Are kids today spoilt rotten?

14th September 2012 at 01:00
Children need authority and boundaries to develop the social skills that will help them succeed, says Aric Sigman

Being "spoilt" is something we assume applies to more affluent children with too much choice. Much of what we used to call spoilt behaviour has been sensitively rebranded as "lacking adequate social skills".

But being spoilt is being redefined. It is a mindset: a child with a sense of entitlement - "I deserve because I want"; a child with less empathy and sympathy topped with a predilection for instant gratification or reduced "impulse control". And it's an equal-opportunity, entirely classless mindset.

Unfortunately, the concepts that prevent or work against being spoilt - authority, discipline, respect for adults - are bedevilled by leftright, liberalconservative, traditionalprogressive connotations. They shouldn't be. Authority, discipline, boundaries, rules and respect for adults are concepts that are increasingly found to be required for the health and development of all children, irrespective of their backgrounds. And while it may not be possible for schools to provide these core concepts, they should be a firm reference point in dealing with pupils and parents today.

The age, social background and circumstances of pupils vary immensely across schools, yet the need for discipline and rules will not go away and every institution must review them.

Stamp of authority

By chanting "put children first", we retreat from parenting and being authoritative adults. And when teachers attempt to assert authority, they are often not supported by parents.

Many adults, especially parents, seem confused, unable to confidently distinguish between being authoritative and authoritarian, choosing what appears to be the safer option. There seems to be an unconscious misperception that authority is incompatible with sensitivity, love and compassion, and that by exerting authority (including compulsion and threats) we diminish the care we want children to experience and the affection and trust we want to feel from them.

But our concerns are groundless. In 2009, the Institute of Education published a major research review of a study involving 12,500 families and children, which concluded: "Multiple studies have documented that children who have authoritative parents - that is, both firm disciplinarians and warm, receptive caregivers - are more competent than their peers at different developmental periods including preschool, school age and adolescence ... Contrary to popular understanding, 'authoritative' parenting leads to better-adjusted, more competent children."

It is no surprise that pupils learn more in orderly, disciplined classrooms. Some large analyses have found that improving pupil behaviour can, on average, improve their learning by a full grade and a half. New research in the US suggests that racial disparities in school discipline are believed to contribute to the persistent achievement gap between black and white students.

Uncomfortable truths

Teachers who have been in the job for several decades report significant changes for the worse in children's sense of entitlement and concern for - or even awareness of - others' feelings. But when presented with some of the evidence, causes and solutions, many adults wrongly see this in terms of "demonising young people".

Violent assaults on teachers have risen, while the age of the pupil-perpetrators continues to drop. Persistent disruption and uncontrollable behaviour is found to start at a younger age. Children aged 3 to 5 are throwing chairs, swearing and refusing to obey their teachers.

Unsurprisingly, a survey this year by the ATL education union found that 57 per cent of teachers judged pupils' behaviour as having deteriorated over the past five years. ATL general secretary Mary Bousted says: "It is shocking that a third of teaching staff have experienced violence and that it is getting worse... This can apply as much to over-indulged middle-class children as to those from challenging families."

However, most spoilt behaviour takes the form of nuances in body language, such as a lack of eye contact, a disrespectful inflection in the voice, a pause in reaction: all these can denote a profound change in recognition and respect.

Joined-up parenting

Without clear boundaries and clear figures of authority, children develop a sense of entitlement and self-centredness and they are also less happy, secure, and socially and academically viable. Every effort must be made to ensure that teachers are supported by their bosses, colleagues and professional associations.

Parents must be asked to instil these concepts to the best of their ability at home. They need to be told clearly that teachers have their children's best interests at heart and need to be supported in dealing with them, because authority and discipline are a prerequisite to young people's well-being.

Or, more bluntly, teachers should feel entitled to stifle pupils' sense of unbridled entitlement.

Dr Aric Sigman is a PSHE lecturer and author of The Spoilt Generation (Piatkus).


ATL survey (March 2012). tinyurl.comcrmja5r

Kinsler, J. "School Discipline: a source or salve for the achievement gap", International Economic Review (forthcoming).


Sigman, A. The Spoilt Generation: why restoring authority will make children and society happier (Piatkus, 2009).

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