How to Prevent “Spoiling” the Children

Daddyman Speaks #23  1/99

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.

More on “spoiling”
Daddyman Speaks #24  2/99

            Last month 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.