You’re at the store and your kid asks for a toy. You say no. She kicks up such a fuss that people start whispering to each other.
Every kid throws tantrums, but when the tantrum is because she isn't getting what she wants, you might start to worry: Is my child spoiled?
We live in a culture that celebrates wealth and the accumulation of material possessions—and one where marketers know how to entice kids to buy their stuff (have you seen the commercials for kids' products lately?). So it's no surprise that, even when we have the best of intentions, it can be far too easy to overindulge our children.
It’s hard to strike the right balance: We want our kids to be happy and never feel deprived, but we also want to teach them that there’s more to life than stuff.
It Isn’t Just About Money
We wish we could say, “If you spend more than 50 dollars on your kid for a toy, you’re spoiling her.”
But we can’t.
Although most people think of spoiling as giving too many material goods, we consider it a psychological effect. So exchange your dollar amount definition for this psychological one: When your actions show your children that they’ll always get their way and that everything should come easily, you’re spoiling them, says Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist and co-author of "The Whole-Brain Child."
So, for example, you might actually be “spoiling” your kid if you immediately rush to bring his lunch to him at school after he repeatedly leaves it at home. Even though you’re not actually spending any money, you’re teaching him that his actions don’t have consequences (read this for a few other mistakes parents make when teaching their kids about money.)
But Money Certainly Is a Factor
Spoiling is about the feeling that your child should get everything without having to work for it, including the idea that she should get every material object she asks for. So, even if you can afford the best of everything, you’re not doing her a service by always getting it for her.
Is Your Child Spoiled?
Do you ever worry that your kid is becoming spoiled? How do you deal with that?
Although we can’t put number values on this, we can give you a rule of thumb: Tally what you’ve spent on your child in the past seven days, including toys, fun activities, snacks, books, school supplies, clothes, sports equipment and so on, suggests Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., a faculty member of Harvard Medical School and author of "How to Unspoil Your Child Fast." If the number surprises you or is outside the budget you’ve set for spending on your child, you’re probably spoiling her.
(Check out what a healthy budget should look like, here.)
How to Spot the Spoiled … and the Spoilee
Once you recognize signs that your child is headed down the Path To Spoildom, you can change your own behavior to bring him back to the Land of Solid Ground. According to Dr. Bromfield, some telltale signs your kid is on his way down the slippery slope:
- Constant whining and complaining
- Demanding things all the time and showing little gratitude for what he does have
- Ignoring or negotiating every request you make
- Repeatedly asking for rewards for basic chores or extra money (find out what you should be teaching your kid about finances at every age here)
- Extreme clinginess or the inability to be alone—for example, if he doesn’t seem to enjoy your presence but falls apart when he doesn’t have it (for ages four and up, since younger kids tend to be clingier by nature)
- Asking for help on a task she should be able to do on her own—for example, your nine-year-old keeps asking you to cut her food, or your four-year-old insists you carry her everywhere
- Failure to bounce back from normal childhood disappointments
- Wanting to control the decisions of other family members—from what restaurants to eat at to what color car you purchase
It’s also important to recognize your own spoil-inducing actions. Consider whether you:
- Spend more on your kid’s wants than you have budgeted for
- Buy only top-of-the-line equipment the day your kid joins a new team, signs up for music lessons or starts a sport
- Allow your child to get out of tasks around the house
How to “Unspoil” Them
Even if your kid is already on his way to becoming spoiled, all is not lost. Your goal as a parent is to teach him to weather the natural, and very normal, frustration of not getting what he wants without feeling like his world is ending … or taking it as a sign you don’t love him.
Here are seven ways to “unspoil” your child:
- Set parameters. For example, if you’re out to a store with your child and she wants a toy, tell her she can have it—if she pays for it with her allowance money.
- Announce your intentions, and stick to them. Let it be known what you will and won’t shell out money for (yes, you’ll buy new shirts for school; no, you won’t spend $75 on one name-brand shirt). Even if this leads to more temper tantrums, make your kid respect your authority by refusing to budge.
- Don’t lose your temper. Staying calm helps you and your child. Plus, it models the behavior you expect from him.
- Let natural consequences be your ally. Instead of nagging your teen to get a summer job so she can afford all the activities she wants to do, don’t. If she doesn’t follow through, she’ll just have to skip some of those activities.
- Use praise. When you notice your kid is making a real effort to act differently, let him know that you notice.
- Foster a good work ethic. Even little kids can hold a dustpan or help mix pancake batter.
- Use grand gestures. If you are driving to a restaurant as a treat but your kid starts acting up, turn around and go home. These “shock and awe” moments will make him sit up and realize you mean business—and you don’t even have to yell, nag, threaten, beg or bribe.