MAXWELL:  Children who feel good, but act bad

4/27/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg


After the little brat had nearly smashed my laptop computer, I decided that enough was enough.

I was at the airport in Birmingham, Ala., for a flight to St. Petersburg. The boy, about 6 years old, and his younger sister had been chasing each other around the rows of seats. They had interrupted my love affair with a wonderful new book, Reynolds Price: The Collected Poems.

Other passengers also seethed in anger as the mother primly sat and adoringly observed her urchins. “Get away from here,” I said after the boy plunged into me, and sent my computer falling to the floor. Resenting the woman’s smugness, I said: “Can’t you control your kids?”

She grabbed her luggage, gathered her little darlings and walked to the other side of the waiting area. There, she embraced the boy, kissed him and rubbed his head. Never mind his behavior of a few moments earlier. She treated him like the innocent victim.

Several other passengers complimented me for getting rid of the rowdy duo, which assuaged some of the guilt I was beginning to feel. But why am I feeling guilty? I asked myself. That mother should feel guilty for having reared such self-absorbed kids.

The fact is that too often, parents let their children act up and make others miserable. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I am convinced that America’s new way of child-rearing, a trend that family psychologist John Rosemond calls “progressive parenting,” harms more children than it helps.

Under progressive parenting, concocted by mental health professionals, the goal is to create children who “feel good” about themselves, Rosemond writes in a 1996 article titled “Hurting youngster’s feelings isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Rosemond, who has two adult children and has been married for 27 years, dubs this new approach the “Tower of Parent-Babble” and argues that it has replaced the age “when common sense ruled the rearing of children, (when) parents held children accountable for their behavior. To that end, they taught children the Universal Accountability Principle: For every choice, there is a consequence. Good choices being good consequences and bad choices, bad ones.”

In the past, he writes, parents knew that in the “real world” a person must act good many times and over many years before reaping benefits. Bad choices, however, tend to bring negative consequences immediately. As a result, parents, along with teachers, generally did not award special praise to children for being good _ or normal. Punishment was quick and severe, though, for misbehavior.

Progressive parents, on the other hand, go out of their way to make their children feel good about themselves _ even to the point of praising failed efforts. In no way, the litany goes, should children feel bad about themselves or about anything. If parents inadvertently make their kids feel bad, they redeem themselves with lavish praise or gift-giving.

Such extraordinary compensation is harmful, Rosemond writes. Children who hurt others should be told that their behavior is bad and should be punished if necessary.

Rosemond is not suggesting that we destroy young psyches. But he does suggest that “a fully operational social conscience cannot develop without causing a child occasional psychic pain, as in shame, embarrassment and remorse. . . . I’m not talking about causing children to loathe themselves, but rather to view themselves with humility.”

Humility? Is it possible in today’s permissive environment?

Again, Rosemond: “To develop humility, a child must come to grips with penance and atonement. The spiritually mature adult, when he does something wrong, will impose penance upon himself and prescribe for himself appropriate means of atonement. But a child is not spiritually mature; therefore, it is rare that a child, after doing something wrong, will voluntarily prescribe these things upon himself.

“They must be imposed on him and prescribed for him by adults, and the only adults capable of carrying out this obligation to the child and society are those who live in the Real World. Unfortunately, and largely because the Keepers of the Tower have confused the realities of child rearing and replaced them with the mythology of “progressive parenting,’ there is a dearth of parents who fully accept this responsibility.”

The results of our new child rearing? In Rosemond’s opinion, we have far too many children who “refuse to accept responsibility for their misbehavior, feel they should be rewarded for any work, no matter how mediocre, and are generally self-absorbed and disrespectful.”

We parents created the conditions that absolve children of personal responsibility. Only when we, adults, return common sense to parenting will we stop producing children who behave as they please _ even in crowded public places.