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Perspective

Parental anxiety and the problem with model children

Don’t worry if you’re failing to raise thoroughly obedient kids. Worry if you’re successful.

Alvaro Dominguez

Complaints that kids today are lazy, entitled, and self-centered tend to be accompanied by a pile of prescriptions for how to improve them: Impose clear expectations and firm limits, then hold children “accountable” (in other words, punish them if they disobey); push them toward self-sufficiency; insist that self-worth and positive comments from others must be earned; provide plenty of experiences with competition and failure; promote self-discipline and grit. In essence, children should be well behaved and hard-working. They should accommodate themselves to the demands of the real world, follow the rules, and do what they’re told.

I reject these recommendations, along with the unflattering descriptions of children with which they’re associated.

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In reviewing popular books and articles for parents, I’m struck again and again by how their focus is on how to elicit compliance. There’s considerable variation in the strategies they propose, from bullying to bargaining, from techniques frankly modeled on animal training to subtler forms of manipulation. But the animating question is rarely “What do kids need, and how can we meet those needs?” Rather, it’s “How can you get your kid to do whatever you want?”

The consumers of such advice seem to crave permission to feel good about making children feel bad. Thus, there’s an inexhaustible audience for declarations that we’re too permissive, that the main task for parents is to set more limits, impose more stringent regulations, devise more clever strategies for getting obedience  — and to do so without regret. (Sample book title: Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline.) We seem to want absolution for establishing this sort of relationship with our children, perhaps because we can’t entirely silence our nagging — and appropriate — doubts about doing so.

Parenting authors are happy to oblige, telling us not to bother explaining the reason for our demands, to pay no attention to children’s objections, even if they have logic on their side. “Don’t take any crap from your kids when you make a decision. You’re in charge,” says one author. “Your word, not your reasoning, is what matters,” adds another. “Calmly ignore his arguments.”

In short: I am the boss of you. Do whatever I demand, or else.

Some of us find this way of treating children intrinsically objectionable. But for anyone whose verdict depends on the result it produces, a mountain of research has established the detrimental impact of a single-minded focus on obedience, of relying on control and making children suffer when they act in a way that displeases the parent. Euphemisms and rationalizations aside, this is parenting defined mostly by power. And power is exactly what it teaches kids — with results that are all too apparent.

The good news, though, is that it’s not necessary to choose between punitive, power-based parenting and the kind of environment in which there is a lack of structure (permissiveness) or a lack of parental involvement (neglect). Many theorists and researchers follow psychologist Diana Baumrind in nominating “authoritative” parenting as a third possibility, one that supposedly captures an optimal blend of warmth and support with firm control and predictable enforcement of rules. But I prefer not to use that term, mostly because it denotes more of a power-based approach to parenting than many people realize. Instead, I find it more useful to talk about “working-with”—as opposed to “doing-to”—parenting. This phrase emphasizes collaboration more than control, and love and reason more than power.

A few years ago, I read a comment by an academic who writes about children’s development, someone I knew slightly and regarded as generally thoughtful. He was quoted as saying, “You can make your kids self-centered by focusing too much on their needs.” I wrote to him, mentioning that I had heard statements to that effect for many years but had never come across any evidence to support this view. I wondered whether he knew of some.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that he never wrote back, because, in fact, the available research strongly supports exactly the opposite position. Among its many advantages, warm, responsive parenting—the sort that is sometimes ridiculed and confused with overindulgence—is particularly likely to help children become compassionate, generous, and empathic.

Why? Probably because meeting children’s needs frees them from being preoccupied with those needs (and, by extension, with themselves), the result being that they can be more sensitive to others’ needs.

By contrast, power-based discipline and control, including punishment, often interferes with children’s moral development, undermines their capacity to feel others’ pain, and reduces the likelihood that they’ll reach out to help.

Warmth and acceptance may not be sufficient to guarantee that children attend to others’ emotional states and take steps to assist them. But attacking “overindulgence,” or urging parents to say no to their children or be less committed to making them happy, does absolutely nothing to promote caring or reduce self-centeredness.

This essay is adapted from The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parentingby Alfie Kohn (alfiekohn.org), available later this month from Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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