David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.

On a ferry back from Tallinn a few weeks back, I happened to sit close to a family with a youngish child – probably around eight-years old. She was playing with a robot toy that squawked a few bars of heavy metal guitar music at the push of a button. Needless to say, the button was pushed continuously.

At first it was only mildly irritating, but I noticed that after 20 minutes, passengers were starting to stare, and the child’s parents to notice. At first, they settled on “Isn’t she sweet?” smiles, which after another hour sank to, “I know… but what can you do?” grimaces.

Clearly, they actually had no idea what to do. To tell the child to stop playing was apparently an intrusion into her civil rights. To take the toy off her for a while an instance of child abuse. In this family, the child sets the rules, and the parents relax in the knowledge that they are raising a free-spirited daughter.

Except that in reality they are raising a monster-in-waiting. Even at eight years old, the girl’s worldview is already formed: “I can do whatever I like. There are no rules. I cannot be told what to do.”

Across the developed world, the cult of the child as god (or goddess) seems to have taken hold. Discipline, rules and routines are out. Children are less raised than simply let loose.

One likely reason for this is the transition to smaller and smaller family units. In a family of three children, clear routines and rules allow both children and parents to maintain their sanity. Everyone knows what happens and when, and hopefully why. In a family unit of one child, the inevitable tantrums, protests and chaos can be allowed to take over.

Worse still, even criticism of children seems to be forbidden. We are supposed to see children as perfect, innocent magical creatures, overlooking the fact that many are badly behaved, out of control or simply unpleasant small people who will likely grow up to be unpleasant adults.

The great sadness about this is that the victim is the child. I grew up knowing what time I went to bed, what time I went to school, what I wore to school, and particularly what happened if I didn’t. As a headstrong kid the rules often infuriated me, even though they were clear, logical and consistent. If my mother said something, she meant it. She rarely changed her mind; she never gave in.

I believe that I am better for this. I enjoyed my freedom and independence, but I also learned where the limits lay.

As a non-parent myself, I admit that I have little idea of how to handle the tantrums of a shrieking, unreasonable five-year old. I can imagine all hell would have broken loose on the boat, had the girl lost her robot doll for an hour. But I also wonder what happens as the girl grows up, and the impact on the people around her is demonstrated with toys much more dangerous than a plastic doll.