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Why Your Great Grandparents Were A Bunch of Spoiled Kids

Published: June 23, 2012

 
 
Child-rearing advice: The supply is infinite, but the demand is always greater. Americans, it seems, are ever hungry for news on how children are poorly raised, and why parents are doing it all wrong. One of the most repeated criticisms is that Americans overindulge their children.

Here it is in 1912, as written for the Post by Maude Radford Warren.

Our children are spoiled, bad-mannered and ungrateful… in the American home the child rules from babyhood until it marries or otherwise leaves its home… the parents [provide food and money] to the child, asking for nothing but the chance to sacrifice themselves for their young.

Ms. Warren came to this conclusion by comparing the children of the new century to the offspring of Puritans and colonial pioneers.

 [The child] learned his manners and his morals by implication and example, though perhaps his religion was belted into him more consciously. There was no colonial parent who sighed, “My child is such a problem!” and no child who said, “My parents are so out-of-date!” There were no filial problems—there rarely are when the problem of getting the food supply is still in the nature of a hard adventure.

In comparison, the average, middle-income family of 1912 was characterized by demanding children and parents who over-analyzed their job.

In our passion for our young—our desire to do right by them—we have raised parenthood to a profession. We are so afraid of not understanding fully that we try to be scientific as well as loving… Some one discovered that the child had rights, and then we began to see that what we were giving him from love we should be giving him from a sense of justice. Our consciences began to work overtime.

The trouble begins with young people who have a naïve faith that all will turn out well for people in love.

They meet; love and Nature throw a net about them, and the world seems to them an alluring and a secure place. They stand up before the minister and the guests and are made one. Among the guests are those who are widowed and divorced and childless, sick and distressed, disgraced and old. The couple see them; but the things that life and chance have wrought for these guests do not touch the consciousness of the happy two. Life is going to be different for them.

And for a time, life is.

[With the first baby, the young father has] parental responsibility without a full realization of what chance and circumstance may do to him.

He will give them a better start than he had.  All he has had to give up they shall not give up—not while he has a finger left to work for them.

Being an American, [he] values freedom more than any other quality. When he finds his own quota of it smaller than he had counted on, he at once desires it for his children. The simplest way he knows of measuring freedom is in terms of money. He coins his lifeblood cheerfully.

Perhaps American parents were unrealistic about their children, she reflected, because they’d been unrealistic about marriage.

Parents go on bravely planning and sacrificing for children without dreaming of expecting gratitude—at least, we tell ourselves, not while the children are little.

Our reward is to make them happy; our theory that, if we cannot make up our minds to live for our children, we ought not to have any.  We wish to make it up to them because the world cannot be just as ideal as it seemed when the honeymoon was shimmering.

American couples had become so focused on being successful parents—providing their children every desirable object and opportunity—that they couldn’t see what sort of child they were producing.

 What the American parent enjoys most of all—unless he is the wise exception—is lavishing on his children things he never had and always wanted when he was little.  Nothing delights their father more than to see them at play, surrounded and all but satiated with toys.

Of course, [the father] idolizes these children and overrates their importance. He may know they are rude and tiresome, only ordinarily intelligent and not at all diligent; but he cannot feel this.

Ms. Warren works on the same parental concerns that journalists still use today: parents’ uncertainty and resentment, the worry that they do too much, the suspicion that more discipline and limitations for the child would make everything better.

 There has been practically no one to tell us that, if we give the child his rights and develop his individuality, the rights of the parent may have to be small. Perhaps a faint piping voice is raised now and again on behalf of the parent, but it is soon smothered.

And there are constantly increasing numbers of teachers and writers to tell us how to maintain the rights of the child. Sometimes, when the doctrine is translated into action, its results are of the sort that would have made the early settlers gasp and reach for a rod, with which to put the fear of the Lord into a child.

Mother wishes to be a competent parent. … She goes to classes to find out what her children should read and how to discipline them, avoiding that dreadful danger of waiting until they do wrong and then colliding with them. Plenty of people tell her what she should do, but no one warns her that in respecting the individuality of the child she may lose her own.

Like many articles on the continuing crisis in parenting, “The Decay Of The American Parent” (Sep 14, 1912) starts with sensation and ends in moderation.

 Fortunately we are not all decayed parents. Plenty of us have struck the balance between self-abnegation and folly between indulgence and severity. Many of us have adapted the pedagogy of the schools to our own individual needs, throwing away what is stupid or valueless and digging into our own imaginative resources to make the naughty conduct of our children react on their own heads.

And even when we are handling our children badly—even when we have decayed as parents—from the ashes of us spring our young, who, as parents, will profit by our particular mistakes.

Ms. Warren would probably recognize the endless stream of expert advice for parents, though she might be surprised that the extremes range from ‘Tiger Moms’ to Attachment Mothering.

She probably wouldn’t recognize how much the world of the child has changed in 100 years. For the most part, they get the food, clothing, and shelter they need, but Security and Hope are less abundant today than five generations ago.

They cope with endlessly revised school curricula, drugs, violence, rapid and continual changes in technology, and a formidable challenge in escaping the pull of childhood and dependency when 85% of college graduates move back in with their parents for lack of ready work.

It wasn’t easy then. It’s not easy now.

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  • Laura Sailer

    I would love to get any other information you might have about Maude Redford Warren – she was my grandfather’s aunt and I heard many stories about her growing up. He inherited her collection of hats that she collected from around the world, including from WW1 battleground.

  • Laura Sailer

    Wow, so glad you wrote this. Maude Radford Warren was my grandfathter’s aunt (or great-aunt?) and I always heard stories about how she was a writer for the Saturday Evening Post and now I have proof!

  • Ima Ryma

    A hundred years that came and went,
    Living the American dream,
    Middle class parents ever spent
    Time searching for that hidden scheme
    On how to raise the kids just right,
    To assure them a better life,
    So when the kids grew up, they might
    Make a good husband or good wife,
    And then raise children of their own,
    To realize what sacrifice
    Their parents surely must have known,
    And so now treat them very nice.

    Good parenting is like roulette.
    There’s no such thing as a sure bet.