A mother asked me last week whether I thought she was spoiling her child. It was the typical pediatric exam-room version of the question: In the weary, self-doubting voice of the recently postpartum, she wondered if it was right to pick up and feed her crying baby.
These days, a lot of parents are wondering about the spoiling question. A recent book review by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker compared American children unfavorably with the self-reliant and competent children of a tribe in the Peruvian Amazon; she discussed “the notion that we may be raising a generation of kids who can’t, or at least won’t, tie their own shoes.”
A parenting column in The New York Times acknowledged that Ms. Kolbert’s observations had struck home with many contemporary parents; more recently, an opinion piece advised parents to stop protecting their children from every disappointment.
We’re clearly having another of those moments — and they do recur, across the generations — when parents worry that they’re not doing their job and that the next generation is consequently in grave danger. In cultural convulsions about how spoiled the children are, disapproving adults look back fondly on the rigors of their own childhoods. But many of the same parents (and grandparents) who are now worrying were members of the generation that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew accused Dr. Benjamin Spock of having spoiled.
Indeed, the overprivileged and overindulged child was a stock character in 19th-century novels: As veteran governesses who presumably knew the territory, the Brontë sisters wrote powerful portraits of spoiled older children. The culture changes, but many of the battlegrounds remain the same.
In the pediatric office today, parents often bring up spoiling, as that mother did last week, in reference to young babies, sleep and feeding. It’s as if the later, more confusing questions about how to respond to a child’s demands crystallize in those early months when the new baby cries and the parents worry.
The official pediatric line — I said some version of this to that mother last week — is that you can’t spoil babies by taking good care of them. But even that doesn’t turn out to be simple.
“It’s important to be there and to be responsive and responsible, but it also doesn’t mean that you have to be totally at the whim of the baby,” said Dr. Pamela High, a professor of pediatrics at Brown University and medical director of the Fussy Baby Clinic at the Brown Center for the Study of Children. “You’re teaching them patterns and routine and regularity.”
Parents can meet a baby’s needs while still allowing her a chance to learn to settle down and sleep without being held. In a randomized study on babies with colic that was published this year by Dr. High’s group, when parents got help with issues of feeding, sleep, routine and their own mental health, those colicky babies cried less and slept more.
As children get older, setting limits and establishing family routines and expectations gets more complicated. But it’s still a question of balancing immediate gratification and larger life lessons.
It’s also an area where we still feel comfortable and righteous blaming and judging other parents — and ourselves.
Problematic childhood behaviors once attributed to incompetent or destructive parenting are now understood to be hard-wired, set by genetics, reflecting neurological differences. We don’t blame bad parenting for autism now, or A.D.H.D. But “spoiled” evokes traits and behaviors for which we’re often quick to hold parents responsible.
As Roald Dahl put it in 1964 in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “A girl can’t spoil herself, you know.”
Dr. Mark Bertin, a developmental behavioral pediatrician in Pleasantville, N.Y., affiliated with New York Medical College, sees a wide range of children with behavioral problems, teasing apart contributions of neurological wiring, temperament and family style.
Though parenting style is hard to study, he points to a body of research that cumulatively suggests that children benefit from strategies that build self-control and emotional resilience.
“We’re talking about kids who aren’t brought up with limits,” he said. “We all want our kids to be happy moment to moment, but there are some skills you learn from growing up with limits and the opportunity to experience frustration.”
The saying-no and limit-setting challenges for parents of young children often revolve around food, sleep and media. “By setting limits, we’re teaching them what our values are and the way we think they can lead a happier, productive life,” Dr. High said.
With older children, you get into the issue of stuff. “When I think of spoiling, you’re talking about attention and you’re talking about things,” Dr. High said. “I don’t think you can spoil with too much attention to what your kids are doing and thinking and suffering from, but I think you sometimes have to be careful about things.”
You don’t have to be wealthy to overindulge a child with stuff. And offering things that substitute for parental attention is particularly problematic. Is the child with a huge television in the bedroom and unfettered access to all screens overindulged — or neglected?
I can’t tell you whether children today are more spoiled or whether more of them are spoiled. There are real differences in child-rearing over time, some reflecting the culture’s larger trajectories of affluence and technology. But then there are also the recurring bouts of self-examination and self-criticism that reflect adult engagement with parenthood. Whatever the generation, responding to the wants and needs of children while trying to teach the lessons that will fortify their characters is a tricky assignment. We get it wrong some of the time, no matter what we do.
Should parents worry about what television is doing to their children? Is it making them fatter, stupider, more violent? After all, TV has changed since today's parents were children. It's bigger, brasher and on all the time. There used to be something called the "toddlers' truce" when TV went off air between six and seven o'clock so parents could put their children to bed; now kids' cable networks broadcast 24 hours a day. In the old days, too, there was a kids' slot called Watch with Mother; today there are fears that television is watched too much without mother, that the goggle box is being used disastrously as a virtual babysitter.
TV has moved on from the innocent world of Camberwick Green to become a fearful source of seemingly imponderable questions. Should parents be limiting the time children spend in front of the television? Does it matter what they watch? Parents' fears are fuelled by surveys purporting to demonstrate that TV viewing is harmful. Last week, a report in the Lancet warned parents of a link between children's excessive viewing habits and long-term health problems such as poor fitness and raised cholesterol. It also claimed that youthful TV addicts were more likely to smoke.
One study has linked television viewing to obesity and another to aggressiveness. Earlier this year, an American survey claimed to have found an association between TV viewing among toddlers and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at school age. On a positive note, you might think that the hyperactivity would help to cancel out the obesity, and that the consequences of aggressiveness might well be ameliorated by wandering attention (they might forget who to hit), but researchers at the Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Centre in Seattle don't seem to have considered these possibilities. They were concerned to show that the hard-wiring of toddlers' brains can be detrimentally affected by the unrealistic visual stimuli that television allegedly sends pinging all over toddlers' synapses. Not only are kids destined to become fat and thuggish, it seems, but early exposure to TV is going to make them prone to concentration problems at school.
"We all know that the brains of newborns continue to develop rapidly, that the final tuning is done, as it were, outside the womb. The rapid pace of TV may not help," Dr Dimitri Christakis, who led the research, tells the Guardian. "The idea came to me when I was at home with my three-month-old son. If he saw a television he was mesmerised by it. He had no idea of what the content was. I was curious what the effect of that degree of stimulation would be."
His hypothesis was that very early exposure to television during critical periods of synaptic development would be associated with subsequent attention problems. "In contrast to the pace with which real life unfolds and is experienced by young children, television can portray rapidly changing images, scenery, and events," says Christakis's paper. "It can be overstimulating and yet extremely interesting. This has led some to theorise that television may shorten children's attention spans."
We cannot deny a proliferation of programmes and videos aimed at pre-school children, and even at the under-twos including Teletubbies, Fimbles and Tweenies. The Disney corporation bought up a company called Baby Einstein which allegedly helps in the educational development of small children and is exploiting its new acquisition assiduously here and in the US. If Christakis's theory holds, all these programmes and videos are going to create not a generation of Baby Einsteins, but hordes of unprecedentedly dim children.
The content of the programmes and videos that children watch must be significant. After all, some programmes targeted at under-twos - Teletubbies, for instance - unfold in a very slow manner. Furthermore, great claims are made by some TV programmes and videos targeted at pre-school age children, claiming to assist small children's intellectual development rather than retard it. We also need to give consideration to the notion of "watching television", which might well be qualitatively very different for different children. Some might be gormlessly staring at nothing very much; others making important visual judgments about Tinky Winky's bottom, for example. "What is a one-year-old doing when it watches television, and how does this compare to how other ages watch television?" asks David Buckingham, professor of education at the University of London and a longtime critic of anti-TV polemicists. "These sorts of questions get lost and yet they are fundamental to any decent research."
The anti-TV groups' critique of the medium is not that the stuff children watch is rubbish, but that TV viewing itself is a catastrophic lifestyle option that parents have inflicted on their children. Jean Lotus of the anti-TV group White Dot, who is currently writing a book about raising her four children without a TV in her family home in Oak Park, Illinois, says: "Television is displacing learning activity during early years." But aren't some programmes designed to edu cate children? "Yeah, right. All those make-your-baby-smarter videos are doing is creating a docile drug addict in front of the screen. I have encouraged my children to climb and be physical. Surely that's better than letting them sit in front of the telly."
But are the two mutually exclusive in a child's early years? I recall watching Bill and Ben and falling out of trees on a regular basis before I went to school and I suspect the former was less harmful than the latter.
"We have found doctors very reluctant to say there is a link between TV viewing and attention deficit," says Lotus. "Doctors are keen to say it's genetic or behavioural. You should talk to teachers who are at the brunt of it. They will say that your mind works differently if you watch TV when you're very young."
In the US, especially, there has been a glut of books claiming that television is responsible for many ills. Such books include Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood: How TV is changing Children's lives, The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn and The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age by Barry Sanders. These books were joined on the shelves earlier this year by a volume with possibly the best subtitle ever, namely The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children by Californian doctor Robert Shaw - a book that worries about the revolting consumerism, obesity, illiteracy, sleeplessness associated with watching television, and yet suggests, rather more modestly, that under-fives should be allowed to watch television in moderation but never unattended.
These polemics are all similar, argues David Buckingham, in that children are not seen as differentiated as TV viewers. In his book After the Death of Childhood, Buckingham writes: "Children, in particular, are implicitly seen to be passive and defenceless in the face of media manipulation ... Television, because of its inherently 'visual' nature (one wonders what happened to the soundtrack), is effectively seen to bypass cognition entirely. It requires no intellectual, emotional or imaginative investment, but simply imprints itself on the child's consciousness. Again, no empirical basis is offered for these assertions."
Buckingham adds that what makes all these polemics questionable is the one-dimensional analysis of the electronic media as causes of terrible tendencies among children. Excessive TV viewing could, for instance, be symptomatic of, rather than a cause of, sociopathic behaviour among children.
The crucial issue here, arguably, is the notion of "excessive". The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not make it clear: "Too much television can negatively affect early brain development. This is especially true at younger ages, when learning to talk and play with others is so important. Until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the American Academy of Paediatrics does not recommend television for children age two or younger."
Buckingham also has a problem with the very notion of ADHD. "Ten years ago this label didn't exist. What used to be called 'bloody annoying children' has had a label put on it, and this has consequences. Drug companies are making big money out of making tranquillisers like Ritalin for children and there are whole industries in medical research working to construct this way of defining children's behaviour."
Buckingham adds that parents' fears about the possible deleterious consequences of children watching television is exploited by politicians. "When one thinks of how TV viewing is associated with violence among children, this is used by politicians as a way of displacing attention away from other causes of violence in society that are difficult to eradicate - such as racism, poverty, gun control. I'm by no means saying that there aren't associations, just that it is too easy to blame one thing for children's problems. We're dealing with really complicated matters here that readily get over-simplified."
So is watching TV a bad thing for under-twos? The research suggests no more than that it could be, while never really tackling the issue of how much TV viewing among toddlers would be regarded as excessive. Ten hours a day might be too much, but what about one hour of Teletubbies watched, in the traditional manner, with mother? Would that be a bad thing? As far as I could discover, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the anti-TV rhetoric and the plausibility of the data upon which it is based. What is also certain is that any such research is going to get a great deal of attention because so many people stand to make a lot of money out of children - programme-makers, soft-toy producers and Ritalin manufacturers among them. Not to mention all those people writing apocalyptic texts that pander to the panic of parents worried that they are raising goggle-eyed sociopaths, thanks to the chattering cyclops.
Robert Shaw, the hard-boiled critic of today's allegedly joyless kids, suggests that children ages five and under should not watch TV unattended at all and that, when you do watch TV with your very young child, you ought to talk to them about the programme and the issues it raises. "Explain the meaning and motivation behind commercials and programming," urges Shaw. "Help her to understand fantasy and reality, the difference between a sales pitch and an honest evaluation."
The main things, I would argue, are not to blame television for all the modern child's ills, nor to panic - after all, there are plenty of other people who will do those things for you.