to die."
Factual statements about the child's behavior can also be very powerful, such as:
"You seem upset that it's time to go."
"You sounded angry when you said that to her."
"If you keep doing that you might die and that will probably hurt."
And factual statements about your own responsibilities are also important, such as:
"I can't stay because daddy is expecting us."
"I can't let you say hurtful things to her."
"I can't let you cross the street by yourself."
Creating a world of facts instead of a world of commands gives children the opportunity to come to their own conclusions about their behavior, to make their own decisions about right and wrong, or to at least understand why this is one of those times when they don't get what they want. These kinds of experiences lead to a sense of responsibility, empathy, and confidence, characteristics that are the opposite of those that characterize a "spoiled" child.
Everyone's goal is a child who understands her own emotions, treats others with respect, and knows how to assess her own risks. These are all vital skills to success in life. When we boss our kids into these behaviors, we're not giving them a chance to learn anything we want them to learn; we're just forcing them to do something because "I said so." It's effective in the moment, but it teaches nothing except, perhaps, obedience -- a very dangerous habit in adulthood. When we, on the other hand, help our children see the "facts" surrounding their behaviors and choices, we allow them to actually practice these skills. Of course, they will make mistakes, just the way a carpenter has to hit his thumb a few times before he learns to use a hammer, and it might be frustrating or embarrassing for you as the parent, but experience is the only way anyone ever learns anything.
I know it sounds like a lot of work. It is, indeed, much easier to boss people around. It's hard to overcome deeply rooted habits of thought. But it does get easier with practice. And the results are worth it.
That's how to treat your child with respect without spoiling him.
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