Spoiling the kids

I hated it when my older sister Ellen would whine to my mom, "You're spoiling him!" Ellen had reason to complain. Five years older than me, she had suffered through countless mistakes my mother had made with her. My mom was a quick learner though, and much to my sister's dismay, she was doing a better job with me. Ellen's resentment about this stung my ears as she complained to my mom: "I never got to sleep over at a friend's when I was his age! And how come he doesn't have to go to church if he doesn't want to? You always made me go!" 

Sometimes accusations of "spoiling" come from this sort of jealous resentment people feel when they see a child getting something they themselves needed, but were deprived of in their childhood. My dad used to complain that he never got to talk to his father in the ways that we kids were free to speak to him. He was both proud to be offering us greater freedom, and worried that we might be getting spoiled.  

Spoiling is a real danger. There are many families where the kids rule, and the parents have lost control. Every limit gets challenged with a temper tantrum. The parents feel humiliated whenever aghast onlookers witness the chaos.

To understand what spoiling is, and how to avoid it, the following distinction is key: 

The Myth- Spoiling is the result of giving children whatever they need.

The Reality- Spoiling is the result of inadvertently rewarding misbehaviors.

First let's deal with the myth. Parents who believe it are inclined to purposely give their children less than they seem to need. If a child is acting clingy, the parent will cast the child off so that he or she won't be spoiled by constant attention and will learn to be more independent. But while children do develop inner resources when they cannot get the help they need, there is no point in intentionally denying a child's needs for this purpose. Life itself presents children with plenty of challenges they must deal with by themselves.

To bolster children in facing life's cruelty, kids need to know that their parents will give them whatever support they can. Of course, no parents can begin to meet all the needs of their child. Because of the stresses in our lives there are many needs we may see, but just can't help them with. That's okay, as long as kids know that if we could help them we would. But when a parent intentionally refuses to meet a child's need as if it were for the child's own good, the child loses a crucial sense of support. What this actually creates in the child is not true independence, but a fear of abandonment.

Spoiling is not a matter of what you give your children, but how you decide to give it to them. If you tell a child "No", and then they annoy you until you say "Yes", you are headed for serious trouble. A spoiled child is one who has learned that limits set by their parents change in response inappropriate behaviors like temper tantrums, whining, sulking, non-cooperation, and disrespect. When a parent decides that there is really not enough time for the kids to each take a ride on the mini-helicopter outside of K-mart, that decision must not change because of a temper tantrum, even if the parent knows the temper tantrum will take longer than the ride would have.

It only takes a little while for a child to move through disappointment about not getting something they really wanted. They do not begin to move through it, however, until they really believe that they can't have it. A spoiled child will spend hours trying to reverse their parent's decision, because experience has shown that often the battle can be won, if the child is willing to go to extremes. They don't move through the disappointment, because they haven't accepted the loss. 

Sometimes my daughter's reaction to a limit I set does make me question my decision. I miscalculated the importance of something to her. Or I did not recognize the unfairness of my ruling from her point of view. I have to be willing to reconsider the limits I set in light of her feedback. In order to avoid spoiling, however, I insist that this feedback be delivered to me respectfully and that all misbehavior cease.

Spoiling children is an important thing to watch out for, but it is really more about how consistent you are with your limit setting, than it is about whether you are giving too much to your child.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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