Umm, the kids don’t come first

By skepticlawyer

An oft-repeated mantra, everywhere from law courts to dating agencies, is that ‘children come first’. No-one ever provides any argument to back this assertion, and attempts (by me) to dig up social science research supporting the argument that privileging children’s needs over the needs of their adult parents, their teachers (or anyone else) is good for either (a) those children’s long term welfare or (b) good for anyone else have proven fruitless. This I find perplexing, and I’d be very interested to see what people think of the oft-invoked ‘in the best interests of the children’ (the standard family court line) or ‘my kids come first’ (spattered all over people’s online dating profiles).

See (contrarian that I am), I suspect it’s not true. Not only do I suspect it’s not true, but I also think it’s fed into a culture of child privileging that has led to the great bulk of young people — at least in developed countries — displaying the most extraordinary sense of entitlement. My feminist friends call this kind of thing ‘privilege’, and while the two concepts are similar, I’m not sure they’re the same. Most people, I suspect, don’t have any privilege by virtue of what they are. They have to have it conferred on them, and to my jaundiced eye, it seems that conferral is done, by and large, when they are children. Their needs are placed above the needs of their parents, their teachers and wider society. And then their sense of entitlement blows up in everyone’s faces.

I am not suggesting a return to the days where men refused to raise other men’s children (an incidence of this occurred in my own family, where one of my uncles was brought up by a maiden aunt because the new man refused to raise the boy born as a consequence of my great aunt being ‘jilted’ on the doorstep of the church) or where stepmothers treated their non-biological children like crap (the source of many fairy tales).

I am suggesting, however, an honest appreciation of the fact that step children are not automatically loved and wanted, and that if adults are unhappy because they are forced to place children’s needs above their own, then it’s a fair bet that the children will remain desperately unhappy as well, despite what the mantra (be it legal or social) has to say.

My ideas on this are very unformed at the moment, but I have to say I simply do not accept the argument that children are automatically damaged by every denial or bad experience. I think it would do us good as a society to tell everyone — children and adults — that they cannot always have what they want, and that they may just have to suck it up.


    Posted September 14, 2010 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    I actually agree with the post and the assumption of most of its sentiments as an underpinning reality in life.
    One of the saddest sights in reality is the sight of a parent in a supermarket ineptly (mis) handling a child’s tantrum with panicked mews, as little Titus or Ffiona advanced their assertiveness to a new and previously uncontemplated level.

    If I had tried on what some of the brats get away with these days, there would be a smack on the bum from my parents, with other adults looking askance that the measure was not implemented quickly enough.

    Besides, as the late great WC Fields said, “Someone who dislikes children and animals can’t be all bad”.

  2. Posted September 14, 2010 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    Paul, I suspect you (and WC Fields) wouldn’t be alone. I’m very interested to see what a range of people have to say on this, though… because it strikes me as one of the great unexamined shibboleths.

    Posted September 14, 2010 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    I suppose we are shortly out of the trees, and civilisation as we know it is a very new thing. Life always comes along and kicks away the crutch eventually. It just surprises me the violence people can do to others and themselves and also that some recover after it.

    Adversity actually creates character in some, while others fail even when there is no pressure. I have to bear in my mind I was reasonably well brought up compared to many kids, it’s one of the miracles of life that my mum in particular loved someone as essentially unlovable as me, but there you go, an experience built on the concept of the fair go resulted and that’s what you call quality of life.

    May many more drink of this Ambrosian cup.

  4. Posted September 14, 2010 at 3:55 am | Permalink

    into a culture of child privileging that has led to the great bulk of young people — at least in developed countries — displaying the most extraordinary sense of entitlement.

    The bubble wrap generation, as they are sometimes known.

    There is a notion that the psychological pathologies of an era reflect its failings. Hence the neurotics of the European C19th and the wave of narcissism some detect now.

  5. TerjeP (say Tay-a)
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    As a parent with three young kids I encounter a lot of parents. Most are very well versed in saying “no” to their kids. Most are not dealing with out of control brats but rather just energetic and dependent kids who sometimes test the limits. Most parents I know are pretty damn good at being parents and the characature of modern parents as somehow failing to discipline their kids enough doesn’t hold. Of course it obviously depends on the circles you move in and I do also know parents that have through poor technique raised kids that are off the rails now as young adults. As much through being too soft as through actual neglect.

    Raising kids is an art form. Kids do respond to warmth and generosity and you can give a lot to kids in the way of things and experiences without creating monsters so long as you also remember to teach them the virtues of sharing, the means to handle disappointments, the ability to accept no for an answer and the joys of defered gratification that is earned through work. Hard work and deferment of personal gratification is also essential to being a good parent and if you put your gratification before the physical and emotional well being of your kids then I think you are brewing trouble.

  6. Posted September 14, 2010 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    I think the kids come first in the lifeboat and the rations queue. After that, not so much.

  7. Posted September 14, 2010 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    PC wins the official skepticlawyer keyboard killer award for that last comment.


  8. Posted September 14, 2010 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    I think you are conflating the feminist idea of privilege with a sense of entitlement. I do think you can have priviledge by virtue of who you are, the colour of your skin etc. But that is a debate for another time.

    I think spoilt brats have been around for a long time. I think that now that it is accepted, by most, that women have a choice about having children or not and consequently there are less children around that some people have forgotten what it is like to be around children. Also you are often seeing and remembering them at their worst. As far as I remember young men have always generally been bossy and arrogant, now young women are too. Maybe they always were and I was just too busy being one to notice.

    In terms of family law I think that children’s rights should be first and foremost. They have a right to parental support. They have a right to be safe from an abusive parent. They have a right to be safe full stop. Once that is taken care of then issues of who has the kids when can be sorted.

  9. TerjeP
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    I think the notion that being tough and a stoic are where it is at is a somewhat old fashioned idea. Not wrong but designed for a different age when the economy and the nature of work was different. Today’s workers need to be creative individualists who are self reliant and confident in their own ideas and their own decisions in a way that wasn’t so important in previous eras. Parents are responding to the reality of the world around them. Getting along with peers is now more important than enduring a pushy boss. So we don’t parent like a pushy boss.

    Hardships are what tend to shape us and if we have had a hard life and come through stronger it is easier to feel that others should go and get this same strength. But the great thing about a capitalist economy is that we don’t all need to be the same and can specialise and have different strengths. Maybe being a good listener or a good advocate is just as valuable as being a hard arse

  10. Posted September 14, 2010 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    The sense of entitlement in some kids might not only be exacerbated by cosseted at home, but the inability of teachers at school in recent years to impose any disciplinary measures that are beyond a minor inconvenience, and don’t come near the conditioning (Pavlov’s Cat – tee hee) levels of my childhood – e.g. detentions even have to be arranged days in advance, if imposable at all.

    When that sense of entitlement gets to the at-home-with-parents stage I call “twentager”, others call “kidults”, there can be real problems, in the home, and I imagine, in the workplace. “Chores” can be seen as unreasonably onerous rather than normal and necessary. (I’m guilty as charged.) But perhaps cossetting and a sense of entitlement are not only issues with individuals, but privileged nations – witness the profligacy (related to the Thread of Doom) of some privileged countries while demanding the less privileged have little chance of advancement.

    The wisdom of the stoics and epicureans relating to the dangers and diminishing returns of privilege, the addictions of luxury, becomes more apparent to me, in domains far wider than they imagined.

  11. Posted September 14, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    [email protected] (while I was thumbing in my last comment) forgets the problem of carrying out the bullying, not just dealing with it. The on-line bullying, and perhaps road-rage, epidemics may well have something to do with a sense of entitlement and not getting used to being put firmly in one’s place.
    A recent paper I saw suggested that the /effects/ of online bullying were greatly dimished by assertive (yet ready to listen) parenting.
    Besides, who says that in modern knowledge-work offices that bullying isn’t standard – there’s actually more scope for it, as well as incentive. (I know from sad experience when moving into areas with more suits from the more collegiate geek-filled areas of a business).
    There is a very fine line between teaching by example the virtue of selflessness, versus abetting the development of selfishness.

  12. Miss Candy
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    SL I think you’re barking up the wrong tree with this one. There is plenty – indeed an abundance – of evidence now to show that a good early start has massively positive implications for a person’s life. I seem to be presented with it every five minutes as a policy officer in government.

    At the same time, a poor start can be overcome, and I think this part of the equation is ignored, to our peril.

    The biggest issue for kids is not a culture of “putting them first” – it’s a culture of overprotection. They’re different. Putting your kids first can mean saying no, making them walk to school, and letting them make (safeish) mistakes. It can mean letting them fall off the monkey bars but ensures that there is tan bark rather than concrete to catch the little houdini.

    On the other hand, overprotection is becoming a scourge. Children are losing independence and resilience as a result of “bubblewrapping” as you put it. But this is NOT in the best interests of children.

    Kids, by virtue of their inherent vulnerability to adults, have for a long time been assumed to be fine in the midst of hardship, based on no evidence whatsoever other than a parent saying “well I was beaten and I’m fine, what’s your problem?”

    Dave: there is plenty of evidence to show that bullies are not created by overindulgent parents who can’t say no. They’re created by capricious, inconsistent and bullying parenting. Not indulgence.

    There’s a difference between children’s “best interests” – which can include supporting parents – and overprotection and neurosis. But either way, I think the care of children, as vulnerable little beings, remains a first order priority.

    Terje – bang on.

  13. TerjeP
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I assume “bang on” means “spot on”. 😉

  14. su
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Miss Candy. The best interests of a child also include such things as fostering their ability to defer gratification and to balance their immediate needs with the needs of others and with the longterm goals of both. So on a very literal level, “putting the child first” can be contrary to the needs of children but I suspect that this is a shorthand that was never meant to be taken literally. It was meant, especially in the context of family law, to be a reminder that parents need to consider whether their preferred course of action is simply about their own gratification or whether there are genuine reasons why it is desirable for the child. This is because adults are very fond of repackaging their own wants and desires as “the rights of the child”. It is ok and in fact necessary for parents to privilege their own needs in some areas but “putting the child first” was meant, I think, to combat some of that dishonest rebadging of what was most convenient and desirable for a particular parent as a child’s fundamental right.

  15. Posted September 14, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I suppose it’s safe in the comments to explain a bit of background. The origin of that post is meeting a bloke who I really like who keeps blowing me off for his kids. As far as I can see most women (and men, when the boot is on the other foot) just wear it; I won’t. I went out with him the day after I’d been belted over the head with a bottle of buckfast. That means he can blow his kids off from time to time. Part of the problem is that he has a cockblocking ex who has a good line in dumping the kids on him and he has lost (over fourteen years of marriage) the balls to tell her where to get off.

    A man without balls is no good to me; I am so smart and organised I will just walk over the top of him. I feel sorry for him, but not at the expense of my personal happiness. So he got dumped yesterday, and because I haven’t been able to see him for a fortnight, he got dumped via text message. I did leave the door ajar — I told him to get back to me when he had time to date, and that I still really like him, but that this is not good enough. If he wants the smart and sexy size 10 with the D cup and the nice butt, he has to work for her, not take her for granted. He may get back to me, but that would involve him growing a pair in a 24 hour period, for which there is no evidence thus far.

    So now you know why I don’t buy the ‘my kids come first’ line. It involves the other party in a relationship not respecting themselves or their needs, and I’m unwilling to do that.

  16. su
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Ah – As Bernard Black said “up with that I will not put” and fair enough too SL. If both parties aren’t prepared to work around the constraints of divided families then any relationship is dead in the water. I haven’t even sought a relationship since my partner died for precisely that reason – I can only stretch myself to accomodate myself and my children. I’ve found it immensely enjoyable too. No more fracking arguments about reading in bed and the state of the housekeeping. But that’s me.

  17. desipis
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Using Bernard Black quotes for relationship advice, awesome! 😀

    I do agree with su’s point though, that its quite reasonable for someone to prioritise their kids over romantic endeavours. Just as kids don’t have to come first, neither do romantic relationships. If you’re not willing to work with that I think it’s quite reasonable for you to move on. You shouldn’t go on with a relationship because you feel sorry for the other person; pity is no basis for a relationship.

    Without knowing custody arrangements it’s hard to comment, but its possible that the guy could be concerned about giving his ex anything to use against him, even the notion that because he gives up time with his kids to pursue romance that he isn’t committed to them. I realise is basically what you’re arguing about in your post, but not necessarily something that he can do something about.

    A man without balls is no good to me; I am so smart and organised I will just walk over the top of him

    Not trying to be snarky here, but it actually sounds like he’s not letting you just walk over the top of him.

  18. Posted September 14, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Not trying to be snarky here, but it actually sounds like he’s not letting you just walk over the top of him.

    If he’d done that, I might respect him, but he’s been whiny and pathetic instead.

    I do suspect there’s a fair bit of the custody issue going on as well, and I’m afraid it’s just too complicated for me, which is why I’m outta there.

  19. Peter Patton
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Well SL, if he doesn’t man-up quick smart, I can assure you of a steady stream of suitors prepared to put everything in their lives second in exchange for “a smart and sexy size 10 with the D cup and the nice butt.” Hell, the blokes I’m talking about will drop everything for two out of three; even one out of three. 🙂

  20. Posted September 14, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    I am not a parent, nor want to be, nor likely to be. But I see a LOT of kids (in the state of Victoria).

    My general observation is kids are, if anything, tending to get nicer. (Of course, I could be getting better at dealing with them.) Their general knowledge is also tending to deteriorate.

    That being said, it is a big generation out there and you do get a range of patterns. I get what the “bubble wrap kids” is getting at, without thinking it describes a whole generation. And, it is standard outlook among teachers: if you have a toxic kid, all is usually explained by meeting the parents. Though I would also suggest there is more wrong with modern education than there is with modern parenting.

    And when kids have a sense of entitlement, they can REALLY have it. On the other hand, it can also be remarkably easy to puncture.

    So, mixed bag, as you would expect, but some distinct patterns. And, just as not everyone in C19th Europe was raised to be neurotic (or even close) not everyone is now raised to be narcissistic (or even close). The “typical’ pathology of an era is not actually all that typical of the era.

  21. Posted September 14, 2010 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Peter Patton, I counted five. ‘Smart’, ‘sexy’, ‘size 10’, ‘D cup’ and ‘nice butt’ are all quite different beasts.

    Still on numbers, I’m impressed that anyone can fit a D cup into a size 10!

  22. Posted September 14, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I simply do not accept the argument that children are automatically damaged by every denial or bad experience.

    But if they never suffer and are never denied others might be damaged by them.

  23. Peter Patton
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm…well spotted. In which case, I could probably guarantee an even steadier stream of suitors; and of both sexes.

  24. Posted September 14, 2010 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    I thoroughly agree with this post.

    After all, in an intact/non-separated family, parents make decisions primarily on the basis of what is best, as they see it, for the whole family (or even just for themselves) and the state can withstand the temptation to jump aboard and start managing those decisions.

    But (as I know full well) jump headfirst into a stepfamily and not only the courts but the entire bulk of the social audience can be seen leering from the sidelines, waiting to pounce if the children’s perceived needs aren’t elevated above the needs of the adults in the family in every conceivable instance.

    The saddest part is that the kids realise it quickly enough, and their character development can suffer as a result.

  25. Nick Ferrett
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Permalink is now to be renamed

  26. Henry2
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Gday folks,
    Recently I have been courting (how old-fashioned!) and almost encountered the problem outlined by SL.
    My daughters are teenagers in early highschool and after some months of me being AWOL from time to time, I began to realise that by leaving them to their own devices I was neglecting my role and letting myspace,twitter and facebook take over as a father and guide.
    I started to be more protective of that time I could spend with them and made sure that I included my friend in our homelife. The kids have been very accepting.
    I dont know if I’ve been a good parent and maybe Ive not given them every opportunity but I’m glad that all my daughters are sassy bright, young women with a great sense of humour.
    Regards, F

  27. TerjeP
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    SL – I take it the kids are not a 2 year old and a 4 year old?

  28. Posted September 14, 2010 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    No, 11 and 14. In fact, if they were little, two things would happen: (a) I would cut him more slack and (b) in any case would not get involved with someone with little kids in the first place — small children irritate me and I’m always completely upfront about this (that’s why I’ve never had kids). I’ve never had any difficulty with teenagers (I gather this is the opposite to most people).

    Nick, now about that domain name registration… 😉

  29. Posted September 14, 2010 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] said “I’ve never had any difficulty with teenagers”

    Teenagers are easier if you /were/ one, or at least if your peers were. Dealing with the first wave of tweens who want to be teens, and now, I suspect, the twentagers that seem to want to be teens, when neither oneself nor ones peers have been those stages… Now that’s tricky.

    Obviously, with both toddler and twentager under my roof, that new domain name won’t be bookmarked in /my/ browser.

    (Oh s***, what if I end up with tween and a probable emergent phenomenon of thirtager under my roof? Just shoot me.)

    Posted September 15, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    So ,so many things to ponder upon.
    Much of it to do with #16.
    Words fail me, which is just as well.
    This is a very expressive woman.

  31. Miss Candy
    Posted September 16, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I tend to think that childless people and parents getting together would be like attempting a relationship with a martian. You’re in two completely different worlds.

    When I was childless I had no idea of the extent to which parents are shifted away from their childless identity by the responsibility and love that has come their way. This is why parents annoyingly nod knowingly at each other the whole time. We’re profoundly removed from the childless world, something which I often find myself grieving about – that it is a world which I left relatively early and to which I cannot return.

    Dare I suggest, SL, that you may be labouring under an ignorance that is difficult for any childless person to get past. I say that as someone who used to be exactly where you are.

    And, frankly, though I respect many things you write, I cannot give you any credit for lording it about your size 10 D-cup tight butt etc.

    I and LE, for example, are both beautiful women, but with completely different measurements to you. Size should have nothing to do with your sense of your own beauty SL. Shame on you for being so shallow.

  32. Posted September 16, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    See, evil nasty Tory that I am, I’m quite happy to use the advantages that I have. And if men want to take advantage, they have to put the effort in. That’s a demand I’m cool about making. I’ve never used my physical advantages to put other women down, and I’m perfectly aware that I look the way I do because I won the genetic lottery.

    You are right about one thing, though. Any man who tries to mummy track me with his kids (either by blowing me off or trying to turn me into something I’m not) will get shown the door. I’ll even pay for dinner if it helps to get rid of him.

  33. Alice
    Posted September 16, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    No the kids dont come first when they finally have driven you to distraction with one temper tantrum too many at age two or three. Lets face it – kids test boundaries – its important they know where those boundaries are. Kids are rent seekers – just like the rest of us, if we can get away with it.
    My boy was driving me mad with three year old shop tantrums. I tried the reason thing, the gentle thing, the soft bribery, the “lets talk bout it thing” the “two minutes in the car alone thing”.

    One look at consumer heaven at eye level in Woolies was all the trigger he needed. However the cessation of tantrums came with a whack on the bum in a deserted aisle. Big deal – floor flailing tantrums over. Problem solved. Why are we so worried?

    The boundaries are there. Kids will push them – but if you keep moving the boundaries by changing tactics that fail you could be damaging their confidence.
    Angst and self analytical torture isnt a great way to go with raising kids – you leave them too uncertain.

  34. Peter Patton
    Posted September 16, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink


    My – limited – experience in such matters has taught me a very valuable lesson. Always have a stack of cab charge chits on a table near the front door. 😉

  35. Posted September 16, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    There’s a very interesting post over at Jim Belshaw’s place (on a totally different topic) which — by accident — manages to catch how differently we used to react to ‘difficult’ stepchildren.

    This is the relevant quote (but read the whole post anyway, it’s very good):

    Grandfather Drummond became ward of the state at twelve: family conditions were very difficult, he was in some ways an uncontrollable child, and finally his step-mother had had enough. Despite this break, his brothers retained contact with him. Brother Will in particular used to send him books because, despite his limited formal education, the boy was a dedicated reader.

  36. Posted September 17, 2010 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the compliment, SL!

  37. TerjeP
    Posted September 17, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Miss Candy is right about martians. And SL is right about boobs. Boobs are bliss.

  38. Peter Patton
    Posted September 18, 2010 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    When I get older losing my hair,
    Many years from now,
    Will you still be sending me a valentine
    Birthday greetings bottle of wine?

    If I’d been out till quarter to three
    Would you lock the door,
    Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
    When I’m sixty-four?

  39. Peter Patton
    Posted September 18, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Yes, I agree entirely. I also love Cher. At least she is capable of self-parody. Madonna is far too earnest and mean looking. Oh, and Cher can really sing. In fact, it is probably the ONLY thing ‘real’ about her nowadays. 🙂

  40. Posted September 18, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Lady Gaga is SHITE!

  41. Peter Patton
    Posted September 18, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    And Camille Paglia is RIGHT!

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