Spare the emotions, spoil the child

One criticism of modern parents is that they let their children misbehave in public places, ruining everybody enjoyment of their meal, shopping trip, or day out. These awful parents are upbraided for seeking an easy life, but instead raising a spoiled brat – destined to be an adult monster spawning an even more uncontrolled generation.

You might think this criticism of the over-indulgent (lazy?) parent and spoiled child is a phenomenon of a modern consumer society where stuff is all too readily available to distract selfish parents from their responsibilities and to over-excite demanding children. Well, no. I think it is more indicative of the search to control certain emotions in childhood and adulthood.

father's darlingParents have long been accused of the inability to balance the short-term and long-term in parenting. A longue-duree approach to parental guidance shows that parents are seen as gratifying their children’s desires to make them happy rather than saying ‘no’ which will teach them self-control in adulthood. Very often mothers are condemned for being the worst parent, but as the ‘Father’s Darling’ image shows (Lewis Walpole Digital Images Collection), fathers do not escape censure.

Of course, a lot of this boils down to issues of emotional control and the concerns are striking for historians of emotions, for they indicate an early life-stage in society’s endeavours to inculcate an emotional regime in which the passions are managed – conquered – in order to live a virtuous life (see Thomas Dixon’s work for an overview of this). The objective is to create an adult who can exert his own self-control. What is variable over time is the way in which parents are encouraged (coerced?) into implementing this emotional training of their offspring as early as possible.

For example, the ‘boy bishop’ sermon of 1558, declared that parents battled to be their child’s favourite; thus:

no partye dare displease hym, say he or do he never so ongraciously, but both parties dandill hym and didill hym and pamper hym and stroke his hedd and sett hym a hye bence, and gyve hym the swetyst soppe in the dish evyn when he lest deserve it:

As the sermon warns:

this rnarrs the child, it makes hym to thynke he does well when he do stark nought.

The tender parent is simply laying up a rod for his or her own back, for not only will the child grow up to be evil, he will not love or respect his (weak) parents.

The age of sensibility recognised that parents might struggle to know which feelings should be cultivated in children, and which banned. After all, genteel parents might have been confused given that their tenderness was demanded, as was their making their child their companion and friend. And sharing and displaying feeling were fashionable! Thus, the trick was to remind the sensible parent that he or she would suffer from exercising sympathy in the wrong way. Moral Essays, Essay XXII, The duty of parents to children, published 1796, told the parent :

An enfeebled, enervated mind, which shrinks at every untoward event, and is fretted by every contradiction, a puling, whimpering, whining child, is the most tedious thing in nature, and in after-life becomes generally not only miserable to itself, but troublesome to all connected with it. Wonderful is the fortitude which a child will acquire, if put upon exerting it. But a timid and overfond parent spoils all, by entering too minutely into its little pains, and by condoling with it in all its puny sorrows.

Georgian and Victorian parents were also told of the delights of filial duty – an old age filled with helpful adult daughters and supportive sons and then warned that indulging said children would knock out the underpinnings of this happy dotage.

Indeed, I’m particularly struck by the way fear is used to persuade parents of their duties in teaching their children to manage their emotions. William Gouge, that cheery old Puritan, told early seventeenth-century parents that if they were:

too indulgent over their children, God doth punish the sin both of parent and childe, by shortning the childes daies.

Now you can’t beat that as a warning against spoiling your children. William Sadler and Lena Sadler’s The Mother and her Child, 1916 also deployed fear effectively by insinuating that the spoiled child should be removed from its parents!

Nobody is particularly attracted to the spoiled baby. After the over-indulgent parent and caretaker have completed their thoughtless work, they themselves are ashamed of it and not infrequently begin to criticise the product of their own making–the formation of these unpleasant bad habits. More than anything else, the spoiled child needs a new environment, new parents, and a new life.

We still admire emotional control in children as a means to securing effective adults. Indeed it self-restraint is even seen as an indicator of the future successful adult. Over the last few decades psychological tests have been used to suggest that the young child who can defer temptation (choosing two future treats as opposed to one immediate treat) will perform better at school, be healthier, and be more successful in work. This was fairly widely disseminated; for example in the early episodes of the BBC’s Child of Our Time.

Knowing this research, of course, surely places on parents as much pressure as some of the dire warnings of the past to teach their children emotional restraint !


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