Are today’s pre-schoolers the worst-behaved generation ever?

Some believe today’s pre-schoolers are the worst-behaved generation ever, led by the worst generation of parents ever. So why can’t we just say no to the demanding tots? Paul Little explores.

It’s a familiar scene, played out every day in supermarkets across the land – the confectionery aisle meltdown as an irrational ball of raging rug rat wears down a parent to get what it wants while scandalised and judgy shoppers look on. How did we get to the point of toddlers as tyrants? Why don’t mums and dads just say no?

If you’re a parent, you probably fit into one of the four types identified by psychologist Diana Baumrind in the 1960s:

Authoritarian: Do what I say because I say so.

Authoritative: Do what I say, for these reasons.

Permissive: Do what you like. I’ll be here to pick up the pieces.

Neglectful: Do what you like, I’ll be up the road in a bar somewhere.

It’s hard to find an authoritarian parent who will admit to being one. And it’s very hard to find a neglectful parent because no one knows where they are. In the middle, most parents see themselves as the authoritative kind, using reason and positive strategies so that kids will want to do the right things for the right reasons. The difference between authoritative and permissive can be in the eye of the beholder: especially if that beholder is watching someone’s big feelings blocking the supermarket aisle because that someone can’t have that chocolate bar.

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Why don’t these parents just say no and not give the kids the option? The overwhelming weight of expert opinion is that it will have all sorts of negative effects in both the short (nothing to eat because they’ve abandoned the shopping expedition) and long (poorly developed communication skills, low emotional intelligence) term.

“Lefty” and “weak” were just two of the angry labels thrown at Jacqui Southey, when her research, which looked at punishment and control of children under 5 and where parents get their information from, was published last year. Southey is child rights advocacy, strategy and research director at Save the Children New Zealand

“We got some extraordinary, even quite vitriolic comments about parents not having control of the children,” she says.

That reflects a belief that today’s pre-schoolers are the worst behaved generation ever. A corollary, in the minds of the toddlers’ critics, is that they are also the worst parented generation in history. What’s needed is a bit of discipline, for parents and kids.

Southey’s study shows that if parents face up to their kids’ feelings they get a better result than they do by shutting them down. Children won’t learn how to choose unless they are allowed to make choices. “Authoritarian parents say, ‘That is that.’ But you can give them a choice of what to play with – pots and lids, or Lego?” Permissive parents let kids play with whatever they like that’s not life-threatening.

As for that tantrum, the best thing can be to listen to what your child is trying to tell you.

Reprimanding or punishing when they are in this state may backfire, says Southey. “You’re better off saying something like: ‘I know you’re feeling tired and I know you’re hungry, and yes it’s been a long day. I’m going to pick you up and give you a cuddle and when you’re ready, cuddle me back.’ Soothing and calming often works really well.”

She acknowledges this can be difficult in public with social pressure and a feeling of being judged. “Some parents in the research talked about the environment being important. When they felt well supported, they could use the strategies. But if they were stressed or time-poor they reverted to strategies that were more controlling even though they knew they didn’t work.”

Southey herself was raised with a traditional “very authoritarian” parenting style. “Even as a little child, I didn’t really agree with that. I decided when I grew up my kids would be able to do anything they want. ‘Anything you want’ changed when I became a parent, but I tried hard not to be authoritarian, it is more about give and take.”

She says this pattern is common – each generation wants their children to have things better than they did. The trick is finding out how to do that. “Some of us will be fortunate enough to get good information to inform how we do it; some will do it by instinct.”

Another burden for parents is the pressure to know it all. Although access to information has never been easier, not all of it is good.

“How parents get information is really important,” says Southey. “You used to get it from your parents or grandparents.” Her survey showed a lot of people get it from Facebook. “That’s quite concerning. People with agendas can target young mothers of young children with misinformation.”

A better source, she says, is likely to be early childhood education teachers, especially with so many children having some form of outside childcare.

“In our modern society, we have shared care of our young children – a three-legged stool comprised of parent, child and carer. If it all works it is so effective.”

The yes parent

For anyone who still believes, based on their rigorous weekly audits of toddler behaviour in supermarkets, that parents should just say no to kids and answer questions later, Bea Marshall is probably a walking, talking nightmare.

Marshall, who lives in Sheffield in the UK, is the founder of the Yes Parenting philosophy. She believes that for every conflict there is a way out by saying “yes”.

Her ideas will seem extreme to many, but they weren’t too out there for the producers of Supernanny. They flew her to LA for talks about Marshall taking on the Jo Frost role in order to give the series what would have been a substantial philosophical change of direction. (In the end, they just said no to change and stuck with Frost.)

Marshall’s views are based on lived experience. Her own upbringing was affected by undiagnosed autism and a feeling she herself wasn’t loved by her own parents.

She set out to be an earth mother when she had her first child. But he had a skin condition which meant he barely slept and cried all the time. “I perceived he was very badly behaved. I latched on to super nanny and became a disciple.”

But one day when he was on the naughty stair she had an epiphany: “I realised I had lost total connection with myself and my son. I realised everything I was doing was rooted in control and fear. Even star charts are rooted in trying to control a child through fear of not getting stars. Then I started researching brain development, behaviour, non-violent communication.”

Which led her to a style of parenting with no more naughty steps or time out. Put simply, she tried to find an acceptable way to say “yes” in any parenting situation. She was just trying to be a mother. She didn’t intend to create a movement. But when someone called it Yes Parenting the name stuck.

“Then the media picked it up, and I could answer every question they asked. I realised I had created something with a structure, foundation and principles and I started working with families. It didn’t matter what the child was, the principles worked across the board.”

Yes Parenting doesn’t mean just going along with what kids want. “The first yes is to me as a parent. If I am not finding a yes to my needs I can’t be there for them.”

It does mean doing things differently. For Marshall and her two boys, for example, skip scavenging was a regular activity. “We took things apart, and we did a lot of things most parents would have said were dirty or dangerous. But unless there was risk of harm to people or belongings, the answer would be yes.”

There must have been days when she didn’t feel like lugging home a road cone and a rusty carburettor?

“I would have more likely said, ‘I am feeling really tired. Is there a way you think we can get this back to the house without me being involved?’ Of course, I say no when it is necessary to stop someone running into the road or grabbing the hot pan. You shout and stop them. There is a real place for no.”

And how has all this worked out for her? “My boys have not gone off the rails and aren’t the horrendous teenagers that everyone told me Yes Parenting would create. It probably is a greater investment of time and thought, when your kids are younger, to parent this way, but the fruit is that in teen years you don’t deal with rebellion and kids who are unsure what it is okay to do.”

'How is the kid going to learn?'

Nathan Wallis has experienced more parenting than most people. Thanks to an alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather, he was a foster child himself, has fostered “20 something” children, has two “home for life” foster children and is also father to three birth children.

His foster parents were “loving and caring and not cruel. They didn’t just make up rules, but there were rules and you had to follow them. They were between ‘authoritative’ and ‘permissive’, inasmuch as those labels have any relevance.”

Wallis, who works as a neuroscience educator and child development adviser believes parenting evolves as society does. With most parents working outside the home and the increase in use of early childhood education, attitudes to discipline have changed.

“Parents spend less time with children, so they feel guilty. They want to have a good relationship and know how hard it is to do in a couple of hours a day.” So they try to avoid conflicts in the interest of making happy memories.

Fortunately, “you hardly ever spoil kids by overindulging them. It’s interesting we use the word ‘spoil’. The number one way to spoil a child is to ignore them. That is a form of abuse.”

Wallis says there are measurable outcomes from being ignored. “Children in negative environments don’t develop much of a frontal cortex. It affects confidence and self-esteem and how they see the world.”

Children need to be taught how to manage emotions, and they don’t learn that from being told to shut up and not express them. “People who can manage emotions stay at school longer, they aren’t too scared to go for that job interview.” They are even less likely to go to prison.

Wallis cheerfully admits to practices others might see as extreme. “I am one of these people who talk to 1-day-old babies like they are adult humans. I think children should have good human rights and be able to vote. All the reasons we use against them voting are the ones we used to use about women voting.”

All those children of Wallis’ have been told to shut up when necessary. “They did it because they trust me. Because I hardly ever did tell them to, they knew it was important.”

He is convinced that each generation of parents thinks the next has gone too far, and he is no exception. “I have a daughter who is one of the best mothers I’ve seen. Yet to me she is a bit precious about it – I wonder: how is the kid going to learn? But I stand back with respect because most generations do get it better than the one before.”

Which should be a consolation not only to parents but also to those who stand and judge.

'We do a lot of negotiating'

Strategy analyst Reuben Cairns-Morrison and his architect partner, Fritha Hobbs, are parents to Edith, 3, and Greta, 1. Their approach to discipline has evolved in those few years, but a united front is a prerequisite.

“When a need arises we have a conversation about what we should be doing to make sure we are on the same song sheet,” says Cairns-Morrison.

Their instinctive practices echo the advice of the experts. “We do a lot of negotiating with Edith now she is a bit older. She has picked it up quite quickly. If she wants a cherry, for example, she will say: ‘Can I have three cherries?’ ‘No.’ ‘What about one?’ She has learnt that.”

The pair are by no means Yes Parents, but they are not No Parents either. “I think parents might say ‘no’ too often. We are conscious of that. We want to be sure we have a reason. If Edith wants to paint her hand, the knee-jerk is to say no, and then sometimes we think: ‘What was so bad about that?'”

Meredith Thomson has more reasons than most to be good at getting kids to do what she wants. Not only is Meredith mother to twins Quinn and Tilly, 4, she also has her own children’s photography business.

She and husband Patrick, a project manager, weren’t expecting the babies so have had to make it up as they go along. Her practices are based on as much research as she has time for.

“We try and pre-empt quite a lot of problems. We do a lot of reading and I buy books– if they are getting angry, I try to find books about that sort of behaviour and then we talk about it. We do talk about feelings and how it is okay to be angry, but you have to tell Mum and Dad why so we can help you.”

The pair have been at the firmer end of the authoritative scale from the start: “We did schedule feeding. We fed every three hours for the first eight weeks. We never demand fed. And we did do sleep training, letting them cry it out. They were sleeping through the night at about four months. We were quite strict. I felt like if I wasn’t, then I wouldn’t get any sleep.”

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