A Point of View: Modern parenting

Child having her hair done

Today's children might appear mollycoddled compared with previous generations - but such pampering is more hard-nosed than it appears, says Alain de Botton.

Anyone who has observed a certain kind of liberal, concerned, modern parent at close quarters, and doesn't have children of his or her own, is likely to come away from the experience appalled.

The care and attention paid to every detail of the child's life is terrifying. Simply deciding what one might have for dinner can take hours of careful negotiation.

Every question a child raises is accorded infinite care - how long would it take to fall through the earth, from one end to the other? Does Daddy know that the okapi is a relative of the giraffe even though it looks much more like a horse or zebra? Where does wind come from? Who were the most powerful people in Victorian England? What is inside an atom?

Historians tell us that for much of human history, these questions would have received short shrift. There was a high chance your small questioner was going to be dead by adulthood, you might have five or six similar-sized creatures to put to bed every night, and it therefore felt logical not to invest too much energy and emotion in providing any one of them with answers.

Family Unlike in bygone times, the child is at the centre of the modern family

In any case, the questions that children thought up were of no particular importance to begin with; the whole of childhood was conceived of as a dreamlike phase substantially disconnected from any of the major determinants of adult existence.

Yet we now live in a society and era for whom it is a basic axiom that the success or failure of grown-up life is directly tied to the quality of the care one receives in childhood.

Beneath the surface activities of the family, the games of hide and seek and the baking of biscuits, the trips to the zoo and the colouring of Tyrannosaurus Rex's scales, personalities are being assembled upon whose strength and creativity all subsequent flourishing will depend. Emotional lessons that are not properly learnt at the toddler stage will never be fixed or only at great and slow therapeutic cost.

The television networks are too full of people tearfully evoking memories of maternal or paternal neglect or misunderstanding, not to make it plain that being somebody's parent is not an occupation to fail at lightly. The job means that one is daily attending - in the most seemingly innocent moments, when responding to a school project or appraising a Lego airport - to the casting of foundations no less sensitive and load-bearing than those of a skyscraper.

It seems that the people who bring us into the world have to stand back and admire their creations with deep bias.

Otherwise, decades later, when someone tells us they love us, we will lack a capacity to believe them and will cruelly punish them for displaying a faith in us that we lack in ourselves.

Otherwise, we will crave external approval and never be able to make daring choices, out of an inability to tolerate even a momentary absence of applause. Otherwise, even if we do accomplish great things, we will never feel that we deserve to exist. We will go to sleep tearful and anxious, distraught that we were not properly loved 30 or 40 years back.

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This may seem like an insultingly vulnerable account of our functioning, but it cannot be untrue on this basis alone; we are also creatures who can keel over and die from a blood clot less than half a millimetre in diameter.

This modern philosophy of childhood makes everything meaningful. Little Johnny is not just being annoying when he piles up cushions in the living room, declares himself to be a shipwrecked sailor and calls out for help from marauding sharks and scorpions. He is exploring contrasting ideas of helplessness and resilience that will in later years help him to overcome romantic rejection and take advantage of professional opportunities.

It looks like weakness and molly-coddling. It looks like decadence.

To an outsider, especially of an older generation, there risks being something nauseous in all this care, in the patient parental questions as to how many fish fingers the young royals might want, the urgent ministration to their every bruise, the treatment of children as though their opinions mattered as much of those of people 30 years older than they, the decision not to go to a bookshop for fear of boring one's charges or to drive them another few miles just in order to get them a special kind of strawberry milk their palates prefer.

But though all this looks like softness, there is a hard-headed logic at work.

Girl drawing In an age where creativity counts, parents encourage artistic offspring

Just like parents of all ages and places, modern parents remain interested in ensuring their off-spring's survival, it is just that they now operate with very different assumptions about what survival will entail.

One can no longer necessarily thrive just by learning how to be dutiful and obedient and by practising the old arts of submission and deference. What counts in the new economy are qualities of confidence, creativity and originality.

These are the equivalents in our own day of what large muscles had been in ancient Sparta or a restrained stoic manner in Frederick the Great's Prussia.

There is no shortage of raw intelligence. What one needs on top of this is a mind that could make connections between ideas, that can persuade and cajole others into buying one's visions, that is capable of a grandeur of aspiration, and a psychological plasticity to deal with rejection - and this is why so much patience is, across the land, being devoted to the children's drawings of butterflies, such great care taken over their evening menus and such deep respect proffered for their minor insights and opinions.

These worries seem like ways of trying to contain an otherwise immeasurable panic at the sheer audacity of having dared to put a creature onto this troubled earth.

So long as a child goes to bed at exactly 1915, and learns how to tie up his shoelaces, and always says, "Thank you" after someone pours him a drink, the underlying hope is that he might miraculously avoid having to taste the ordinary cup of human sorrow.

Start Quote

Alain de Botton

The disproportionate nature of modern parental concerns has a way of coming to the fore at the beginning of every school day”

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The disproportionate nature of modern parental concerns has a way of coming to the fore at the beginning of every school day, when 20 or 30 adults gather in a classroom and bid their precious charges farewell.

To an outsider, it is evident that life simply cannot reward the hopes that rest on all these young shoulders - they are not going to avoid divorces, prostate cancers, addictions and depressions even if they are on track to get a golden star and a chance to read out their poem in assembly.

The children might master algebra, draw amoebas, write touching stories about their holidays and memorise the capitals of the world from Wellington to La Paz and still not have done anything to protect themselves against the devil's armoury of problems.

Not even studying Mandarin on weekends, practising the violin or doing extra chess will solve the issue. So much can go right and still we can count on being undone by the inescapable flaws of our temperaments and our surroundings, an untidy thought that the educational and parental apparatus tries desperately to keep at bay.

Yet that's no argument for not trying. It seems we cannot spontaneously feel important enough to ourselves, sufficiently worthy of carrying our absurd figure through the tangles of life, unless at some point - at around the time when we were still interested in reading Enid Blyton - we were privileged enough to derive a sense of mattering limitlessly and inordinately to another person.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    No just means no sometimes, for adults and children alike. Over-indulging our children on their every whim is only setting them up to fail in the adult world. Their self-esteem is the key to their (and our) future. Good levels of self-esteem are not created with 3 hour negotiations on what time to go to bed. Are we losing our adult role in society ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    Children should be listened to and their imagination enhanced. A shift in British culture over the last ten years has provoked children to believe they have a right to everything but responsibility for nothing. My Grandfather gave me an amazing piece of advice "your children will never grow up and thank you for spoling them".

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    This article totally misses De Botton's other point about the age of entitlement. Giving a child everything it wants is not the same a loving it unconditionally. A child needs to learn about limits, and needs to learn that a parent can say "no" without losing acceptance of the child. Spoiling a child will only lead to a adult who believes they deserve everything, regardless of the work they do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    Historians tell us no such thing. Childhood was *NOT* seen as some dreamlike state - it was entirely preparation for adulthood, which generally started somewhere around the age of 12. Nothing has changed today except the lessons. And nor is application of intelligence a new concept - even Sparta needed generals and counsellors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    As a teacher of 30+ years experience, I can assure him that middle class schools (for of course, he entirely ignores working class parenting) are already full of the narcissistic and opinionated products of the kind of cloying, overly sensitive and intrusive parenting he advocates. No doubt many will end up working for the BBC, peddling such naive bunk as this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    To paraphrase an earlier post; as a parent you have to be aware that your child is the most important person in the world to you, however this does not hold true for everyone else!
    I wonder why some parents think its OK to let their kids run around screaming in adult places - pub gardens, supermarkets etc. Sometimes the children appear to be completely unattended/ you don't know who they belong to

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    As a parent myself, I'm sometimes flumoxed by other parents poor control of their kids in restaurants, supermarkets etc. Children need firm boundaries - esp regarding going to bed at decent times, sitting at table for proper meals & their behaviour towards others. But they also need fun at home & to have their parents undivided attention for a period each day. How else can you teach/ guide them?

  • Comment number 226.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    And yet another example of the author's naivety is that he conflates "creative" with "artistic".

    Scientists and engineers are probably far more creative than many so-called artistic people.

    Again, I beg for an INFORMED Point of View. Not an opinionated stream of ill-informed verbiage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    I recently visited my 5 yr old Nephew, and was shown a wall full of A4 "Certificates" praising good behaviour, attentiveness to the teacher, and good manners. I´m sure when I was at school, these things were compulsory - you didn´t get praised for doing them, but you certainly got punished if you didn´t !
    I wonder how long it will take for things to go full circle…

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    Speedthrills, if you never negotiate with children, they never learn to negotiate, or to compromise. Don't negotiate with a badly behaving child, or over things that are rightly adult decisions, but inflexibility is not a parental virtue. Unlimited love, strong boundaries, age-appropriate expectations, and spending much more time than money on them is our prescription. Time will tell if it works.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    Matt W - I happen to know that the author does deal with children up close, so is qualified to talk about this subject! As far as I know, he is an excellent parent!

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    As always, one has to take a balanced view. We don't want to return to the days when children were largely ignored by their parents, but children also need clear boundaries to feel safe, and to know that, ultimately, it is their parents who are in control. Early parental relationships are crucial, as Bowlby wrote, and as further developed by Sue Gerhardt. However, don't obsess, be "good enough".

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    Nonesense I hope If 'mollycoddling" is supposed to equip children to thrive, why the universal "poor little rich kid" who is never satisfied? He "weeps into the pillow". Just as well, parenting above is portrayed as the art of enabling 'Little Jimmy' to bounce back so as to persaude others to do his will. Real people love others, and use things. The approach above is to love things and use people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    I have to agree with many other comments, the article makes it clear that the author doesn't deal with children up close and personal. Experience would preclude him saying such things. It is interesting how many 'modern' gurus of childrearing recanted once they had their own children. Love, boundaries and honesty. No child respects an adult that lets it do what it wants, or doesn't care either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    As a child I had a quite simple decision to make at mealtimes; eat what my mother had cooked or watch it enter the bin. It only happened once. So in adult life I'm completely flexible about when and what I eat. One NEVER negotiates with children. I'm reminded of an old saying that classified children as second class citizens until they pay their taxes. I think it was a joke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    The article is nothing more than a generalisation of modern parents, what is the point of it, is he for or against? It's such a pointless article that I'm not even sure why I'm bothering to post this comment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    ...in fact forget the article, read the comments!

    I was a little surprised that TIME did not get more of a mention. For me modern parenting seems mostly about two parents working, no time for the couple, sacrificed (probably rightly) for the children.

    I also totally agree with "101. alex" "Muddling through" which stems partly from this lack of time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    Children should be raised with love, and that takes real interest and is inconvenient to 'adult life'. This has always been true. The modern thought that childhood programs us irrevocably for our adult behaviour has some real problems. It reduces humans to behaviourally programmed machines, denies real choices, and so responsibility and ethics. If this is swallowed uncritically, it leads to danger

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    I was raised with 'conservative values', however, my father and mother answered my questions patiently and fully. In essesnce, my father taught me to think, from several points of view. This is the positive side of 'discipline', which has its root in the word 'disciple'. Children are natural learners, but not natural teachers, give them a vacuum and they suffocate, teachers know this implicitly.


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