Three-year-old Marion was helping her mom shop. When they approached the checkout counter, Marion saw a toy she wanted. When her mom said she couldn’t have it, Marion started screaming and crying. She threw herself on the floor and kicked her legs. Her mother felt intensely humiliated by her daughter’s fit, and after a few minutes, she gave in and bought her daughter the toy.
Bill grew up in a poor family. As a child, he didn’t have many toys and wasn’t able to participate in any after-school activities. When he had children, he decided that they wouldn’t go without. As a result, his son Andy had every toy under the sun.
On Friday nights, the Jones family went to a fast-food restaurant for dinner. Following a new family tradition, Mom and Dad let their two daughters choose which restaurant they will go to.
In these circumstances and many others, parents wonder: “Am I spoiling my child, or am I doing the right thing?” Unfortunately, this is not always an easy question to answer. The guidelines for quality parenting have many gray areas, even though parents would prefer it to to be black and white.
Giving into a child’s temper tantrum at the supermarket can seem like a matter of survival at the moment. I remember my daughter having such an episode as a young child. I felt embarrassed, ashamed and put on the spot. It seemed like every eye in the store was fixed on me. Some shoppers shook their heads in pity and disgust. I felt truly miserable!
In these situations, most parents want to shrink into the background and disappear, or give into their child just to end this nightmare. Afterward, they feel angry and manipulated. When they give in, they know they are reinforcing bad behavior. If they resist this impulse, they risk public humiliation. These are the tough decisions of parenthood.
It’s also common for parents to want their children to avoid the negative experiences that they themselves endured. Parents from neglected backgrounds want to shower their children with attention. Adults from poor families want to give their children everything they didn’t have.
And family life in the 21st century is very different than it was in the middle of the 20th century. How many of today’s adults remember their parents asking them where they wanted to go for dinner? I was just happy to go out to eat.
Many of today’s parents were raised with the ethos that children should be seen and not heard. As a result, we have decided to give our children a voice. Kids have been empowered to speak — and they do. We are not always happy to hear what they have to say.
What are the implications of these shifts in parenting philosophy? Today’s parents have given their children more power and control than any other generation. On the positive side, these children, when adults, will be comfortable making decisions. But on the negative side, parents may have given up too much power to their children. In order to feel safe and secure, kids need to know that their parents are in charge.
Here are some basic principles that can help guide parents:
Limit the number of choices you give to children. An open-ended choice may be too much for children, especially younger ones. Offer them two options — which one would you prefer? For older kids, keep the list short.
Don’t give in to temper tantrums. That’s easier said than done, but consider the big picture. We don’t want to teach children that making a big noise is the best way to get what they want. Whenever you give in, you’ll pay for it double down the road. The next fit will be longer and louder. Better to scoop up your child and walk out of the store, leaving your shopping cart in the aisle and your self-esteem intact.
You can’t make up for the past. Your past can’t be erased by raising your children differently than you were raised. Your childhood pain can’t be wiped away by buying your kids whatever they want.
The better choice — be sensible.
Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.