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Is Your Child Spoiled?

Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings,  I teach parent education and parenting classes because parenting is a skill—not something we are born knowing. Get the parenting skills you need today!

Is Your Child Spoiled?

Elisabeth Stitt

Last week I was talking to a dad who was concerned about whether or not perhaps his daughter was a little spoiled.  He had taken her out for their weekly dad/daughter outing and right after she saw a toy in the window and asked her dad to buy it for her.  To him that felt like a lack of appreciation for the outing they had just had.  


Has a similar situation happened to you?

Here is the short answer I gave:  In this case, the daughter is not registering the dad/daughter outing as a special treat.  And that’s a good thing!  That means that Dad has done a really good job of making that precious dad/daughter time so regular that she expects it as part of a normal dad/daughter relationship. Lucky girl!  

As to requesting a toy, unless there is a clear expectation in the family like “Toys are for Christmas and Birthdays” or “You are welcome to buy it with your own money,” how is a six year old to know when it is okay to ask for a new toy?  Given that everything she has comes from her parents, it is a lot to sort out if this is a reasonable request or if it is a special request.  

Even if a six year old is mature enough to recognize she is making a special request, the real sign of whether or not she is spoiled is how she responds when her parent says no.  If when she hears no, she sighs or frowns, that shows disappointment but also acceptance.  If she has a complete meltdown or starts calling her parents names, then it is more likely that experience has taught her that when she asks for things she can absolutely expect to get them (Think Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  If that is the case, being denied something will come as a pretty big shock.  Alternatively, she might have learned that when she throws a big fit she does, in fact, get her in way.  In which case, why shouldn’t she throw a fit?  To her it is just part of the game.  


When it comes to “spoiling,” this is when I see problems:

  1. Parents deny their children something only to give in in the face of whiny, petulant, disruptive behavior.
  2. Parents give their children everything always, so children never learn to handle disappointment.
  3. Parents give their children everything always, so children develop a warped sense of entitlement and fail to recognize the difference between needs and wants. 


1. Parents deny their children something only to give in in the face of whiny, petulant, disruptive behavior.

The solution to Problem 1 is for the parents to get really clear in their own minds about when and why they are saying no to something.  This will help them be consistent in the heat of the moment—and just as important, help them articulate their thinking to their kids.  Personally, I find it easier to come to decisions about likely requests and to let the kids know ahead of time.  For example, even before she could talk, I would tell my daughter as we were headed into the store, “We are only getting what is on the list plus a cookie from the bakery if shopping goes well.”  As she got older, if she asked for something that wasn’t on the list (and it was something I was willing for her to have), I would say, “We’ll put it on the list for next time.”  If it wasn’t something I was willing for her to have, I would tell her why (“We don’t buy cereal where sugar is the second ingredient listed”).  

Whether it is how long you are going to stay at the park or how many books a child may check out from the library, letting kids know ahead of time, cuts down on their requests.  If they still make the request, try saying, “I know it can be hard to limit yourself. Should we write the eleventh title down for next time?”  (As a complete side note, this has become much easier in the day of the smart phone because if need be, you actually can write down the requests for next time.  Of course, that does hold you accountable, so don’t say “We’ll write it down” with the hope that your child will forget.  If you really don’t want your child checking out The 10 Scariest Monsters You’ll Ever Find Under Your Bed, then let them know straight off that you think the book is too mature for them.)  The more you anticipate and talk about expectations ahead of time, the easier life will be.  You can’t expect a child to know, for example, the difference between the cost of a movie ticket and the price of admissions to a professional sports game.  Therefore, when they ask for a souvenir, you shouldn’t feel that they are being any more ungrateful than if they ask for a hotdog at the movies.  If you know that a souvenir is going to feel unreasonable to you, let the child know that this time they just have to hold the experience in their heart and memory.  Alternatively, if you give the child enough planning time (and do a little research on line to find out the likely cost of things), the child might wish to save up to buy a souvenir with her own money.  

2. Parents give their children everything always, so children never learn to handle disappointment.

Problem 2 usually comes up because the parent is actively trying to avoid Problem 1.  It is hard for most parents when their children are upset or unhappy, and many parents will do whatever they can to to make their child happy.  Some parents are very clear in their mind that their children will face reality soon enough, and in the short run kids should be happy as much as possible.  There is some truth to that, but where it breaks down in my mind is that it is short sighted.  There are many things we ask of our children because as parents we are keeping the big picture in mind:  Things like not brushing their teeth, eating their vegetables or getting enough sleep are not a problem on any one given day, but if there is a pattern of poor dental hygiene and nutrition, children will suffer in the long run.  Less obvious, but still true, children whose desires are instantly met, never develop delayed gratification—a skill that helps them learn to manage their wants and urges later in life.  

3. Parents give their children everything always, so children develop a warped sense of entitlement and fail to recognize the difference between needs and wants. 

Problem 3 usually comes because the parents have more than enough resources, so they seldom have to think about what they spend.  Thus where the decision to buy a child an iPad is a fiscal one for most of us, for some, money doesn’t come into question.  Again, that is not necessarily bad (who wouldn’t like to have that kind of money?), but it does mean that a child from such a household may have little awareness that they are getting something easily that is likely a big deal in another family or that there even are limits.  When the child then makes a demand that the parents do say no to (“Dad, can we fly to Paris this weekend?”), the child truly feels the parent has let them down when they say no.  At the same time, the parent can feel the child is ungrateful without taking into consideration that they haven’t taught the child any boundaries—and that your average child doesn’t understand the difference in cost between driving down to L.A. and hopping on a plane to Paris.  

Your parents may give you everything you want, but the rest of the world is not likely to.

Aside from the parents’ feeling used when their child is “ungrateful,” getting everything you want all the time really does make accepting real life later on more difficult.  And real life comes soon.  The child who has been given everything in order to be kept happy has a much harder adjustment to kindergarten when she now has to wait her turn, make due with only one serving of crackers and cannot disturb the other children at nap time even if she isn’t sleepy.  Of course, it is possible for parents to be extremely generous and teach their kids to be thoughtful and considerate of others and to recognize that just because they get most of what they want much of the time, that does not mean they get everything they want all the time.  A child who accepts that graciously is not spoiled, just privileged.  

Getting too much or getting things too easily makes things lose their value. 

Of real concern, however, is that another side effect of having too much too easily is that things lose their value.  Nothing seems special.  Kids become blasé—weary from overindulgences in the pleasures of life.  Think back to the Middle Ages when daily life was truly hard, characterized by relentless work, poor nutrition, poor sanitation and sickness.  Think what a holiday (literally Holy Day) meant—to put down your hoe or hammer and take the day off for prayer and also for singing and dancing and perhaps a special treat of meat or a sweet.  Holidays were important and to be treasured. Imagine how boring life gets when there is nothing special to get excited about.  In a world of Amazon Prime, we get things almost too easily:  For example, it makes me sad that raspberries are now available in the market virtually year round.  They used to be something precious, something to savor, something dependent on the whims of a growing season that truly marked the presence of summer.  Now they are just another (albeit pricey) fruit.  When we say no to our children, we increase their pleasure on those occasions we do say yes. In the same way, asking kids to help reach a goal (say of buying that iPad) also gives them increased pleasure because there is satisfaction in knowing that you have worked for something you want (This is human nature. Isn’t it more exhilarating to reach the end of a mile trek that has climbed steeply compared to a mile down a country late?  Challenge heightens our experience—our pleasure—in what we get and experience.)   

Knowing the difference between a want and a need is an important life skill.  

Even if you do have more than enough resources to meet your child’s every desire, a) you might not always have them and b) your children might not have the same resources when they grow up.  Teaching your children the difference between want and need from a young age, will help them develop the discipline they need to be financially sound as adults.  Some parents have the rule that they will pay for any of their child’s needs, but the child is responsible for her wants.  Bill Dwight of extends that principle to items like shampoo:  Clearly kids need to wash their hair, so Dad will provide shampoo.  If your child needs the $30 500ml bottle of Biolage Advanced Keratindose Shampoo because that is what Miley Cyrus is using, the $25 dollar difference is going to come from the child; Dad will pay the $5 he would spend to pick up shampoo at Walgreens.  (That’s not to say a parent can’t surprise a child with a luxury item from time to time just for fun, but it should be random enough and seldom enough that the child doesn’t come to expect it as her due.) 

At the end of the day, being “spoiled” is not a question of how much you have or get; it is about how you feel about what you have or get.  If you both truly appreciate and recognize the value of all that you have and get, you will never be truly spoiled (though you might be out of touch with the reality experienced by most of the people around you).  

Being clear about why you say yes or no is a great first step for parents who are worried that their kids might be spoiled.  

Need some help working through what limits and boundaries you are comfortable with and what will truly benefit your child the most?  Because nobody can give you the answer to that in a book (or in a blog), that is an excellent topic for coaching.  I'd be happy to help!