The following is an excerpt from Fatherhood: A Comprehensive Guide to Birth, Budgeting, Finding Flow, and Becoming a Happy Parent, Fatherly.com’s first parenting book from Harper Horizon, an imprint of Harper-Collins.
In 1989 psychologist Bruce J. McIntosh proposed “spoiled child syndrome” as a unique childhood condition in the pages of the medical journal Pediatrics. “Spoiled child syndrome is characterized by excessive self-centered and immature behavior, resulting from the failure of parents to enforce consistent, age-appropriate limits,” he wrote.
McIntosh, who focused on young children, put forth characteristics of spoiling, which included requiring night feeding after four months, crying at night after four months, recurrent temper tantrums, and “out of control toddlers.” He suggested that a spoiled child was a child who had been taught by an undisciplined parent to see no difference between their “wants” and “needs.” He was basically suggesting that children were insatiable monsters who learned to be reasonable only when their parents introduced them to discomfort.
McIntosh’s spoiled child syndrome never caught on with the pediatric community, but the general premise has been taken as granted for much of Western civilization. The idea that kids need to have their nature tamed and bent towards goodness is less based on science than it is on Judeo-Christian ideas of God, sin, and redemption. At Plymouth Colony, parents exchanged their children so as not to be tempted to be overly kind or to relent to kids’ unreasonable demands, like not wanting to be beaten or burned as a witch.
What we know now is that parents’ historical focus on what kids are given or allowed (or not) isn’t particularly productive. Indulgence isn’t inherently destructive. A parent can’t love a child too much or provide too much attention and care. Still plenty of parents worry they could raise an awful human.
According to a 2015 Pew Research poll, 71 percent of parents surveyed said it was “extremely important” for their child to grow to be honest and ethical adults. The second greatest concern, for 65 percent of parents, was that children grow to be compassionate and caring. In contrast, only 54 percent of parents said it was important for kids to grow to be financially independent, and only 45 percent wanted an adult child who was ambitious. Nobody, it seems, wants to raise a wealthy asshole. And that concern becomes particularly salient when you consider that 46 percent of parents polled by Pew say that their children’s outcome reflects on their child-rearing skills. That’s likely true, but perhaps not in the way they thought.
In the mid-1960s, psychologist Diana Baumrind explored how parents influence children’s behavior. Baumrind, who died in 2008, was a UC Berkeley researcher, and her insight into the relationships of parents and their offspring was based on observation rather than fiction.
Making careful study of several hundred Bay Area families, Baumrind defined four main parenting styles. There were authoritarian parents, who were high on demands, often employing harsh discipline, but who showed little responsiveness to their children. Then there were authoritative par- ents. Differing from authoritarian parents, they had high demands but were also highly responsive to their children’s needs. Their discipline was thoughtful, caring, and value based, and these parents showed a great deal of love and compassion for children. Third were permissive parents, who were also highly responsive to children but never set limits. Finally there were uninvolved parents, neither demanding nor responsive to children.
As Baumrind followed her subjects over time, she found that the children of authoritative, not authoritarian, parents had the best outcomes. They were better students, emotionally stable, and most likely to avoid antisocial behaviors like drug use or dishonesty (common of children of authoritarian parents) and self-centered brattiness (common of children of permissive parents).
“What you’re really talking about is respect,” explains developmental psychologist Nancy Darling, editor of the Journal of Adolescence. “You respect your child and their needs to the extent that it’s reasonable. But they have a responsibility to meet the needs of others.”
Darling, who has spent her career testing the premise of Baumrind’s research, explains that the key to not raising the typically spoiled child appears to be finding a balance between boundaries and responsiveness.
“You don’t spoil fruit by treating it carefully,” Darling explains. “You spoil it by being rough with it.”
Before she started conducting research into the way parental behaviors affect the outcomes of children, Darling raised children of her own. She remembers spoiling being a concern, at least for her children’s grand- parents, who worried that Darling was too quick to react to cries and too quick to nurse. She was, in short, McIntosh’s monster parent. But her kids are just fine, and she was never worried. Why? Because she knows that indulgence doesn’t spoil children. She, like a lot of parenting experts, knows about the !Kung.
The !Kung are an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe in southern Africa who are wildly indulgent of their children. From birth, !Kung babies rarely touch the ground. They are worn by and sleep with mothers. They are fed on demand, and their desires are indulged by all members of the tribe. They rarely act up, and when they do, they are not often punished.
Placed in the context of Western culture, you’d expect this to be a tribe of assholes, but the !Kung are honest, ethical, compassionate, and caring—at least a lot of them are (some of them are still assholes). The goodness of the !Kung isn’t a result of toughness or boundaries. It’s a result of culture. They are supported by culture and indoctrinated into it in turn. And this works very well for them for all the reasons it can’t work in America, a fiercely individualistic country in which market competition is often mistaken for morality.
!Kung kids understand that they have a responsibility to their community, which shapes their behavior. But they are not the only kids to be raised with the fundamental value is that you care for the people around you.
Can children be spoiled by parents? They can. They can be “spoiled” by lack of care and love and consideration. But we know that by another term. It’s neglectful parenting.
The disservice parents give to children is not too much wealth or too much love. The disservice is in being given an inconsistent and contradictory set of values. But there’s still hope in the final analysis. Children are wildly resilient. There are many brave and extraordinary adults who have survived neglect and abuse and have refused to allow their past to define their future. People have the capacity for change throughout their lives. But more than that, parents who were damaged by their own parents don’t have to repeat mistakes. Becoming a parent offers a tremendous opportunity to find the best in yourself, and when the task of change is accepted, the biggest step toward success has already been taken. By building a strong foundation of love, moral values, and intention at the center of the family, there is little room for rot and very little that could possibly spoil.
Fatherhood is available on November, 9 2021. Pre-order now.