More on "spoiling"

Last week I wrote about how children get "spoiled". I asserted that spoiling is not really a problem of giving your children too much, but of changing the limits you set with them in response to inappropriate behaviors they may display (tantrums, whining, sulking, and disrespect). While this inadvertent rewarding of misbehavior is the crux of the problem with "spoiled children" there are other problems associated with giving "too much".

Too Many Toys

Sometimes when I buy something for my daughter, I am thinking, "Maybe this will occupy her a while." I am essentially buying myself some free time. If this becomes a habit, a child's closet can fill up with toys very quickly. Sometimes parents express their love for a child by buying them a toy. The moment of receiving a gift becomes the most intimate moment between parent and child. So the child begins to crave this experience, not knowing that the feeling of closeness she is really needing can be had in other ways.

Too many toys, given too often, is sometimes a substitute for not giving enough loving attention. Material goods are a poor substitute for human closeness. An endless supply of toys will not be enough for a child who needs more one on one time with a parent. Imagine the payoff for our children if all the money spent on toys last Christmas had been spent on parenting classes, to improve the quality of the time we parents spend with our kids.

Toys are meaningless and quickly irrelevant unless children begin to invest some meaning in them. If a toy you give a child becomes a focal point for continuing interactions between you and your child, then it is serving it's purpose well. In fact, children will often internalize the good interactions they have had with you as they continue to play with the toy without you. Musical instruments are a good example of this. You have to spend a lot of time offering support and encouragement to a child as they learn to play. Eventually, though, they feel your pride in them even when they perform just for themselves.

Too Much Attention

Sometimes it feels as though a parent is doting too much upon a child. This impression could come from the jealousy of those who are needing attention themselves. It might also indicate, however, that the doting parent has some unconscious agenda of their own. Parents who dedicate their whole lives to their children run the danger of needing to be needed so badly that they unwittingly undermine the development of their children's independence. A vicious cycle can result. A parent who fears that her child is in danger without her, overprotects the child. The child struggles against being controlled, but has little experience identifying his own limits. He occasionally breaks free of the control and immediately hurts himself. The parent then reasserts her protectiveness with a renewed sense of its justification. And the cycle repeats.

Too much attention, then, may actually be too little confidence in our children's ability to get by on their own. Or it may mean that the parent has too few sources of feeling important and worthwhile in his life, and thus needs his children to need him. 

Too Much Freedom

Children thrive when they are allowed to experiment with age appropriate choices. It helps them develop a sense of responsibility. But when the child's decision making is largely unsupervised, or the choices they are confronted with are beyond their maturity level, "freedom" is really a euphemism for neglect.

Sometimes parents remember promises they made to themselves in their own adolescence. They vowed that as parents they would not control their kids the way they felt they were being controlled. As children get older this promise becomes more and more important to remember. But when children are young they do not benefit from the freedoms important to an adolescent. They are not ready to decide for themselves what to do with their summer, or even what to do with a given day. Children need parents to provide structure to their lives and expose them to a variety of experiences that the children might otherwise never have chosen for themselves. Children should not, however, be abandoned to these structures or choices the parents have made for them. The parents need to keep close watch. Is this teacher really working out for my child? Are the social groups my daughter is in really supporting her?

So while attention, freedom, and quality toys are good for our children. Any of them in excess may indicate an imbalance somewhere in the parenting. Sorting out these multiple types of problems can help them be addressed more effectively than applying a catch all phrase like, "Oh that kid is spoiled rotten". It could be the so called "spoiled" kids are not getting what they really need at all.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

Other Father Issues, Books

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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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