Monday, October 04, 2004

Rearing a Nation of Neurotic Kids

The pampered child syndrome
Are we rearing a nation of neurotic kids who believe the world revolves around them?
Kim Heinrich Gray
For the Calgary Herald
Monday, October 04, 2004

A mother allows her toddler to ride in the family car without the use of his car seat because "he doesn't like it. It makes him scream."

Exasperated parents permit their nine-year-old daughter to fall asleep in front of the TV every night because "she doesn't want to go to bed."

A mother and father confess to their family therapist that they didn't know it was OK to "do things our children don't like."

When, exactly, was this latest parenting trend launched? Where mom and dad -- many of whom are well-educated and well-intentioned -- relinquish their role as disciplinarians and decision-makers and, instead, let their children dictate the family rules?

More critically, how are these children faring as they become members of society?

Parents be warned. If you're asking prominent Canadian psychologist Dr. Maggie Mamen, the answer to this last query is "not well."

Mamen, the author of a new book called The Pampered Child Syndrome (2004, Creative Bound, $24.95), is convinced "child-driven" parenting styles -- which give even more power to children than the liberal "child-centred" approach -- can have catastrophic effects.

"These children expect to be kept happy and stimulated, to be treated equally to adults and to be in charge," she explains during a telephone interview from her Ottawa home.

"When they run into situations outside the home that challenge these expectations, they have difficulty coping, and may show symptoms of depression, anxiety, hyperactivity or behaviour disorders."

And parents, she says, are baffled as to why their children are unhappy when they've been given everything they ever wanted. Which is precisely Mamen's point: Giving kids too much of anything at too young an age, she ventures, is simply against the natural order of things.

Her book's aim is to help parents reclaim their families and restore themselves to the management positions they once held. Otherwise, she explains, the children in question will grow up lacking skills they need to successfully manage their own lives.

Mamen is convinced the child-driven parenting philosophy trend is a product of a variety of influences -- beginning with the backlash against authoritarianism in the 1960s and followed by a tendency towards child-centred parenting philosophies.

She also blames the United Nations Convention of the Child (1990) which, although well-intentioned, seems to imply to parents that children have more rights than they do.

For example, the convention includes a statement recognizing the "inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family . . ."

"No one questions it because the United Nations is such a well-respected body," she says. Complicating matters further is what Mamen calls the "nag factor." The forces behind today's consumer market recognize that children have enormous power over parental spending. The message is what your kid needs, parents must provide.

But do today's children really need the latest in cellphone technology, cars, skateboards and expensive clothing -- clothing for young girls, for example, that may be fashionable but is often inappropriate for their age?

"In the face of all of these messages we're getting, we have to remember to establish our own creed," says Mamen. "We need our own values. We need to ask ourselves 'what are the policies and values of our family?' "

Kitty Raymond of the Raymond Early Parenting Centre in Calgary says people raising pampered children can easily identify themselves. She believes Calgarians in particular need to be cautious.

"Look at how much money parents in Calgary have," she points out. "When you have a lot of money, it is harder to restrict logically what kinds of possessions your child is allowed to consume."

The notion that children want everything they see is well understood. In some ways, Raymond suggests, disciplining is simpler for families who can't afford excessive spending because there is just one answer: "No."

Children, reiterates the popular parenting expert, get security from having limits clearly set. Without leadership, she has observed, they are at risk of both depression and anxiety disorders.

What's more, Raymond is convinced children have an underlying sense that they are not equipped to make decisions about their own life.

"Whether they 'want to go to preschool' or not, if the parent says 'I won't make you go,' the child risks feeling on some level that they're not really being taken care of."

Instead of always giving into children's demands, a little denial helps build resiliency. Let them have their temper tantrums, Raymond says -- learning to live without teaches kids to be graceful about not getting everything they want.

Learning and displaying this kind of "grace," says Raymond, can only benefit young people later in life.

Anne Margaret Tingle, a Calgary mother of three with a doctorate in marriage and family therapy, attributes much of the pampered child syndrome to the disintegration of traditional family structures.

Whether families are blended or have a single parent, Tingle has witnessed competitions between parents to try to win over the child. As a result, offspring are often over-indulged.

"These children can be an absolute nightmare," says Tingle.

"They are being treated as adults, being 'parentified' even though they are children. They may be more mature than previous generations of children, but they have huge discipline problems."

Parentification is a term Tingle uses when referring to how some parents treat younger children -- as if they have the knowledge one normally would expect from a parent.

Jane Beeksma, a kindergarten teacher and mother of three, says it was just a matter of time before a book like The Pampered Child Syndrome hit the market.

Beeksma says she assumes all parents want their children to have self-esteem, self-respect and respect for others. But, despite good intentions, many seem to be losing a grip on their authority.

She wonders what will happen to children who, used to regularly challenging their parents, encounter a boss later in life who says, "I'd like you to do this a bit differently."

"We can't let our children run their lives at 5, 8, 10 or 14 years old," she says, adding that "we need to slowly open the doors" on a child's power and autonomy. This is toughest with strong-willed kids who want to know exactly how much control they have and continually test the limits.

But "if parents waffle on boundaries and kids can stretch them, the message to the child is 'my parent isn't necessarily that confident that he or she can do this job.' "

Ultimately, Mamen says her latest book (she has written two others: Laughter, Love and Limits: Parenting for Life and Who's in Charge? A Guide to Family Management) is about reassurance and validation.

"Parenting isn't just keeping the kid happy. But it is knowing there is a responsibility to being a parent and it isn't an easy job," she says.

"Kids have to be on the right track and the right track is what works for them and their family in the context of the world around them."

Watch for the Signs:

Think you know a kid with pampered child syndrome? Here are some of the symptoms to watch for in the child who:

- is given everything, but constantly demands more;

- believes she is entitled to the same rights as adults;

- is loved, nurtured and protected, yet remains unhappy, anxious or angry;

- is chronically miserable, angry, anxious and/or emotionally fragile, and has poor self-esteem;

- is very self-focused, and believes he is the centre of the universe;

- externalizes the reasons for her behaviour, blames everyone else and expects others to "fix" the problems for her;

- is unable or unwilling to see how his behaviour affects others;

- may show emotional, behavioural or other major psychiatric disorders.

From the Trenches:

Three Calgary parents share their thoughts on kids, stress, discipline and spoiling.

John Berg,

father of two

"My opinion is that learning to cope with stress is key and it starts early. Like an athlete. You don't become a great runner by buying the greatest shoes. You do it over and over again. It takes practice. I think reality is harsh and without some exposure to it, it isn't surprising that kids are stressed out. The biggest challenge as a parent is knowing what you should do, versus what you do."

Karen Kaul,

mother of four

"Parents don't seem to know where the line between abuse and discipline is. I think a lot of people feel that setting boundaries is abusive. They are not seeing them as teaching tools. You can discipline your kids without beating the tar out of them. A lot of the time, you can discipline them by simply talking to them and making sure there are consequences to their actions."

Laurieann Narayan McCoshen,

mother of two

"When we spoil our children, we are fulfilling our own needs at their expense. It sounds terrible, but it is the truth. We inadvertently use them to help with our own feelings of inadequacy."