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Published June 25, 2010, 12:00 AM

Too many children are being spoiled, pampered

Psychologist William J. Doherty at the University of Minnesota has taken a hard look at the pressures facing parents in our affluent consumer culture, and the results aren’t pretty. In his book, “Take Back Your Kids,” he highlights examples of parents who are devoted, sensitive and caring but fail to set enough limits.

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

Psychologist William J. Doherty at the University of Minnesota has taken a hard look at the pressures facing parents in our affluent consumer culture, and the results aren’t pretty. In his book, “Take Back Your Kids,” he highlights examples of parents who are devoted, sensitive and caring but fail to set enough limits.

Doherty says the central problem is that parents are being too good to their children. There is not enough effort to teach children to bear responsibility in their families and their communities. They are not taught to contribute to the world around them, help care for others, make sacrifices within the family or contribute to the common good.

In analyzing the changes in modern parenting practices, Doherty makes the following observations:

  • We have gotten a lot better at being sensitive to their needs and a lot worse at setting limits for them.
  • We no longer want our children to grow up in fear of our anger, but we now live in fear of theirs.
  • We know when to explain ourselves and negotiate with our children, but not when to cut off further discussion.
  • We know the importance of open expression, but don’t know when to insist that a child be quiet or stop interrupting adult conversation.
  • We support our children’s right to express their ire and frustration, but don’t know when they cross the line into disrespect.
  • We are expert at finding community activities for our children to participate in, but don’t know when to say “enough.”
  • We are willing to bend our family time to fit our children’s schedules, but are hesitant to limit their schedules for the sake of the family.
  • We are better at knowing what to buy for our children than what to deny them.
  • We are better at helping our children make their own decisions, but are confused about when we should make decisions for them.
  • We are better at advocating for our children when dealing with the school, but fail to side with the school when our child’s behavior is out of line.
  • We are more involved with our children’s sport activities, but we have lost the balance between home life and our children’s outside activities.
  • We know more about raising our children than about nurturing our marriages, which sometimes must be protected from our children’s demands.
  • We earnestly desire to meet our children’s needs, but often can’t separate their needs from their desires.

Where does this abdication of parental power come from? Doherty says these attitudes stem from a consumer mentality of self-interest. Parents take a role as providers of parental services and children are the consumers. Parents are buddies, not authority figures. They run scared of displeasing their children. They have a hard time saying no.

Parents frantically try to maximize their children’s opportunities at the expense of their own marriages and family life. Children are over-scheduled and their parents’ free time is spent supporting the children’s activities. When parents serve their children too much, they identify too much with their successes and failures.

Three myths from the world of therapy. Doherty talks about the ill effects of therapeutic parenting – being accepting, attentive, nondirective and nonjudgmental. Doherty identifies three myths that lead parents into insecurity, not setting strong enough limits, or not giving clear and authentic displeasure when children don’t measure up to expectations.

Myth one: Children are fragile.

Myth two: Children need to express their individuality by de-emphasizing social conformity.

Myth three: Parents don’t have much influence over their teenager’s behavior.

The unintended results of doing too much. Our consumer culture teaches children to act like demanding brats. The therapeutic culture keeps parents from setting limits and expecting conformity to family and social obligations. Children learn to complain vigorously when their wishes aren’t met, push the limits of respect and show little willingness to pitch in for the welfare of others. Their sense of entitlement is pervasive.

When a child consistently behaves in an uncooperative or ungrateful manner, parents wear out and begin resenting their children for being so self-centered and ungrateful. In the long run, doing too much for children isn’t very satisfying. Parents give up and withdraw from active parenting – only to make the situation worse.

Taking back your power. Doherty’s excellent book shows how to expect respect, expect family participation, use anger constructively, and to resist the influence of media, peers and popular culture on children. He doesn’t like the influence of consumerism on parents and children alike. Doherty says that parents and children can make positive contributions to their schools and communities, too.

Doherty’s book also offers advice on parenting as a team, making marriage a priority and – get this – protecting your marriage from your children. Parents need to feel their power and influence and take charge in an environment where the consumer forces and popular peer culture are relentless.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families.

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