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
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
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
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
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
Other Father Issues,
* * *
Your children need your presence more than your
presents. - Jesse Jackson
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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