For most of human history, children were not at all that important. Unlike life as we know it today, it was clear adults came first and the commandment to “honor thy father and mother” was taken literally. Children were admonished to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
This era can be summarized in a few of its catchphrases: “children should be seen and not heard” and “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Children tended to obey parents, but frequently grew up with poor self-images. Let’s call this era Childhood, Version 1.0.
Childhood Version 2.0 developed fairly recently. The remedy for low self-esteem was to eschew consequences and pump up fragile egos by feeding children a steady diet of so called “positive affirmations” such as “I am perfect and there will never be another like me.”
However, since praise was not connected with actual achievement, children tended to have an unwarranted and inflated sense of their own abilities. There was no such thing as a stupid question and children were thought to grow best when given a great deal of space: Families became child-centered, with the frequent outcome that children were heard a lot, virtually never experienced the rod and, ironically tended to become spoiled and self-centered.
My work as a psychologist has me thinking that many children and families have entered the portal of Childhood Version 2.1. In this evolution, child-centered families have become child-ruled ones. The word “no” appears to be thought of by many children as abusive and others have become allergic to it. Nonstop happiness and entertainment have become rights instead of privileges, and woe unto the parents that violate them by, for instance, asking their child to turn off the Game Boy and do homework.
Now, many parents are living in tear of their youngsters’ next outburst. They walk on eggshells because their children are so reactive and hypersensitive to perceived criticisms, changes in plans and other formerly normal aspects of daily living. It seems that, despite unprecedented material advantages and attention, more children than ever liberally sprinkle comments to their parents with “I hate you” and curse words. Many children may actually believe they are indeed, perfect and it is the parents who need education, guidance and rules. “Honor thy father and mother” has morphed to “honor thy child.”
Since no question is stupid, children feel entitled to ask parents the same question over and over until they get their way. Their new Golden Rule might well be. “Do unto me as I would have you do unto me.”
But children are not solely responsible for the troublesome state of affairs in may homes. Some parents are relieved to leave the parenting to schools and places of worship due to their own insecurities or busy lives. Others appear to be overcompensating for a sense of being deprived in their own childhoods or some might be overwhelmed by the demands of single-parenthood.
Yet, many have effective parenting styles that cultivate less self-centered children, despite cultural pressures and their children’s demands.
Here are few suggestions:
“No” means “no” instead of “ try harder to get what you want “Parents must be consistent in reasonable discipline and consequences
Material rewards should be used sparingly. Their overuse tends to create bottomless pits of greed and the need to use ever- dash increasing amounts – just like a drug. Instead, raise children to perceive social praise and self-praise as the best rewards.
Model being non-self-centered in your own behavior and expressions. We all know children are more likely what they observe, rather than what they are told to do.
Generously praise behaviors that demonstrate virtues, such as patience, sharing, kindness to others, empathy and calmness – even when feeling frustrated. Don’t worry: Your children can still be achieving and highly competitive and have these positive traits.
Don’t feel guilty if your children say other children have more toys, games etc., than they do. Be confident that, in the long run, the values you are giving them will be worth much more.
Give your children the opportunity to provide personal help to others in need.
The future evolution of parenting remains uncharted. Will there be more parents who are able to assert their authority and responsibilities in positive and growth-enhancing ways? Or, will we see Childhood, Version 3.0 – a world where parents, like doctors, are demoted to the lesser status of providers? Just try getting your child to do homework then.