Americans Fear Raising Spoiled Children — And Do It Anyway

If fear is a form of self-recognition, it makes sense that Americans would live in dread of entitlement.

Kelsey Wroten
Kelsey Wroten

The Bible-endorsed, popularly accepted idea that overindulgence harms children was tightened by a turn of phrase in the 1640s. Previously the Old French term espillier, meaning to plunder, was mostly applied to armies, but enfants of the aristocratic classes in Lyon suddenly founded themselves in possession of a new pejorative. At the time, the term hadn’t yet been applied to edibles. Kids spoiled before food did. The idea of the enfant espilie went viral.

But if spoiled children came from France, they made a home in the New World, where parents have been obsessed with moderating indulgence since the Pilgrims began removing kids from their parent’s care in order to ensure they were given more work than love. Consumed by the idea that indulgence could make affection into an engine of corruption, these buckle-shoed religious extremists, set precedent for centuries of hand-wringing about the corruptive powers of comfort and care. This classically American nervousness about ruination through indulgence began to teeter on the edge of national obsession when, in the wake of a hot, 2-0 start in World Wars, America experienced an economic boom the likes of which the world had never seen. Were the Boomers spoiled? Are Millennials? The question of who is and isn’t soft triggers intergenerational conflict and creates an environment in which family welfare programs are replaced by thinkpieces about declining work ethic.

So, why have American parents come to fear spoiling their children so much that they refuse to even help themselves? The answer lies at least partly in the fact that spoiled children are a real phenomenon. Most psychiatrists agree that parents can, in fact, Frankenstein a specific kind of asshole into being. And many psychiatrists insist that American parents, subjected to specific cultural and economic expectations, do exactly that. If fear is a form of self-recognition (and it almost invariably is), it makes sense that Americans would live in dread of entitlement. Concern is self-diagnosis, but a broader cultural cure remains in the offing.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, where William Bradford and his unmerry band of Pilgrim misfits raised their kids, was a wilderness in which discipline had to be absolute for practical reasons. The woods were dangerous. The cold was dangerous. The devil, it was rumored, hid behind the woodpile. But in a post-industrial nation, the need for discipline seems to have been replaced by the desire for busyness and activity. Today’s children are often given more opportunities to take part in low-stakes competition than they are given opportunities to take responsibility. The original emphasis on discipline had morphed into an emphasis on preparation best summarized by the old Boy Scout motto. American children are now primed for tests that never seem to come. Some blame the participation trophies, but what has fundamentally changed is participation itself, what children are busy doing.

If the original, French spoiled child was not doing much, the American spoiled child is achieving mediocrity in a wide variety of after-school activities. So, when does this end? Presumably, when someone addresses the issue head on.

Though Alfred Alder made the first scholarly attempt to pathologize the spoilage in the early 1900s, he was more of a finger wagger than a psychologist. The credit for making the first truly modern attempt to pathologize spoilage rightly belongs to Dr. Bruce. J. Mcintosh. In 1989, Mcintosh published an article titled Spoiled Child Syndrome in Pediatrics. In it, he made the case that many pediatricians declined to talk to parents about spoiling because the term was derogatory and poorly defined, allowing behavioral issues to be left untreated. To clear up the problem, Mcintosh proposed a new syndrome that could be clearly diagnosed.

“Spoiled child syndrome is characterized by excessive self-centered and immature behavior, resulting from the failure of parents to enforce consistent, age-appropriate limits,” he wrote. The characteristics of spoiling Mcintosh put forth included: requiring night feeding after four months, crying at night after 4 months, recurrent temper tantrums and “out of control toddlers.” The latter, he wrote, was recognizable due to the fact that “he or she is defiant, hostile, and aggressive, and neither adults nor other children want to have anything to do with him or her.”

Still, this “syndrome” made it no further than Pediatrics. Since that time there have been two revisions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard by which psychological issues are diagnosed. “Spoiled Child Syndrome” does not appear in either update.

“It’s not there,” explains Yale Parenting Center Director Dr. Alan Kazdin. “Because there’s no evidence for it.”

Do parents foster laziness and entitlement in their children? Yes, but Kazdin suggests – and he’s done the research to support this – that the mechanism may not be a clear as centuries of moralizers have suggested. The problem, he explains, may actually have very little to do with indulgence at all. Kids are more likely to mimic behavior than they are to adjust their behavior to fit expectations. In other words, spoiled parents raise spoiled kids. A public-minded, generous, and polite parent might shower his or her child in privilege and presents and still raise a public-minded, generous, and polite child. Kazdin’s point isn’t that parents are unwise or unreasonable to worry about spoiling their kids, but that they are focused on the wrong mechanisms and failing to take an adequately hard look at themselves.

“Spoiling is likely to be related to a parent self-indulging,” Kazdin explains, particularly in the realm of conspicuous material consumption. “Modeling being wasteful and self-centered and self-focused would be the thing that has the greatest impact.”

The problem is exaggerated, accord to Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, when parents teach children to avoid discomfort, emotional or otherwise, at all costs by doing so themselves. Markham posits that the traits of a spoiled child emerge from a creeping failure to deny a “lower self” for a “higher self.” More worryingly, she adds that Americans in particular, are constantly emerged in a literal marketplace and a marketplace of ideas that encourages to prioritization of the lower self’s agenda. Comfort is sought and received. Inherited wealth masquerades as achievement. Success is intentionally misunderstood to be a product of pure will, rather than the alchemical mixing of luck and possibility.

“It’s a sickness of our culture,” Markham says. “Everyone one of us is infected with this disease and we pass it onto our children.”

In 2013, the idea of an epidemic of spoilage came to the fore when a wealthy teenager named Ethan Couch killed four people in a drunk driving incident in Texas. Couch’s defense team explained that their client was suffering from “affluenza” and produced a psychologist named G. Dick Miller to legitimate that claim. Couch was eventually sentenced to rehab and probation rather than prison based on the logic that his economic privilege kept him from understanding his actions. The public was horrified and Miller voiced his regret for introducing an instantly detestable neologism in popular culture.

But the deep unpopularity of an idea doesn’t make it wrong. Though he’s certainly no Couch apologist and has no time for the idea of diminished consequences for the wealthy, Dr. Jim Taylor, author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Happy and Successful Child, concedes that being spoiled may have been an explanation for why Cohen was drunk behind the wheel of an SUV barrelling down a dark Texas road.

“Spoiled children have a lot of control because they get what they want,” says Taylor. “But ultimately that’s a scary thing for kids.”

It’s a point that some scholars make in regard to American culture writ large. American society is now the product of almost 100 years of unparalleled economic growth and expanding privilege as well as the legacy of individualism left by extremist protestants. The result is a culture that demands both kids and adults be exceptional and successful, but fails to provide a backup plan for when they aren’t, resulting in the inevitable celebration of minor achievements and an overestimation of self that begins to feel like the cost of cultural admission. In short, “affluenza” might be an endemic infection.

“In American culture it’s all about individual success,” says Cornell University anthropologist Meredith F. Small. “So what we raise is, by the very nature of our society, self centered people.”

Small notes that Americans aren’t uniquely indulgent with their children. To the contrary, there are plenty of cultures that are far kinder to children. What Americans do that other cultures do not do, is focus on raising self-sufficient individuals. In other countries, where families live closer together and lifting oneself up by the bootstraps is still considered a physical impossibility, the correlation between being pampered and being spoiled is not as strong.

“This isn’t the way humans are supposed to bring up children,” Small says. “We’re supposed to have lots of people to rely on.”

At least some of American parents’ nervousness about spoiling their kids can likely be blamed on a lack of community resources. Parents who raise their kids more or less alone (polls have suggested less than a third of Americans care about living near family) are bound to struggle or, and this happens more than is publicly acknowledged, give up. Proof of this arrives almost weekly in the form of articles and news segments lambasting Millennials and, now, members of Gen Z for their seeming narcissism and shiftlessness. Perceived generational flaws are credited to excessive positive reinforcement–all those participation trophies–rather than to economic recession, stiffening competition, or the slow-speed withering of the manufacturing sector. This, Alfie Kohn, points out, is absolutely nonsense.

“Sweeping statements about how kids or young adults are spoiled — or self-centered, entitled, narcissistic, selfish, what have you — are revealing mostly for what they tell us about the people who make these claims.” Kohn writes in The Myth of the Spoiled Child. “And by the way, complaints about how ‘kids today’ are the worst ever have been heard in every generation going back decades, if not centuries.”

The current banner waver for the “Kids Aren’t Alright” movement is Senator Ben Sasse, who has spent several years actively raising his public profile in anticipation for, well, notoriety at least. The author of The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, Sasse has made the talk show rounds telling a story about sending his kids to a farm to make sure they wouldn’t become entitled. His thesis is that they need to embrace self-reliance in order to not be spoiled.

It would be nice to believe that Sasse isn’t describing a paradox or that the “spoiled child” is a cultural construct, a boogeyman used by educators or politicians to get parents to toe a line. But it isn’t so. In reality, only this cold comfort is available to worried parents: Spoiled children are as American as demanding more apple pie.