Spoil-proof Your Kids: How to Raise a Child of Character: Lesson 4
If there is one word that is associated with indulgent child rearing, it is spoiled. We’ve all seen kids who are spoiled. There’s a greediness about them. They throw tantrums in toy stores when their parents won’t buy them what they want. They always seem to want more and expect to get their own way. They have trouble sharing. The needs of family, friends, and the wider world recede like the earth in the rearview mirror of a starship.
We see the spoiled child as tainted and devalued. He has been overindulged and over-praised. He has not had to earn what he has: it has been given to him. An essential part of what we talk about when we talk about character is missing in him. He lacks integrity, fortitude, and a moral center. And it’s not just adults who notice bratty behavior. One 17-year-old girl I interviewed said: “About half the kids I know are really spoiled and they know it. They can get away with anything. It doesn’t matter what they do, their parents are like, ‘Oh, it’s okay, honey.'”
What exactly does it mean to be spoiled? Here are some examples: Spoiled kids expect to get away with everything. They expect special favors from friends and teachers (an extension on an assignment, for example). They get an allowance without having to do chores. They don’t have to obey rules at home, such as having to be home at a certain hour. And in general, they get too much leniency from their parents.
While America has changed a lot over the past year, we still live in relative affluence. The sense of entitlement so many of our kids developed before the economy began to weaken will not simply fade away just because the household income may have decreased. How many of us have watched our kids ripping into their presents on Christmas or Hanukah and then just tossing them aside? The getting, not the having, is what matters to them.
“Enough is enough!” we want to say to our kids. But how many of us, as parents, live our lives that way? For example, a friend of mine took her kids to the Washington monument. When she grew tired of waiting in the long line, she used a connection she had to get to the front of it. The next week she happened to be at her son’s school, and she saw him cut to the front of a line of kids waiting for the water fountain. She was immediately stricken by guilt at the part she had played in moderating this kind of behavior.
Let me stress that being spoiled is not just a rich kid’s disease. Although having money often makes it easier to externalize both problems and cures (buying material goods extravagantly, paying for the best psychologists, schools, and rehab treatments), parents without a lot of money can do the same thing. By not requiring their children to take sufficient responsibility for their actions or giving in easily to their demands, one can spoil children without spending a dime.
The kids I’ve talked to often made this distinction: spoiled was not necessarily a surfeit of money or material possessions; it was an attitude of not helping, not participating, not chipping in – of doing only what we want to, when we want to. And, perhaps surprisingly, kids even admitted that getting an allowance without having to do chores was related to being spoiled.
How can you as a parent combat these attitudes? Some parents know that if kids spend money that they’ve earned themselves, they will learn the difference between what they want and what they need. Since kids can be very label-conscious, you can demonstrate the difference between wanting and needing by having your child pay for status brands herself. Alternatively, she can make up the difference in cost between a reasonably priced item and the typically over-priced status item. For example, if a shirt costs $20 at the department store and $40 at Abercrombie and Fitch, your child can contribute $20 for the pricier shirt.
Perhaps the most important finding to come out of my research on the spoiled syndrome was that kids recognize that their parents are often too soft on them. They know that we are letting them get away with more than they should. Yet they also know that in order to be strong, to face the challenges of life, to become the people they want to become, they need our help in building character; in fighting against the atmosphere of indulgence that comes part and parcel with living in the richest society the world has ever known.
Stopping the Spoiling Syndrome
At the beginning of this workshop, you tested yourself to determine how indulgent a parent you really are. Let’s revisit this idea by taking some time to explore whether your child is spoiled and how you may be contributing to the behavior. Here’s a simple checklist to help you get started:
How many of the following scenarios are true for you?
• Your child frequently whines (children who whine a lot usually have found that it is a useful strategy for getting what they want)
• You find yourself doing work around the house while your child is watching TV
• You can’t think of a present for her birthday because she already has so much
• When your child complains about the food that you just served for dinner, you make something else
• You give your child an allowance without asking her to do any chores in return
• You jump in to help with homework at the first sign of trouble
• You grant your child’s every wish without skipping a beat
Now ask yourself these questions:
• Do you know other children whom you consider spoiled?
• Do you recognize their behavior in your own children?
• Do you think an outsider would consider your child spoiled? If yes, why?
As difficult a task as it is to find fault in your child and in yourself, identifying whether your child is indeed spoiled and the situations where you may be supporting this behavior is a necessary step toward ending the cycle. Once you recognize these areas, you can begin to change your own behavior, which will ultimately affect your child’s actions and attitude. For example, if your child is a picky eater – a common problem among parents – do not automatically offer to prepare alternative meals. Instead, attempt to get her interested in trying new foods by letting her help you plan the meals. If that doesn’t work, offer to make something else only after your child has tasted what the rest of the family is eating. If your child is old enough, she can make her own simple substitutions, like a peanut butter sandwich, but nothing that is going to require more mess for you to clean up.
When creating kids of character, much of it comes down to how we act as parents every day. By completing this Spoil-Proof Your Child workshop, you have taken an important step in helping to change your child’s behavior by developing an awareness of your own motivations – why you act the way you do with your kids. With an increased understanding of yourself, and consistent T.L.C. (time, limits and caring) for your children, you now have the tools to raise kids with character: that unshakable sense of self that sees us through life’s vicissitudes and is the foundation of all meaningful relationships.