The other day a reporter asked me to respond to a few questions about spoiling, and what it means for our kids. With the holidays coming up, this seems like a pretty timely subject. Here’s how I answered the reporter’s questions about what spoiling is, and just as importantly, what it’s not.
WHAT IS SPOILING? DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH MONEY SPENT? TIME? NEVER SAYING NO? ALL OF THE ABOVE?
Let’s start with what spoiling is not: Spoiling is NOT about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can’t spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself. In the same way, you can’t spoil a baby by holding her too much or responding to her needs each time she expresses them.
SO HOW DO WE SPOIL OUR KIDS?
The dictionary definition is “to ruin or do harm to the character or attitude by overindulgence or excessive praise.” Spoiling can of course happen when we give our kids too much stuff or spend too much money or say yes all the time. But it’s more than that. It's also about giving them the sense that the world and people around them will serve their whims.
Again, it's impossible to spoil children with too much nurturing or love or attention or time. Nurturing your relationship with your child or giving them a sense that they are entitled to your love and affection (or holding them when they're little) is exactly what we should be doing. In other words, we let them know that they can count on getting their NEEDS met.
Spoiling, on the other hand, occurs when parents (or other caregivers) create their child's world in such a way that the child feels a sense of entitlement to getting their way, to getting what they WANT when they want it, and that everything should come easy to them.
We want our kids to expect that their NEEDS will always be met by us and by others. We don't want our kids to expect that their DESIRES AND WHIMS will always be met.
DO YOU BELIEVE MANY PARENTS TODAY “SPOIL” THEIR CHILDREN? IS THIS DIFFERENT FROM PRIOR GENERATIONS?
I think this generation of parents is more likely to spoil their kids than previous generations. One of the ways I see this most commonly is that parents shelter their children from having to struggle at all. They overprotect them from disappointments or difficulties. Parents often confuse indulgence and love. If parents themselves had parents who weren't emotionally responsive and affectionate, they may feel the need to do things differently. That’s great. But then, they give their children stuff and wait on them and shelter them from sadness, instead of indulging them with what really matters, and what kids really NEED: love and connection and time.
WHAT DOES SPOILING TEACH A CHILD ABOUT THE WORLD AND ABOUT HIS RELATIONSHIP TO HIS MOTHER AND FATHER? WHAT IS THE TAKEAWAY ABOUT KEEPING THEM FROM BEING “SPOILED?”
There’s a reason we worry about spoiling our kids by giving them too much stuff. When kids are given whatever they want all the time, they lose opportunities to build resilience and learn important life lessons: about delaying gratification, about having to work for something, about dealing with disappointment. Having a sense of entitlement, as opposed to an attitude of gratitude, can affect relationships in the future when the entitled mindset comes across to others. So instead, we want to give our kids practice at having to delay gratification and even do without, so they can build resilience and learn to handle disappointment.
We also want them to have to deal emotionally with difficult experiences. Some parents find their child's unfinished homework on the kitchen table and complete it themselves before running it up to school in order to protect their child from having to face the consequences of a late assignment. Or they call another parent to ask for an invitation to a birthday party that their child caught wind of, but was not invited to. These responses create an expectation in the child that they will experience a utopia-like existence, and as a result, they may be unable to handle it when life doesn't turn out so perfect.
CAN A CHILD BE SPOILED AT HOME AND HAVE IT NOT IMPACT HIS WORLD OUTSIDE OF THE HOME, WITH FRIENDS, TEACHERS, COACHES, AND DOWN THE ROAD, FUTURE ROMANTIC PARTNERS OR EMPLOYERS? OR WILL BEING SPOILED BLEED INTO OTHER AREAS OF A KID’S LIFE? (I THINK ABOUT THOSE CHILDREN WHO KEEP IT TOGETHER AT SCHOOL BUT ACT OUT AT HOME.)
See answer above regarding how it affects future relationships. I think it usually bleeds into other areas because the repeated experiences that parents give their children wire their brains for what to expect in relationships, with authority figures, etc. Now, if a coach or a teacher requires something different from the child and the child learns that with this one adult, they will have to work harder, they often will rise to the challenge.
AS PARENTS, I THINK MANY OF US INADVERTENTLY SPOIL OUR CHILDREN BECAUSE, OF COURSE, WE LOVE THEM AND WANT TO SHOWER THEM WITH LOVE, PRESENTS, AND ATTENTION, THEN SUDDENLY WE FIND OURSELVES IN AN UNPLEASANT SITUATION. WHAT DOES SPOILING DO TO US AS PARENTS? HOW DOES IT IMPACT OUR LIVES?
For parents, sometimes we rely on overindulgence or not saying no because it's easier in the moment. Other times we shower our kids with stuff (remember that showering with love and attention isn't going to spoil, as long as we’re also willing to set limits or boundaries) because we enjoy it so much. We just have to remember what is best for our kids in the long-run.
Saying yes to that second or third treat of the day may be easier in the short term because it avoids a meltdown or helps us survive the moment. But then what about tomorrow? Will treats be expected tomorrow as well? The brain makes associations from all of our experiences. Spoiling makes things harder on us as parents because we're constantly having to deal with the demands or the meltdowns that result from times things don't go our kids’ way.
Parents can start a new path by telling their child what’s going to change. For example: "We've been watching a lot of TV each day, and it's not really working for our family anymore. We're going to start a new plan on Monday." Then, follow through.
WHY DOESN’T SPOILING WORK? AS AN ADULT, IF SOMEONE GRANTED MY EVERY WISH, BOUGHT ME WHATEVER I WANTED, AND NEVER SAID NO TO ME, I THINK I’D BE PRETTY HAPPY. WHY ISN’T A 6 OR 10 OR 15 YEAR OLD HAPPY WHEN THEY ARE SPOILED?
They're unhappy because people and their world turn out not to be so much at their disposal. They have a harder time enjoying the smaller joys and the triumph of creating their own world if others have always done it for them. True confidence and competence come not from succeeding at getting what we want, but from our own accomplishments and achieving mastery of something on our own.
Further, if a child hasn't had practice dealing with the emotions that come with not getting what they want and then adapting their attitude and comforting themselves, then it's going to be quite difficult to do so later when disappointments get bigger.
Depending on the age, I think it's possible that kids might have a sense that their parents don't care enough to set a boundary or that the parent thinks the child is a bit fragile and can't handle a "no." In the book Nurture Shock, Bronson and Merryman cite research that states that for adolescents, when their teachers don't criticize them, they assume it means the teacher doesn't have much faith in their ability and doesn't feel like it's worth it to push them a bit, whereas the kids whose teachers were bugging them to do better, felt that the teachers believed in them.
Happiness and confidence come from connection in relationship, being part of something meaningful, and from our own accomplishments.
HOW DO WE KNOW IF WE’RE SPOILING OUR OWN CHILDREN? HOW CAN WE SPOT IT? AND IF WE ARE ON THAT PATH, HOW DO WE GET OFF IT? CAN YOU GIVE US SOME GENERAL GUIDELINES HERE?
Listen, it's normal for kids to be upset when they don't get what they want. Just like we're disappointed when we can't buy something we'd like. Young children often have meltdowns when things don't go their way, and they often are demanding of their parents: "Bring me some juice!" If we allow this without addressing it or asking our children to do things differently when they're able to, or if our children as they get older don't seem to be able to bounce back quickly from not getting what they want, then we ought to evaluate if they're expecting the world to be at their disposal and what we can do to give them new experiences to shape their brain to handle things in better ways.
I think as a general rule, when it comes to what we’re giving our kids, I’d recommend focusing not so much on what we need to give less of – presents and more stuff – and more about what we need to give more of: our time and attention. Watch for ways, throughout the year, to set up family rituals that create memories; to teach about giving to others, to allow kids to participate in generosity, whether that means making gifts or actually doing the shopping with you when you give to others. Sometimes parents simply need to replace indulging materially with indulging affectionately.