Nip brats in the bud

CAROL MILSTONE

The experts call them ‘pampered children.’ To those who have to put up with them, they’re ‘spoiled rotten.’ But thanks to some sage advice, they don’t have to be that way.

There is a little trouble brewing in a playgroup that meets in a pleasant suburban neighbourhood in Gloucester, Out., a suburb of Ottawa. The central figure is a four year-old who I will call Ivan, but who others would call much worse.

When Ivan gets together on a weekly basis with seven similar-aged children and their mothers, he causes trouble. He grabs toys from other kids, demands that he always get his turn, and cries and screams if he doesn't get his way. If tantrums don't work, he resorts to an arsenal of personal attacks like "I don't like you" and "I won't be your friend." When things go really wrong for Ivan, it is not unusual for him to hit, kick and pinch the other children who get in his way.

When Ivan is visiting at the other children's homes (the playgroup mothers rotate turns in hosting these get-togethers), he habitually breaks the hostess' rules about where he may eat snacks, which rooms are out of bounds and which household items are not to be touched by children. When the playgroup meets at Ivan's house, Ivan cries when his mother serves refreshments to the visitors, and he throws a tantrum when other kids touch any of his toys, Regardless of where the group is meeting, Ivan makes the other children cry and the other mothers cringe,

"It's quite the saga," reports one playgroup mother I'll call Marnie. "Our playgroup would be so nice if it weren't for Ivan. He's such a brat, Kids end up crying, the toys [in the basement] are all over the place, thanks to Ivan.

"Were supposed to be having coffee upstairs while the kids play downstairs, but there's always trouble with this kid. Some of us are talking about getting together without him, " confesses Marnie, whose own four-year-old son has endured Ivan's wrath on a number of playgroup occasions.

When asked about Ivan's mother's role during the playgroup turbulence, Marnie reports that his mother remains calm and doesn't really get involved. "We'd love to see her discipline her kid, but she just acts like nothing is wrong. Sometimes she makes excuses, like 'He's tired' or 'He has a cold' or 'He had too much sugar.' It's not that we don't like [her]. She's really nice. Maybe she's just too nice to her son. He's spoiled rotten."

While exasperated mothers like Marnie use terms like "spoiled" and "brat" to describe children like Ivan, professionals prefer terms like "overindulged," "emotionally protected" or "pampered."

The term "pampered children" was popularized by Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and later a champion of socially responsible behaviour. Today his writings are seen as more relevant than ever; with the release of such titles as Alfred Adler, The Forgotten Prophet, and a new translation project of Adler's earlier works from German to English, Adlerian psychology is experiencing something of a renaissance.

Adler believed that giving in too much and overprotecting children actually makes them feel insecure by sending them messages that they can't cope on their own. This insecurity can lead to what he called an "inferiority complex," causing people to become self-absorbed and insensitive as they try to shore up a flailing self-image,

"Every pampered child becomes a hated child," warned Adler "There is no greater evil than the pampering of children."

Susan Prosser, an Adlerian family therapist with Ottawa's Adlerian Centre for Counselling and Education, explains; "Adler says that pampering is one of the most dangerous things we can do to our children. It is almost equally dangerous as negligence, because you are not preparing the child for the world."

Modem-day examples of pampering, which Prosser draws from her professional experience, include letting children get whatever they want just because they cry or ask repeatedly; allowing them to violate their bedtime because it's easier than being firm; devoting inordinate amounts of time and attention to the child; or spending too much of the family budget to meet the child's material whims. Today's working mothers are often prone to these forms of pampering, says Prosser, as attempts to compensate for being away from their young children during the day.

Parents are also pampering their children by overprotecting them from the repercussions of their misbehaviour. Says Prosser, "When parents don't allow their children to suffer the consequences of misbehaviour [from other kids, teachers or coaches], the child misses out on learning opportunities and also gets the message that he or she is not capable of handling the situation."

What is worse, when parents, like Ivan's mother, help a child find excuses for his misbehaviour, they teach the child that he is never at fault. "These children can't deal with criticism and spend a lot of energy blaming others and making excuses."

A related pampering error identified by Adler is over-praising and over-rewarding a child. The problem with this approach is that these children become dependent on others for constant praise and approval, says Prosser.

"These kids are emotionally demanding and tiring to be with. They often grow up to become what we call 'entitled adults,' thinking they own the road on life and making themselves very difficult to like."

Adler went so far as to say that "grown-up pampered children are perhaps the most dangerous class in our society," and modem research might support this claim. In a review of all the major studies on violent groups (including gang members, wife beaters, bank robbers, abusive mothers, terrorists and even those who have murdered a family member), Roy Baumeister and colleagues of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio found that inflated self-esteem — which lies at the heart of conceitedness, narcissism and arrogance — is often the culprit in violent transgressions.

Highly conceited people, the researchers explain in an influential article subtitled "The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem", hold glowing pictures of themselves that are exaggerated and over-generalized, leaving them open to ego threats and the subsequent need to reassert their superiority over others.

To overcome the social ravages of pampering and self-centredness, Adler believed that parents should take an active role in training their children to become socially responsible and sensitive toward others: "To see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another," Adler wrote 80 years ago.

Parents can read Adler's parenting wisdom in his Education of Children or The Problem Child. Adlerian child guidance principles ("Never do for a child what he can do for himself," "Overprotection pushes a child down," "Over-responsible parents often produce irresponsible children,") are also available at the Web site of the Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco) (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/hstein/homepage.htm).

For parents who would prefer more contemporary applications of Adlerian principles in a breezy, read-in-an-evening format, the recently released I Refuse to Raise a Brat, by actress Marilu Henner and prominent psychoanalyst Dr. Ruth Velikovsky, hits the mark. "Welcome to the world of brat-busting!" the dust jacket invites the reader, "The surest way to raise a brat is to overindulge, overgratify and overprotect."

"Some of the most difficult patients I've treated," begins Sharon in her preface, "were overindulged or received endless gratification and attention — patients who, as children, were treated as special and entitled."

On family life, she advises that all children be given household chores, that bedtime is not negotiable, and that siblings be required to share generously with one another.

Parents who have difficulty enforcing these basic expectations need to be consistent and firm, instructs Sharon. They should also memorize the following lines and use them often, I am the parent. I make the rules. You are the child. You obey the rules."

Sharon endorses Adler's belief that physical punishment, shaming, ridicule and hostility are absolutely out of bounds for responsible parenting. So are the other extremes of overtalking, overaccommodating or overempathizing with your child.

To take Sharon's brat-busting approach to Ivan's habit of grabbing other kids' toys, Ivan's mother should first direct Ivan to return the toy to its rightful owner. If Ivan doesn't comply immediately, his mother should take the stolen toy from Ivan and return it, saying, "Don't take other children's toys. You have to find your own toy." If Ivan steals again, his mother should emit an emphatic "No!" If Ivan's greedy behaviour continues, he should be isolated ("time out") for increasing periods of time.

On temper tantrums, Sharon advises that hugs, soothing words, negotiating and bribes will only reward the child for his misbehaviour and produce more tantrums. "Discipline is in order," says Sharon, who adds that tantrums are also best handled with a firm "No!" followed by time alone in the child's bedroom. After the time out, it's business as usual — no special treatment and no special talks.

On everything from weaning to potty-training, sibling rivalry to schoolwork, Sharon's brat-busting campaign is unrelenting. Her harshest words, however, are reserved for parents who give their children the message that they are "special."

"These parents have read or heard that telling a child he is special will help him develop the self-esteem and confidence he needs," says Sharon. "And it is a myth. Praising a child excessively will produce an overindulged child who feels insecure physically and emotionally, who will never have an accurate perspective about who he is and what his place is in the family and in society. The child who has his needs tended to and receives consistent discipline will have a better chance of becoming successful than the coddled child who hears nothing but admiring words."

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Carol Milstone, "Nip brats in the bud," National Post, (Canada) 28 April, 2000.

Reprinted with permission of Carol Milstone.

THE AUTHOR

Carol Milstone has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a regular contributor in education and psychology for the National Post.

Copyright © 2000 National Post


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