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A Family-Values Crisis: the Overindulged Child

One expert, at least, has something practical to say about more responsibility, less talk of 'self-esteem,' and higher expectations

IT'S Saturday. Your spouse has to be away, and you have spent a good part of the day with your young children. Now you need to get some of your own work done, and you plan to give them a quick lunch before they play with friends. But they have other ideas; they are clamoring to go to McDonald's. Desperate to stop the badgering, you tell them that McDonald's is closed on weekends. They believe you and eat the lunch you have planned.

*You are called by a neighbor, who reports that she caught your nine-year-old son and three other boys vandalizing her garage roof. You write a check to cover your child's part in the damage and you remind your neighbor that "they are only kids" and will outgrow this kind of behavior.

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*You drop your 16-year-old off at the home of a friend. You later find out that no adult was home and that a big party occurred - involving beer, fighting, and destruction of property. Since the boy's parents have no names of those involved, you don't contact them; you don't want any repercussions for your son. You simply tell him to be more careful.

Each of these situations was an opportunity to help children grow, but instead the experience worked to their detriment. Adults can't teach the right lessons if we begin with the wrong premises. It's a tragedy that our society, which claims to value its children, is in fact failing them, despite parents' efforts to sacrifice for their children.

Nurturing selfishness

Unselfish parents sometimes have self-centered children. One reason might be that parents can sacrifice too much, and in the wrong ways. Some are even reluctant to assign household chores, because the young child's world should always be "fun." They believe that every activity - a dentist appointment, toilet training, eating, a day at school - must be made enjoyable, so that the child will not be "stressed." One parent we know recently described her child's life as "a never-ending birthday party." But we think children are not truly happy when nothing is demanded of them and everything is done for their entertainment.

If children and teenagers are restless, irresponsible, apathetic, and self-centered, parents might be following too much of the "experts' " advice and not enough intuition. Children will usually deliver the degree of individual competence and social responsibility that adults expect - and our expectations have lessened with each generation. The result is that many virtues once considered normal have been lost - or at least temporarily buried.

Parents are now told that a child's "self-esteem" is to be preserved and enhanced at all costs. But in separating self-esteem from any conduct that a child is responsible for, we actually diminish that child's feelings of self-worth. Yet there is little support for this intuition in popular books on raising and educating children.

One exception is "Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America's Homes and Schools." The author, William Damon, is a professor of education at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and director of Brown's Center for the Study of Human Development.

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He takes a hard look at our homes, schools, and communities, warning what the future may bring if we continue on the present path. He cites overindulgent child-rearing practices that include overprotectiveness, lack of proper adult guidance, obsession with self-esteem, and undue concern with children's momentary feelings - all of which contribute to a "failure of spirit" in today's youths.

Dr. Damon offers an example from when his own daughter was in kindergarten. She came home with the words "I'm Terrific" printed on a card. The students were supposed to put it up where they could see it frequently. Damon wondered, "What does the card mean? What is my daughter terrific at?" The teacher had wanted the card to boost children's self-esteem; it apparently didn't matter whether or not children demonstrated competence.

A respectful perspective

Damon has a different view, and a deep respect for children. He presents concrete proof that they are intrinsically motivated toward character and competence; that they crave difficult challenges; that they thrive on opportunities to serve others; that they seek consistent programs of discipline; and that they are moral and compassionate. He illustrates how, instead of limiting children's development by protecting them from the challenges of life, we can build upon their natural aptitudes by guiding them to accept personal and social responsibility.

Damon emphasizes that parents and teachers are not the only adults who need to give young people clear and consistent messages. The entire community of influential adults - coaches, employers, youth workers, librarians, clergy, police - needs to hold high standards and expectations. Damon advocates these groups working together to form a "community youth charter."

By understanding what children are capable of learning and doing, adults can be ready for opportunities to guide their development in the right ways. Even very young children can grasp that it is sometimes a privilege to sacrifice one's own plans if they are not convenient for everyone concerned; that the feeling that comes from working hard and doing something well is preferable to constantly being told how terrific we are; and that we must always take responsibility for our actions.

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