The word “spoilt” and its connotations have been besetting me on all sides. First, I happened to read Dr Aric Sigman’s The Spoilt Generation; this was followed by Theodore Dalrymple’s Spoilt Rotten! Then yesterday in the Telegraph, I found an article by Michael Deacon, with the headline, “Children need a firm parent before they need a friend”, suggesting that the old adage – “Spare the rod and spoil the child” – is actually true.
Dr Aric Sigman is a psychologist and a hands-on Dad with four children. His book is tough on namby-pamby parenting and in favour of tough love. The culture of instant gratification has led to “little emperors”; these terrorise their teachers and their parents (indeed, it is almost a criminal offence to smack our offspring) and generally demonstrate what happens if you give up on the idea of instilling boundaries, discipline and order at home.
“Entire empires have crumbled because of spoiling,” he insists. Whether the British Empire fell for this reason or not, I don’t know, but the old certainties of the English way of life – the stiff upper lip, the stoicism, the smacks, the hierarchy, the idea that children should be seen and not heard – have certainly gone for good. I think that children calling adults by their Christian names probably started the rot. When I was a child it would have been unthinkable to call my parents’ friends anything other than “Mr” or “Mrs”; indeed, I carried on addressing them thus well into adult life, until a more familiar form of address was graciously permitted. Today, everyone is on first-name terms at all times, starting with telephone bank clerks and total strangers in call stations on the subcontinent.
No wonder Downton Abbey has been such a success. It is not just because we all love the class system (though we do); it is because everyone is so polite. Children have to be taught how to be polite – over and over again, daily, for years on end. Parents today lack the time, energy, commitment, confidence or whatever, to do this boring but necessary task. As a child I was once sent to my room for pointing at an elderly visitor’s hands (covered in a disfiguring rash) and asking in a whisper what was wrong with them. At least I remembered to whisper.
Sigman, a Jewish agnostic, who also has my approbation because he uses the term BC rather than the modish, modern BCE, states: “A child has the right to a parent who will slap him on the wrist to teach him a life-saving lesson”. Don’t let officious social workers see you doing it, though.
Theodore Dalrymple, well-known prison doctor, shows what happens when Sigman’s little emperors enter the food chain, otherwise known as adult life. They often end up in prison or cause social mayhem in other ways. He believes it is simply a toxic sentimentality which thinks children should be allowed to “express themselves” as they like. Michael Deacon, in his turn, quotes Sigman with approval: “In our liberal age, it’s thought to be much better to have a laissez-faire attitude to children doing what they want than to be authoritarian.” But surely it’s possible to be authoritative without being authoritarian? Apparently Frank Field, the Coalition’s poverty adviser, wants school children to be given lessons in parenting. Personally, I approve of the parenting style of Captain von Trapp; teaching your children to come when you whistle for them.