By Dr. Maggie Mamen
Teachers recognize them in their classrooms; professionals encounter them in their offices; parents live with them in their homes — children who:
• are given everything, but constantly demand more;
• believe that they are entitled to the same rights as adults, but are not ready to accept grownup responsibilities;
• are loved, nurtured and protected, yet are unhappy, anxious or angry;
• are increasingly being diagnosed with emotional, behavioural or other major psychiatric disorders.
We live in a child-centered society where children’s wants and demands are increasingly being given priority over marital or family harmony, financial considerations, parental sanity, common courtesy, quiet enjoyment, respect and common sense. With the encouragement of the media, advertisers, and those professionals who recommend child-driven parenting practices, some children are being empowered to the point where parents feel helpless and ineffective. Many can no longer guarantee their children the basic building blocks of physical and mental health — sleep, nutrition, exercise, fresh air. This is not because they do not understand their importance, or have the ability to provide for them. Rather, they hesitate because the child does not agree, or because they are afraid of damaging a child’s “self-esteem,” or because they have been led to believe that imposing anything on children that children do not want to do, or that makes children unhappy or uncomfortable, is tantamount to abuse.
These well-intentioned parents are catering to their children’s every whim and are actively avoiding — or even resisting — their responsibilities as parents to say “no,” to set limits, to engender a sense of responsibility, and to teach morals, ethics, values, and the importance of family and community. These children are not learning active or creative problem-solving strategies, or how to be resilient and responsible, or how to build up a range of internal resources to manage stress, loss, failure or disappointment. In a word, they are growing up pampered.
In the current climate, it is politically incorrect to suggest that we parents may have something to do with how our children behave because this is “blaming” us and this makes us feel guiltier than we do already. There is little question that raising children is a two-way street. We do certain things: a child responds in a certain way. If we like the way a child responds, we may do the same thing the same way again. We may or may not get the same response from the child a second time. Given that our children are all different from each other, and respond in different ways to exactly the same situations, it is simplistic, naïve, and just plain wrong to assume that there is one, and only one, right way to parent — or that there is a definitive list of strategies that will always work. It is clear that, as loved and trusted authority figures, parents have an obligation to make the decisions that will guide our children, socialize them, and eventually teach them to be independently functioning adults. If we don’t, no one else will.
Say what we mean — and mean what we say
If I say I will do something and I do, or I say I will not and I don’t, you can trust me. If I keep saying I’m going to do something, yet I never do it, you will not only mistrust me, I will also have no credibility, and you will start to ignore
everything that I say. It is interesting that parents and teachers who do not implement this strategy wonder why the
children in our care are always challenging us and trying to change our minds.
Use nonverbal behaviour management strategies
How many times do we say: “I’ve told her again and again, but she never does anything I ask?” There is a wonderful book by cartoonist Lynn Johnston entitled If This is a Lecture, How Long Will it Be? that depicts her teenaged son rolling his eyes and yawning as she is flapping her lips at him. Children swiftly become immune to our verbalizations, but we often take a remarkably long time to recognize this.
Nonverbal behaviour management consists of doing something, rather than talking about it. Silently removing a child’s plate at the end of a reasonable time for a meal speaks more volumes than nagging him to hurry up. Unplugging a telephone, serving a child’s meal only after he has fed the dog, turning on the ignition only when seatbelts are fastened, flushing cigarettes, and other similar actions are far more memorable than endless lectures.
Decide what we want to teach and teach it
Paying attention to undesirable behaviours tends to encourage them to continue rather than to extinguish them. It is critical to decide what it is we want to teach our children to do, and then to state it in positive terms. Pampered children usually need to be taught to become appropriately independent, and to take responsibility for their choices and actions. An effective strategy involves a list of accomplishments— each constructed as an “I” statement — that is owned by the child. We can even incorporate the child’s feelings into the list to teach him that sometimes we have to do things we would prefer not to. It is best to choose a few simple, concrete behaviours that, once taught, will effect positive change in a number of areas. For example:
I completed my homework myself, without being reminded.
Even though I didn’t want to, I switched off the television when I was asked.
I used my polite voice, even though I was angry and upset.
Once all items are checked off, the child can approach an adult (parent or teacher) for validation and simple reinforcement. “Good job,” and “You must be proud of yourself,” and “Why don’t you go and show Dad?” are sufficient. The rest of the child’s life can then continue as planned and expected. Killing the fatted calf can wait for more monumental accomplishments than simply doing what is required.
Dr. Maggie Mamen is an Ottawa-based clinical psychologist and the author of The Pampered Child Syndrome: How to Recognize It, How to Manage It, and How to Avoid It (Creative Bound Inc., $24.95 CAN, 1 800 287-8610 or www.pamperedchildsyndrome.ca)