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How NOT to Ruin a Child

Discipline or spoil. Are we talking about kids or dogs?

There is a disturbing document, originally from the Houston Police Department, going around the internet that used to be called "How to raise a delinquent" but is now is called "How to ruin your child." Its first point is PROFOUNDLY WRONG and will actually do the opposite of what is implied.

"Begin from infancy to give your child everything he wants. This way he will grow up to think that the world owes him a living."

What does that mean? Is it like over watering your houseplants? (A good warning--I've killed a few.) Indeed, some parents do treat their children like plants. Attend to their physical needs, talk to them once in a while and they'll be fine.This does not work for children.

It might be good advice when your child is having a "little Nero" tantrum when they are older, angrily demanding his or her way. It might be good if your child steals from a store or deliberately hurts another living creature so that you don't dismiss or minimize such offense.

But this is bad advice as a generalization.

It is disastrous advice for babies. You can't spoil a baby. Babies cry because they are in pain. Their brains are hardly developed. You and your baby will have troubles if you neglect its needs. Parental care helps develop a baby's brain and body. If you let them cry, they develop a more anxious, disagreeable personality.

Here are good guidelines for how treat a baby and young children.

Even dog trainers know that puppies need lots of the right kinds of attention early in life in good environments, or they are "ruined". But when it comes to children, mistaken old psychological notions (behaviorism) still rule.

Ruinous dog owners can send their damaged dogs to the dog pound or one way or another get rid of them. Ruinous parents are not so lucky. One's children are with you the rest of your life. Worse yet, ruinous parents damage life for the rest of us. We have to live with their children for a lifetime in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, as fellow citizens and as worse parents than their own.

But our child rearing practices seem right, don't they? Send kids to daycare so mom and dad can work? Live across the country from grandparents and rarely see aunts, uncles and cousins? Get them to school to learn to read and follow rules. Sounds good doesn't it?

Believe it or not this is abnormal. It's only in the last 50 years or so that we have dismantled families down to the bare minimum-one parent and one child-even though our history and prehistory show that children were raised by extended families and need multiple adults for flourishing.

It is only in the last 150 years or so that we have systematically separated children from their families, family businesses and sent them to school with people their own age. According to evolutionary practices, this is questionable. Kids need adults around until they are full adults. They often don't make good social decisions on their own and encourage each other to take risks adults would not allow.

Bottom line, when we examine how our ancestors were raised, we are neglecting ours. See this earlier blog.

Many adults today were neglected, abused or raised in abusive environments as children. The Adverse Child Experiences studies suggest that 2/3 of adults in this country had adverse experiences as children. Two thirds! The more adverse experiences as a child, the more likely you are to have medical and mental health problems.

A couple of decades ago, Ken Magrid pointed out how we as a nation were neglecting our children and how it would cost us with criminal and unethical behavior later.The chickens have come home to roost as we seem to have epidemics of anxiety, depression, diabetes as well as unethical behavior. We can relate all of these outcomes to early life with caregivers.

Cherish or neglect? Encourage or ruin? We all pay the cost of neglectful parents.

So what can we do? Start with touch. Kids who are cuddled with care and respect develop better in all ways we can measure. Hug a child today.


There's more information on how not to ruin children at Notre Dame's symposium on Human Nature and Early Experience. Talks will be posted here after the conference.


I meant to say that the rest of the points in the document are generally good ones, except they tend to give the impression that parenting is about control. Good parenting is about gently guiding the unique energies of the child. The first point is particularly misleading, especially today when fewer and fewer people seem to understand babies.