American children are a bunch of spoiled brats. You've likely heard the refrain repeated for years now, and new verses are always being added. A couple years ago Elizabeth Kolbert's widely shared New Yorker article "Spoiled Rotten" remarked that, "With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world."
This conversation—when it's had in this way—is generally limited to middle-class and upper-class children. Much of this 'spoiling' is attributed to an excess of resources, and more importantly, an absence of discipline. Attachment parenting partisans are blamed for nurturing their kids into hellacious little martinets; free-range parents from Boerum Hill to Bernal Heights are pilloried by gleeful internet hordes.
"A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just about every aspect of American society," concluded Kolbert, at the end of her piece. But when it comes to disciplining children, the lack is something much more specific, which is to say: corporal punishment. In historical context, what's underway is an unprecedented social experiment; the past 20 or so years may well be the first generation of parents in Western history to collectively reject spanking as an acceptable way to discipline kids.
Both my parents came from middle-class backgrounds, and they both learned to behave under the spectre of a raised hand. I was raised with spanking as a threat that was never acted upon. Now that I'm a parent, I've been socialized to understand that even threatening corporal punishment is a form of cruelty. I've never done it. And I'm not saying that nobody in my demographic hits their kids. But according to the middle-class mores of our time—and I would argue that this is an issue where class lines are more telling than race, despite the obvious intersections of the two—using threats and acts of violence to teach your kids discipline is not okay.
The stigma placed on corporal punishment has left nothing in its place as an agreed-upon effective disciplinary tool of last resort, and it's into this breach that the firehose of parenting advice has been snugly inserted. Talk to your kids with respect, and they will respect you. Talk to your kids firmly and they will learn to behave. Set limits. Be consistent. Use incentives. Divert them away from trouble spots. Give them time-outs. Briefly take away privileges. But whatever you do, do it by talking to them. Talking, talking, so much talking. Have you ever tried to reason with a three year old? Path of least resistance it is not. These parents may be taking a roundabout route to teaching discipline, but they sure as hell are teaching their kids how to be good little communicators.
According to Dr. W. George Scarlett of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University, "What does seem more prevalent today than in previous generations is an inability on the part of many parents to be 'firm' when firmness is needed—the main symptom being that many parents today will endlessly whine and try to reason with their children at times when what is called for is a simple, 'That's it, no more T.V.—into the bathroom and brush your teeth'."
When parents are consistent in their messaging, Scarlett adds, kids become "literate" in their parents' tones of voices and facial expressions, and come to know when they "really mean it." He argues that kids shouldn't be labeled "spoiled" so much as "unable to read" firmness, because their parents haven't given them enough consistent demonstrations to learn from.
Despite the challenge, we keep on trying to reason with our kids—it's the closest thing we have to a current consensus about how to discipline them. Given this, it's no surprise that one of the perennially best-selling contemporary parenting advice books is How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. This book would read as utter nonsense to parents a century ago, when parenting advice books were a relatively new genre; the first American book of this kind was Infant Care, first published in 1929 by the Children's Bureau, a government aid organization for mothers across the country, many of whom lived in dire conditions of either urban overcrowding or extreme rural isolation. (You can read all of Infant Care at archive.org, it's fascinating.) Dr. Benjamin Spock's 1946 Baby and Child Care was only the second mainstream parenting advice book, and it was virtually unchallenged as an authority until the 80s.
Infant Care notes that "slapping or corporal punishment should never be resorted to with babies." With babies. But with kids? By all means. Once an infant had learned the habits required for living within a household's routines, they were held accountable. Across the ocean and two centuries earlier in England, the Duke of Wellington made his (probably apocryphal) statement that "the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." Sure, he was referring in part to character built on the cricket pitch, but mostly it was the "toughness" bred by the enthusiastic application of the cane.
We used to hit our kids because we thought it was good for them, and—within the context of the harsher world those kids grew up in—we may not have been entirely wrong. The way we think of "discipline" today is a throwback to an economic and cultural past, when the ability to sit still and keep quiet had measurable rewards all the way into adulthood. Many professions were based on the ability to submit to discipline, especially in the lower classes. Farm laborers, all forms of professional service and especially low-paid factory workers needed to be able to endure harsh disciplinary regimes in order to make their living. Up until a few decades ago, there were more economic opportunities for people who were very good at blending in; the white-collar jobs that emerged in the aftermath of WWII still placed a high premium on finding one's place in a strict hierarchy.
I'd argue that is no longer so much the case, at least in the imaginations of middle-class parents. Today's working world rewards independence, risk-taking and self-confidence. But where does discipline fit in? And what kind of world are we readying our kids for, anyway? As parents, we are aware, simultaneously, that if everyone is raising their kids to be the next Steve Jobs or Miranda July, we're in for a hellscape of ego when a critical mass of these little weirdos start graduating from high school. (I'm not talking about the millennials, those poor bastards. Let's give them a break and leave them out of this.)
I do the always-talking thing with my kids, just like everyone else. I do try and say no to them a lot—more often than necessary, just so they get real good and used to it. If they can figure out how to feel satisfied in a world structured by a lot of "no"—and really, given that they are both able-bodied white males born into the middle class, they will hear far fewer "no's" than any other group of humans on earth—I feel I have taught them something valuable. But, as former spankers may understand, it's hard to know when your own form of discipline "works" and when it has unintended and unwanted consequences. Sometimes I worry that my arbitrary limits are making my kids less curious and dynamic, or that I'm making them unnecessarily wary of me.
In the end, the construction of discipline reflects our hopes about the working world our kids will find themselves in. We've decided not to hit our kids partly because we don't want to cause them pain, but also because we hope that kids who don't know fear will be better off in the world we're trying to make. What we're left with the perennial anxiety that we are not doing enough to prepare them for independence.
And there's another anxiety, the economic one, the one underlies all the hand-wringing about undisciplined American kids. What kind of discipline can prepare a kid for the fact that there won't be nearly enough opportunities for all of them when they grow up? What will all those communication skills matter to those kids who don't find their place among the lucky few to be spared that old-fashioned obligation—to sit still and take whatever the world gives you?
Kathryn Jezer-Morton is a writer and editor in Montreal. She writes about motherhood at You're Mom Dot Com.
Illustration by Jim Cooke