From child-centred to self-centred?

1st September 2000 at 01:00
Is 1960s-style liberal parenting to blame for creating a generation of acquisitive, loutish teenagers?

WHEN asked what sort of a child he had been Noel Coward replied: "When paid constant attention, extremely lovable. When not, a pig."

So he was a spoilt brat. The word "spoilt" applied to children who are demanding and indulged, is back in vogue as the cause of all that is wrong with modern youth. The loutish, ill-mannered, uncontrolled, inconsiderate young people who we hear so much about (but perhaps because they are in the minority and therefore make "news") are apparently the product of 60s-style parenting.

The product, we are told, of too much attention and concern for their needs and feelings and too little chastisement to teach them that they are not the centre of the universe.

It is we - for I parented according to what I learned at my school, Summerhill, where freedom and children's rights were concepts ahead of their time - who are being asked to look at the folly of our ways. Well nothing new in that.

Throughout the years since I went to feed my newly-born son, outside of the scheduled time, because I heard him crying in the nursery at hospital and the sister bustled up admonishing: "you know who'll be boss if you do that", I have had many a finger wagged at me. "Concerned" friends have warned that asking to hear my kids' reasoning when they have been rude and seemingly wildly unreasonable, believing they have a right to time and attention even when there are things I would rather do, wanting them to grow up feeling they are equal human beings albeit with less experience under their belts (something I frequently point out to their accompanying groans), surely meant my children would be spoilt.

Really? My dictionary defines spoilt as having value diminished or destroyed and that is not what I see in children who have been made the centre of their parents' lives.

If anyone is diminished and invalidated it is surely the one in four children in Britain (one in three by the end of Mrs Thatcher's reign) who is growing up in poverty, which builds great stress into fmily life and leads to a higher-than-average breakdown of couples.

They are more likely than their advantaged peers to suffer physical and sexual abuse and emotional neglect. Parents on the breadline have to struggle to give their children the occasional thing (new trainers, a compact disc player) at sacrifice to themselves. Impoverished children usually get the worst education and therefore the worst employment prospects, have the worst health profile, are more likely to end up in the criminal justice


On top of all this they have now been dubbed the "underclass" and are forced into ghettos where they know how little status they have and how little interest the rest of us have in them until they force us to take notice by behaving in an anti-social way.

These children are being spoilt - not by their parents but by a society that is not interested in their quality of life and which is unwilling to pay higher taxes to improve their lot and encourage them to feel like equal citizens.

I do see middle-class children who are lavished with goods and money and given in to constantly. But often their parents do not have time for them and are buying their way out of giving their kids anything resembling child-centred treatment. They grow up as demanding and not particularly considerate - after all who has considered their feelings - and find all sorts of ways of acting out their need for someone to see them, hear them, take notice of them. It could be said they have been spoilt by this treatment.

OK, I'm partisan but what I see among the child-centred families who have found the process of being child-centred very hard work at times, is young people who have confidence in their own opinions, are good conversationalists and feel they are respected in the world. What's more, they are good friends with us.

Before we have, yet again, an ill-informed knee-jerk condemnation of child-centred upbringing let's consider what really harms a child - too much soft love is low on the list.

Angela Neustatter is a freelance journalist who was educated at Summerhill School

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