Parents told: ‘get mean’ to avoid spoiled children

A quarter of British children do nothing to help around the house, a survey finds. ‘Mean parenting’ gurus say parents who overindulge children are creating a generation of spoiled brats.

All parents want the best for their children, and some will do almost anything to ensure they get it. These ‘helicopter parents’ (so called because they are constantly hovering in the background of their children’s lives) spend what seems like all their time and energy working towards one overriding objective: the complete comfort and happiness of their beloved offspring.

But more and more parents now think the helicopter method has gone too far. Parents who are too nice, the thinking goes, bring up children who have the opposite problem: they are mean, thoughtless, spoiled brats.

This is strong stuff, but the theory is not without scientific backing. In 2004, two anthropologists at the University of California compared notes from their studies of two very different groups of children.

One set of children were growing up in Peru, members of the remote Matsigenka tribe, living deep in the Amazon Jungle. These children were strictly brought up but polite and well behaved. The anthropologists were struck by one girl who happily joined in with the hard tasks of everyday life, fishing for supper, preparing food, cleaning sleeping mats, tidying up and generally making herself useful, without complaining or asking for anything. She was just six years old.

The second set of children came from Los Angeles, one of the richest cities in the world. But although these children had toys, food, gadgets of which a Matsigenka child could hardly dream, they were noticeably less well behaved, fighting with their parents, and refusing to do even simple things to help.

Nor is this a uniquely American problem. A recent survey found that 25% of children in the UK do nothing at all to help their parents around the house.

Journalist Pamela Druckerman noticed a similar thing when she moved to France from New York. Her children, given constant attention and encouragement, were difficult: fussy eaters, unhappy sleepers, emotionally demanding. How is it, she asked French friends, that your children are so calm and patient? Because the French had not forgotten the art of saying ‘non!’

Mean mums

This recent trend towards ‘mean parenting’ taps into an old and painful dilemma. On the one hand, parents love their children and want to do nice things for them. Parents hate to see their children sad because they cannot get what they want. They are reluctant to stifle their children’s creativity with unfeeling discipline.

On the other hand, ‘mean mums’ say a little hardship and frustration in childhood is actually good for children. It helps build patience and character, it teaches manners and respect and it prepares children for the day when they have to deal with the tough realities of the adult world.

You Decide

  1. Can hardship in life ever be ‘character forming’?
  2. If you had had everything you ever wanted as a child, would your life now be better or worse?


  1. Improvise a drama. The scene: a playground where two parents are watching their children. One is a ‘helicopter parent’, the other is a ‘mean mum’. What happens?
  2. If you could write three rules for all parents to follow, what would they be? Write yours down and compare with others.

Some People Say...

“You have to be cruel to be kind.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I hope this new trend doesn’t give my parents any ideas!
You’re probably safe. The parenting books that start these trends are really aimed at parents of young children.
But of course, eventually I might have children of my own. Am I going to have to be mean to them?
People should, of course, make up their own minds about what parenting style works best. These trends come and go, and they can’t all be right. The real answer is probably (as usual) somewhere in the middle.
So what’s the real lesson of the ‘mean parenting’ movement?
The key message is probably that parents should learn to relax a little, and take a little more time to look after themselves, rather than just their children.

Word Watch

Anthropology is the study of humanity (from the Greek anthropos, meaning person). Anthropologists study how people behave in all sorts of conditions, from the remotest wildernesses to modern megacities.
Amazon Jungle
The Amazon Basin is the huge watershed of the Amazon River, the largest river in the world. It is mainly covered in rainforest, in which a few tribes still live very traditional existences, cut off from the modern world.
Strictly brought up
Matsigenka children who misbehave badly, it is reported, are sometimes rubbed with the leaves of a mildly poisonous plant that makes their skin itch. This sort of treatment would probably be illegal in many Western countries.
Pamela Druckerman
Druckerman wrote a book based on her experiences: French Children Don’t Throw Food, published in January this year.
French friends
As several reviewers pointed out, Druckerman’s French friends represented only a tiny sample of French society. Plenty of French parents have difficulties of their own to report, food-throwing doubtless included.
Mean parenting
The most recent book on this was called Mean Moms Rule: Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later, by Denise Schipani, published 1st April 2012.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.