Spoiling Childhood

An excerpt by Anna Jahns
How well meaning parents are giving children too much, but not what they need.

At first, we might read the subtitle of this book and pass it by, thinking it doesn’t apply to us, because we really feel deep down that we aren’t able to give nearly enough of ourselves to our kids, let alone too much. With all the stresses and pressure of juggling between our jobs and relationships and household responsibilities as well as the challenges of parenting as consciously as we can itself demanding so much of us, how could we possibly be giving them too much?

Spoiling Childhood is an inquiry into how parents today are often caught up in a guilt driven pendulum, swinging between parenting too little and parenting too much to compensate. Ehrensaft’s ideas and sensitivity reflect years of practice as a clinical psychologist as well as being a parent herself, and synthesise the most current psychological understanding relating to childhood development. However, this isn’t a step by step list of ‘how to’s’ – rather it’s up to us to recognise the dynamics we ourselves are engaged in, through honestly reflecting on her perceptive unravelling of the paradoxes and challenges that parents find themselves confronted with in today’s world. She holds the premise that insight is a key to change; “this involves making the unconscious conscious and the confusing more explicable.” Her insight encourages parents to give generously of themselves but never to give themselves over to their children, and she helps us envision “a society where we can overcome the perilous balancing acts of work and family demands where good enough parenting replaces perfect parenting, harried-ness is traded for harmony, and children can grow on a healthy continuum from infancy through childhood”.

Excerpt from chapter "Parenting by Guilt"

We parent like Tarzan on a rope, wildly swinging from never being there enough to being there far too much. It is time to find the key to the following riddle: How does this generation of parents simultaneously get construed as putting their own needs first and accused of being overly focused on their children? The answer to the riddle is one word – guilt.

Guilt has a very specific definition in psychological theory: an anguished state of mind arising out of an internal conflict. It is a state of mind in which we seek to make reparations, trying to fix what has gone wrong and make it up to anyone we have hurt. There could be no better descriptor for the predicament of this generation of professional, middle-class parents who have gone after what they have wanted – career, money, happiness – sometimes at the expense of their children’s well being, and yet who also act as if the sky is the limit for their children.

These parents indulge their sons and daughters and cater to their children’s every whim. They do their children’s homework with or for them, they let the children throw epithets at them. Then they turn around and leave their children for long periods of time, too long, while they complete a work project or follow their own muse. And all the while they are in a stew, never feeling at peace with what they are doing, either for themselves or for their children.

Pulled in two directions, they run in both directions at once trying to fix the problem – too much for themselves, too much for the children. This is what I call parenting by guilt, the most pernicious peril of parenting, one that requires our immediate attention….

Parenting by Guilt and the ‘Kinderdult’

Parenting by guilt is closely related to the modern child, the ‘kinderdult’. Specifically, parenting by guilt is responsible for shaping and reinforcing our split image of our children – half cherub, half miniature adult. Even with beepers, when a parent is away at work or engaged in other pursuits, he or she will be comforted by the belief that children can make it on their own, without the ministrations, attention, or protection of the mother’s or father’s presence. To tolerate the guilt about being away from their children for so many hours a day, parents have to call forth some image of the child that will reinforce this belief in the child’s independence and assuage the guilt. The miniature adult half of the kinderdult is the perfect image. It elevates the child to the status of someone who can handle waiting eagerly at the day care door at six o’clock in the evening, carrying a key and letting him or herself in after school, or being a solo microwave chef three evenings a week. That miniature adult status can also delude parents into assuming that children, as miniature adults, will be partaking in the same pleasures as parents do when engaged in the pursuit of their own happiness. Child, like parent, will do fine with dinner parties, late-night hours, jam-packed schedules.

But holding on to an image of the child as miniature adult is only a temporary fix, another frantic attempt at reparation. The guilt about not being there enough or providing enough eventually breaks through, and the parents open their eyes and see a child who is weak and helpless, in need of their care and attention, the cherub half of the kinderdult. Rather than the miniature adult who can handle whatever a mother or father can or whatever is necessary in the parents’ absence, the parent now vacillates towards the tiny child in need of care and protection. Our guilt mingles with our perception of the cherub to construct the fairyland of the ‘second shift’. If we can’t shield them from the varagies of the outside world in our absence, the least we can do is create a totally conflict-free sphere at home for our poor babies…

We do not feel guilty about our wild swings between parenting too much and parenting too little. It is just the opposite. Our guilt is what causes the swings. The swings are the symptom, the guilt the disease. That is why the ultimate solution is to attack the guilt….Whether we are away at work or frantically trying to make the most of our limited hours with our children, we are always caught in the midst of the riddle – too much or too little parenting? There are very specific areas in which parenting by guilt is most poignantly experienced, both by parent and child. The first is the parents’ thoughts, feelings and actions about their children’s achievements in life. The second is the parents’ struggles to provide discipline and guidance to their children. In the next four chapters, we will address these two areas.

Throughout Spoiling Childhood, Ehrensaft explores many of the contributing factors and effects of the ways that we parent too much in order to compensate for parenting too little. Primarily this shows up as the quandary of how our modern day lifestyles force our children into being more independent and autonomous than they perhaps are developmentally ready for on the one hand, and how we give them too much ‘coddling’ and doting care in the times we are with them to make up for it. Ehrensaft goes on to point out that we (well, especially mothers!) have a very difficult time maintaining a balance between our children’s needs and our own – even difficulty in being able to distinguish between the two! In the name of creating self-esteem, we give them too much praise and overglorify their each and every achievement, which creates an inflated false sense of self-worth and a sense of entitlement that makes it difficult for them to live cooperatively in a world of peers. Paradoxically, when we mirror to them our own ‘wounded narcissism’, and our soaring fantasies for their future, we run the risk of unwittingly interfering with their own unique qualities of self-unfolding in ways we may not be aware of.

In our bartering for love, (rather than demanding respect, as was the case in former generations) we give them free rein when limits and boundaries are called for; instead we want to be ‘friends’ and respect their individuality, and thus end up allowing them freedoms of choice and behaviour more appropriate to later years. Paradoxically, we find ourselves reluctant to place the slightest demands on them, in terms of assisting with household chores or to assist them in learning to delay the need for instant gratification! Ehrensaft also explores the influences behind why we all give our children way too many scheduled extra-curriculum activities rather than just allowing them to play and be children… and reports what the children of this generation really feel about this modern day style of parenting, along with some very profound and practical far reaching suggestions for how we could create a more conducive environment for ourselves and our children to grow within.

Excerpt from chapter "Use the Rod, Lose the Child"

A generation raised with the slogan “Smash Authority” is certainly going to have some problems facing parenthood. Parents with an allegiance to their fraying youth status have found that this phase has not served them well as parents. The belief that Never Never Land, a world with no parents to tell you when to go to bed, could be extended to themselves and their children has simply not worked when facing the reality of an actual child to raise. Recall the mother who began talking to her daughter, Alexis, (mentioned earlier in the book) when she was only six months old, asking her what she would like to wear that day or what she would like for breakfast. There is a sequel to the story. When Alexis turned four, her mother and father found themselves in the position of wanting their child to ‘mind’ them from time to time. The mother reports the following interchange: “The other day I told her, Alexis, you are going to do this right now because I say so!” She looked at me astounded – as if to say, “What’s going on here? You’re changing the rules on me!” The father gives his version: “For years my wife and I have urged our kids to think for themselves. Now, when we want them to do something we have to appeal to their self interest, their sense of fairness and logic. I probably use the word ‘obey’ once every six months. But sometimes it’s frustrating when you want them just to go along with you!”

Alexis’s parents are frustrated because they have failed to lay the groundwork for ‘benevolent authority’, by which children by age four would have internalised the expectation that parents indeed run the show and are responsible for shaping and guiding their children’s behaviour. The treatment of their tiny infant as an autonomous reasoning being actually reveals a false notion of me and not-me. In an authentic establishment of separateness and of external reality, differences, not similarities, between parents and child must be highlighted. When parents cater to the miniature adult pole of the kinderdult axis, merging, rather than individuation, occurs between parent and child. The child is perceived as a little clone of the parent. Along with such merging, in which the component of personal aggressiveness is lacking, comes the repudiation of authority, which requires that one person indeed must establish some sense of differentness, control and greater wisdom than the other.

Middle-class people bring to the parenting arena permissiveness, openness, understanding, and respect for their children’s autonomy. They are then hit with their child’s competing need for guidance, direction and a parent who is not just like them. This has forced parents to confront the fact that the real issue for the Peter Pan generation is not the preservation of youth for the sake of their children, but their own unwillingness to leave childhood behind and take on the position of adult authority that is their inevitable legacy in growing up. For the question, ‘Who are they doing this for, themselves or their children?’ the answer is clear: for themselves, all the while genuinely believing it will be the best for the children.

Nowhere have we uncovered a healthy child-rearing culture that practises the complete abnegation of adult authority. Even in perfect democracy there is a need for leaders. Today’s parents struggle hard to accept the role of authority, which by dictionary definition, involves, ‘the right to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; the right to control, command or determine’.

Even when Dr Spock himself assures us that “children don’t have to be uptight or hostile individuals because of a strict upbringing”, parents are not convinced. Why? Because it is not a matter of convincing. Indeed, we have to uncover parents’ deeper psychological defenses that inhibit firm upbringing – specifically, the avoidance of the aggressive energy or assertive force that underlies assuming authority. Often the conscious explanation goes something like this: “My parents were very authoritarian, and I vowed I would never do the same with my children.” We want our children to feel respected and free, rather than oppressed and bound. But when we dig deeper, we discover other forces at work, namely, our fear that if we call on that pool of energy from within ourselves, we might harm our children, and drive them away. To become an authority quickly equates with being a tyrant, an evil being who will suppress spontaneity and creativity in our children.

It will help us tremendously as parents to undo these aversions to authority. To be an authority figure to our children is to instill in them a respect for our wisdom and a trust in our ability to shepherd them through childhood with their best interests in mind. When fused with love, it allows the child to feel both cared for and protected, while at the same time setting up a ‘benign opposition’ in which a child can test his or her muster by challenging authority, but only within certain limits. It is also a sharing of our deepest selves, communicating to our children our values and beliefs and the things we feel most strongly about. When a parent fails to establish such a relationship with his or her child, the irony is that both parent and child are left with a surfeit of unbridled aggression, the very emotion the underaggressive, authority-aversive parent desperately attempts to steer clear of.

Spoiling Childhood by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD, published with the kind permission of The Guildford Press, NY.

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