How to Spoil a Child

And having made them ill children, we foolishly expect they should be good men
John Locke

I ought to name this essay How to Spoil a Man. Apropos, since a child is naturally spoiled by virtue of its very nature and needs. Only truly callous or miserable parents respond with harsh treatment if a child behaves childishly, being selfish, distracted, and lacking any formidable powers of thought beyond the physical pleasures of food, drink, play, and sleep. However, a spoiled man is a disgusting man indeed, even to his loving parents, who failed to check his behaviour while he was a child because they erroneously assumed he would magically transform into a decent man once he grows up.

When a baby is born, it cares for nothing but to breathe, feed, clothed, embraced by its mother, and it indicates – no, demands – that its needs be met by the only way it knows how: By crying out loud. From the moment of its birth, it cares for nothing and no one because it can do nothing. Its body is soft and vulnerable, its brain is more or less a blank slate, and its desires are primitive and urgent. From this moment, however, on a mostly subconscious level, it begins to learn about the world and its place in it, what it is capable of, the things it can acquire, the people it can influence, and behaviours it should learn, and acts it can get away with. Within a year or two, the child would have learned much about its surroundings, and learned to navigate and interact with it. It would have learned much about people as well, even capable of recognising its mother, father, siblings, friends and strangers, even as far as somehow knowing, with amazing accuracy, those who are pleasant, hostile, negligent, or spiteful towards it. It gradually picks up the dominant languages spoken by the people around it, and learns to mimic familiar words and crying in order to convey its feelings.

By age six, the child has a sizeable collection of opinions about the world and people in general. It would be hard to say whether these subconscious notions are productive or dysfunctional until the child faces individuals who are yet to form their own various opinions and attitudes about him or her. Ready or not, this child’s psyche will clash with those of others around.

Old Men in Little Bodies

Many people look upon children as completely incapable of any learning. Of course, a two-year-old child may yet develop an interest and aptitude for mathematics, music, or poetry, or perhaps in the next three to ten years. Nevertheless, the child is quick to learn other things that affects it in the most significant ways, physically and psychologically. On the one hand, the effort its parents spend on nurturing and protecting it has a great impact on the physical wellbeing of the child throughout its life. Breastfeeding, regular medical check-ups, inoculations, proper grooming, and warm clothing contribute to desirable physiological development of the child.

On the other hand, the child’s psychological development at this time is at its most pliable. The child is at an advantage or risk, depending on the kind of social circumstances to which it is exposed. Children are uncanny observers: they see, hear, and remember much of what adults do and say in front of them or just within an earshot of them, even though they often do not understand what goes on or why. When questioned by a curious and possibly threatening adult, they would likely feign ignorance of any knowledge that they suspect the adult might believe is embarrassing or forbidden.

In these situations, children behave more or less like wise old men, who prefer to keep their observations, experiences, opinions, and advice to themselves, and for the most part, remain mentally and emotionally unaffected by the sentiments, idiosyncrasies, and outbursts of other people. Unlike old men, however, children have not yet learned mental and emotional resilience to any degree; have no extensive life experiences to draw on; and no principles and beliefs to uphold. Influenced so easily by what they see and hear, children tend to take adult speech and behaviour to mean acceptable speech and behaviour, especially those that are often demonstrated by the most important people in the child’s life.  Moreover, as old men are frail in body to neither move swiftly as young men nor resist diseases and infections, with each physical accident moving them closer to death, in a similar manner, so a child’s mind can do little to stem the tide of external influences and pressures. Positive experiences reinforce the child’s willingness for expression and experiencing the real world, while each negative experience causes them to doubt themselves, repress feelings, withdraw from people, put up barriers, and indulge in fantasies – the beginnings of insecurities, traumas, and other psychological disorders.

Protect the Children

A child has special needs and requires much attention. The younger the child, the more this is so. It is well within reason that parents would want to protect their young one from every known and unknown adversity until the child is old enough to protect himself. So what does this parental protection entail? From what adversities should a parent shield a child? I am not referring to basic physical concerns of malnutrition or cold or various diseases and infections that kill children like measles or malaria, for I am no expert on nutrition or child health. Rather, there are potent dangers to which many well-meaning parents are blind. It is interesting to realise that when parents think about keeping their children safe, their minds fill to the brim with imagined dangers of physical harm caused by the environment, strangers, and other unscrupulous family members. They fear that their fragile baby may fall off his bed, prick a finger, or fall from running. They detest the idea that the other kids may bully their harmless sweetheart, or that he or she may fall in with the wrong sort. They dread that some godless pervert might abduct, abuse, poison, or molest their precious child.

Generally, these concerns are justified, however unlikely. Parents, especially new parents, initially constantly harbour such terrible fears, but relent after a while. They finally come to terms with the improbability of losing their child to grazed knees or kidnappers, although they still maintain a healthy level of parental vigilance, as they should. However, some parents take their fears too far. They go as far as keeping their children confined to the house or their rooms, sometimes well into their teenage years, refusing to grant them any contact whatsoever with strangers, family members, and the outside world. These days, this form of restriction has taken an even more subtle approach. Parents discourage their children from visiting grandparents, having friends, partaking in sports, and talking to strangers. Regardless of the physical or mental nature of their incarceration, children who are victims of such extreme parental protection develop an overdependence on parents, while they secretly crave the freedom their peers enjoy. What is worse, they become reclusive, socially inept, and incapable of being team players. These problems do not become apparent until they are old enough and are required to interact with strangers, peers, co-workers, superiors, subordinates, and romantic interests. After years of social restriction, these man-children suddenly are required by the very same parents and everyone else to be sociable, assertive, subtle, and charming. Some people, with enough instruction, therapy, or audacity, are be able to live with some semblance of social proficiency. Many, unfortunately, struggle their entire lives to overcome crippling inferiority complex, anxiety disorders, and mental walls they have built over the years to protect themselves from an apparently harsh and hazardous world, which is, ironically, a truth their parents inadvertently revealed to them, but did little to prepare them for, and now cannot protect them any longer. To other adults whose childlike impulses to play with the other kids were not similarly restricted, these unfortunate people may seem like immature, nervous, sycophantic children desperately begging for company and approval, or antisocial snobs who shun everyone and everything.

Therefore, by all means, parents should protect their children from health hazards and unprincipled family members; scrutinise their friends and impose rigid curfews; assign to them personal servants, doctors, teachers, bodyguards, and chauffeurs, if they can afford them all. With any luck, as the children grow, they will come to see these provisions as neither extravagant luxuries nor excessive limitations on their prolific childhood compulsions to be free, but necessary precautions to keep them from harm. However, parents will do well if they never entertain the harmful thought that sheltering their wards completely from the world in which they will have to live the rest of their lives after the parents are dead, will make them safer. Such reasoning does not make any sense.

Protecting a child from social engagement will make him weak and withdrawn. Instead, encourage your children to make friends, play sports, greet strangers, chat with the neighbours, and participate in family conversations. It will not kill them. Many more children have lost their identity, their minds, and their lives from being unable to cope with social inadequacy than from sports accidents. Play is important to children. It is how they learn to socialise, to recognise and practice social hierarchies, and to study others and their own personalities, preferences, and expectations. Deny your child this, and you will rob him or her of decades of proper social conditioning process.

Control the Children

It would seem that my entire argument is to leave children to their own whims. After all, putting constraints on their desire to hop and jump around and run back and forth undermines their very survival in a brutal world. A child’s need to play is primal, one that cannot be stopped. Better to give it free reign than to try to suppress it. Children are impulsive, carefree, and lack the rationality and orderliness that defines adults. Perhaps that is why children find adults so uninteresting, boring, and uptight. We are assaulted daily by concerns of lawfulness, decency, morality, responsibility, tragedy, and the like – notions that children have no idea about. Eventually, children grow up, and if, other than curiosity and enthusiasm, any other childlike attributes linger in them, such as impulsiveness or lack of focus, they will have a very tough life indeed.

A child needs to understand from the very moments that he is capable, that his parents are his sole benefactors and rulers, and he will do well to submit to their authority without question. Parents ought to treat their children as they really are, as lacking any manner of practical knowledge and wisdom to govern themselves and other people. Just as social exposure builds a child’s social competence, so will parental guidance build a child’s character and capacity for reason, restraint, and self-regulation. Just as without social competence, the child becomes a bland, mechanical android or nervous, clumsy social outcast, so without parental control, he will become an abusive, promiscuous, disrespectful, lazy, and obnoxious brat.

Hence, children should not have whatever they desire to eat or drink except what the whole family is having, or if once a while, it pleases the parents to reward their child as such. They must not to go to bed so late at night and wake whenever they please. They must not have every new toy they fancy. They must be taught to use language properly, without obscenity or cursing, and to master basic contextual social skills such as greeting, politely asking for things, permission, or favours, and recognising appropriate situations in which they may express apology or gratitude. They must be encouraged to ask questions and speak their minds, but without grunting, raising their voices, or rudely interrupting others. Parents must assign to them chores as they grow up, become physically stronger, and able to understand and follow instructions. In short, parents should gradually introduce their children to reason, judgement, communication, self-control, work, and responsibility. No doubt, these guidelines seem overly authoritative, yet they do not serve to enslave one’s children and make drones out of them. Instead, they imbue them with strength, conscientiousness, and autonomy. Moreover, their training in morals and decency will enable them, by themselves, to distinguish between other children to befriend and those to avoid.

Some people may have trouble with this line of thought, as it seems to indicate that a little boy be ruled with an iron fist. Yes, he must be ruled as such. Over time, it will be quite evident that the boy is becoming more and more rational in word and deed; only then can his parents slowly release him from their ardent parental supervision, and they grant him other pleasant rewards as befitting a child. On the other hand, if he gets out of line, the parents must remind him of their authority swiftly and mercilessly. Until he is able to weigh the merits of good and bad, and ponder the repercussions of his choices and actions, reward and punishment are vital feedback messages from parent to the child.

Reward and Punishment

Whenever I expressed my opinions on the treatment of children to a few people, their reaction is usually disagreement. It was interesting to observe that those who disagreed strongly were also quite proud and disobedient children themselves, which they would not have been, had their parents been so firm. Often, their argument against mine is that children are weak, physically and psychologically, to be catered to like wild animals and governed like slaves. Well, new-borns are no smarter than animals, and even children who are a few years old, without guidance and supervision from adults, behave like animals, and can never learn to bathe themselves, groom themselves, feed themselves, have the mind to go the bathroom by themselves when nature calls. They will not want to wash their own clothes, clean their own rooms, make their beds, avoid breaking important items, and staying away from hazardous things. Besides, the fact that animals fascinate the majority of children so much does not astonish anyone – why, they have so much in common!

As for advocating for enslaving children, it is only an evil, uncaring parent, they would say, who would subject his own children to such stringent tyrannical treatment. Children are beautiful, precious, harmless, gifts of God who ought to be cuddled all the time. Perhaps a disapproving frown or punitive word every once a while, and even if their offence is so disconcerting, they should be looked upon with love and kindness, and be easily forgiven. Under no circumstances should anyone be so bent on holding children to any lofty ideals such that it frightens them and breaks their little fragile hearts. Only a heartless man would do such a thing, raising a young boy to become an unflinching moralist before he can even spell his own name. Their argument is very persuasive, if only they were right.

I feel the need to iterate once again that to children, everything is new. They have no prior knowledge, opinions, and no reservations about anything, yet. Therefore, anything they are permitted to say and do, whether good or bad, becomes acceptable to them. As they grow up, these freedoms, if you will, become part of them, subconscious. If a child is taught principles, decency, self-control, hard work from a young age, they become part of him. If he disobeys, steals, insults, curses, bullies other children, or acts in any way contrary to the parents’ good instruction, then rebuke and punishment is expedient, for it is the means by which a child learns that deviant behaviour incurs unpleasant consequences. So even as the child grows up and forgets the details of his childhood upbringing, the psychic programing of this upbringing is sealed up in his psyche and directs him in all his affairs. He somehow understands that conscientiousness and discipline are necessary to succeed as an individual and a social being.

Likewise, if a child is cuddled, exempted from chores and responsibilities, and never warned or punished for even the most heinous conducts, then these expectations become part of him, and as he grows up, the sordid repercussions of this nurturing begin to reveal themselves is the child’s words and deeds. He does not remember entirely why he is the way he is, only that his family had cuddled him from birth, deferred to him, and catered to his every need without question, and so must everyone around him cuddle and defer to him, and carry forth what he demands of them. He had no responsibilities as a child, and so he will not assume any. He was master of his parents and siblings, and so anyone who has the misfortune of associating with him must necessarily kowtow to him. He never saw a stern face, heard a harsh word, or received a single spank from anyone while he pouted, raved, and cursed as a child, and so no one must have the right or authority to oppose his deviant behaviour or punish his misdeeds. Why should he not feel entitled to conduct himself in such a manner? While he was a helpless, mindless child, his own parents could not control him. Now a grown man, why would he submit or be good to anyone?

The difference between a good child and a bad child is that the good child obtains reward for subservience and punishment for insolence. The bad child is rewarded for everything, even for insolence (Indeed, to excuse an individual for a misdeed is in itself a form of reward, just as some convicts may receive early pardon for good behaviour, but then even they would have served a portion of their sentences.) One is trained from childhood to be an adult. The other is expected to be an adult when he grows up.

In addition, punishing a child for everything can be just as detrimental to the child’s development. This is abuse, of course. The child cannot know what behaviours will incur a parent’s wrath and punishment, and at the same time, he regularly tries and fails to stimulate any approval and affection from his patron. Many of those who suffered abuse as children are amongst the most cruel and maladjusted people in the world. Thus, just as parents ought to use reward sparingly as the child deserves it, so should they use punishment: painful but sensible. The displeasure of the parents must be tempered by their love for the child and their desire to correct him, but the punishment should communicate the severity of the offence, but should not overwhelm or terrify the child. Furthermore, if possible, they may deal with the child in private, away from other children. Occasionally, one may employ a shaming tactic by chastising a child in public, which is often horribly effective. However, making a custom of penalising a child in front of his peers can negatively affect his self-esteem.

When I was young, my own father had several ways of expressing his displeasure at my behaviour. He would ground me, take away my toys and video games, send me off to bed earlier than usual. Sometimes, he did spank me with his hand, a cane, and as I got older, with a leather belt. At the time, I thought this was cruel – how can a man inflict pain on his own son, a little boy, with such ferocity and resolve? However, he had a tactic he used: before he lifted a finger, he would ask me questions about what I had done. Why did you do it? What were you thinking? What did you gain from it? Do you know why what you did was bad? Do you understand why I have to punish you now? As smart as I was, I could never concoct sound excuses for any of those things for which he punished me. I would relent, and endure the rod like a trooper. I would be angry for a while, no doubt, but I could never revile him. Now, as a grown man, I am sure he loved me, and I am grateful for all that beating.

My childhood was so much unlike those of kids today, increasingly rebellious yet receiving little to no punishment from anyone. More parents today are averse to punishing because they fear their children will grow to hate them. They fear that a little firmness may be construed as unfair and abusive. Thus, children grow mindless and stubborn because parents are weak and fearful. Later on, when they deem it expedient to exercise some parental control over a wayward teenager, it is probably too late. Punishment for aberrant behaviour is a parent’s way of teaching a child that recklessness incurs unnecessary adversity. The earlier your children accept that you can and will keep them in line, the better. Besides, it is better for your children to be strong and prosper, even if they may hate you for your methods. Otherwise, if society reviles and rejects them for their waywardness, they will hate you anyway, for it was your duty to discipline them.

In Closing

One may ask what authority I have to instruct anyone about raising children. I have none. I do not have my own children and I have not adopted any. I do not have a doctorate in child rearing or anything of the sort. All I can boast of is over two decades of observing siblings, stepsiblings, nephews, and cousins, being a part-time librarian, a teacher, and an illustrator for children’s books, and teaching and learning materials. What is more, I was once a child – an illustrious, thrill-seeking child, so my parents say. I think I was rather a calm, as far as I remember. Anyway, I have observed and interacted with more than a hundred children. I have a rather comprehensive knowledge in human psychology. Yet when dealing with children, much of the established psychological patterns of the average adult hardly come to play. Adults have already being shaped and driven by conscious thoughts and pursuits, unconscious desires, years of experiences, and social pressures. The psychology of children is a very delicate matter – they are still figuring out the world and their place in it.

Still, you do not have to take my advice. Just taking a keen interest in observing children around you for a while should inform you a great deal. With any luck, you will come to similar conclusions as I have. Just as well, if parents would commit more time and attention to their children as they do to themselves, perhaps I would not be conceited enough to trouble anyone with such a long essay.