No one wants to raise a spoiled child . . . but not all parents know how to prevent it from happening. “A spoiled child is one who, among other things, can't stand to hear ‘no’, and can't deal with frustration,” says Nancy Samalin, director of Parent Guidance Workshops in New York City and author of Loving Without Spoiling & 100 Other Timeless Tips for Raising Terrific Kids. “A child who doesn't really care how you feel; blames others for his/her own misdeeds (‘It's not my fault!’); or suffers from an advanced case of the ‘gimmes’ is exhibiting many of the traits of a spoiled child.”
DON’T INDULGE EVERY REQUEST
“But I want the BLUE cup!”
Although setting even small boundaries for children sounds easy, parents don’t always do it. A home without boundaries, however, stifles children’s emotional growth. Teaching children to be good thinkers and meet critical academic goals is important, but helping them learn to delay gratification, deal with frustration and resolve their own problems teaches children what they will really need to succeed in life and their world. By letting them reconcile little frustrations on their own, parents are preparing children to handle bigger challenges down the road.
DON’T BE A SAFETY NET
Parents don’t like to see their children struggle, but by stepping in and resolving a child’s issues, parents are taking responsibility away from the child rather than fostering its growth. This teaches the child that someone else is responsible for his happiness and success.
“Running to the rescue and not allowing kids to experience consequences is one of several spoiling traps that parents fall into,” says Samalin. “Being unwilling to see your children frustrated, angry, or unhappy is hard to do, but it is necessary for their growth.”
“Parents, especially mothers, are extraordinarily connected to their child throughout life. But when parents do everything to make sure their child succeeds, neither the parent nor the child will ever achieve autonomy,” adds Dr. Elliott Schuman, a Brooklyn psychoanalyst and professor of psychology at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus.
Lisa Forman, a family counselor at Family Communications Consultants in Westchester, agrees. “It’s important that parents not rescue their kids every five minutes. Don’t do their homework; don’t run them to Staples just before midnight the night before their project is due. This doesn’t teach them how to survive in an adult world. Struggling makes them stronger. If your kid doesn’t make the team or get the play lead, he learns to study harder or try other things.” This, Forman points out, prepares kids to take on a difficult world, one that will only get more difficult as they grow.
JUST SAY ‘NO’
Regardless of a child’s age, most experts agree that saying ‘no’ is a wonderful way to teach children accountability in a very age-appropriate way. Yet many parents find it hard to do, and they are not alone.
“Of course I have trouble saying ‘no’,” says Rebecca Miller*, a Manhattan mother of one. “If you say ‘no’ all the time, you become ‘the nasty old parent’.”
Yet Samalin urges parents not to fall into the ‘Happiness Trap’ of bending over backward to keep children content. “Parents have to be willing to be unpopular, which often means saying ‘no’.”
Longer work hours for parents, more academic and extracurricular demands on children, and less family time have also resulted in parents feeling guilty about short-changing their kids. They often try to make up for their reduced availability by substituting unrequested items (such as gifts), and going easy on the kids when it comes time to discipline.
“We want our kids to be happy every minute and we don’t want any conflict in our house,” says Forman. “We feel guilty if we’re working and not spending time with them. We’re doing too much and are tired when we are with them, so we just don’t want to say ‘no’.”
MAKE TIME FOR CONSEQUENCES
Busy families cannot always make time for consequences. If giving a child a time-out is going to make him late for soccer practice, it’s better to be late. But if this is a recurring problem in your household, it may be time to cut back on some of your activities. By postponing consequences, parents send the message that the rules only apply at opportune moments, thus making it harder for parents to enforce them. But research shows that parents who are inconsistent with rules and boundaries are setting their children up for suffering later in life. “If you can’t say, ‘No, you can’t have another cookie,’ now, how will you say, ‘No, you can’t go to a party where there’s drinking,’ later?” Forman asks. The goal is to teach children to be responsible decision makers. If they are never given responsibility, they will never learn how to handle it.
MAKE “NO” STICK
Many parents agree that saying ‘no’ is easy; it’s sticking to their answer that’s hard. Sometimes it helps to explain why the child’s request is being denied, but not always. When the begging begins, how do you keep from giving in?
Samalin offers a tip for parents: “Don’t say ‘no’ if even a little bit of you means, ‘Well, maybe…’ because children will do anything to try to get parents to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’. They have an uncanny way of knowing when we’re ambivalent about rules and limits.”
Experts advise parents to pick their battles ahead of time so that they know their limits before tensions rise. Once you have distinguished between issues you are willing to negotiate and those you are not, you can follow through on the important battles.
“If you’re going into a toy store with your child to buy a gift for someone,” Miller suggests, “tell your child before you get there, ‘We’re going to buy a gift, and that’s all we’re buying.’”
LIMIT THE ‘STUFF’
As children get older, they tend to request more material things. But, while having the best “stuff” may boost children’s status among peers, it will only make them feel good about what they have, not who they are.
Miller agrees that keeping it simple is best. “I realized the more choices my daughter has (of toys to play with), the more confused she is, which makes my life harder.”
“My kids are more materialistic than I would like,” admits Aurora DeMarco, a Park Slope mom. “But it’s part of the society and what it encourages.”
HOW TO DEAL WITH THE HOLIDAYS
The problem of materialism is even more prevalent during the holidays. Forman suggests talking to kids about the holidays ahead of time. “It’s OK to tell them that getting stuff is not what the holidays are about,” she says.
DeMarco limits the amount of commercial television her children watch, which she feels makes a big difference. “My daughter also organizes CHIPS (a nonprofit charitable organization) drives at school, and this year she ran a lemonade stand to help Hurricane Katrina victims, and raised $172,” she says. “I think the spirit of community service, where there is some sacrifice involved, needs to be there.”
Sometimes well-meaning relatives make it difficult to keep gifts to a minimum. To teach selflessness without causing family rifts:
—If your child receives monetary gifts, help her research charities aimed at something she is interested in and suggest she give a percentage of her gifts to a charity.
—If your child is younger, have him donate a few (unopened) toys he receives for the holidays to a children’s hospital or charity. Visit some beforehand so your child can see who will receive the toys.
Many of us will admit that we get more pleasure from finding a great gift for someone else, so we tend to give a lot to our children because we get pleasure from making them happy. Yet this only teaches children to become receivers. To let them in on the fun of giving, try creating opportunities for children to give to others. Some suggestions:
—As a family, visit a soup kitchen or other charity organization and donate your time.
—Senior living facilities and nursing homes often enjoy having children read or play games with residents to lift their spirits, especially at holiday time.
—Ask questions such as, “What would Daddy really love to get?” Or suggest, “Let’s talk to Aunt Phyllis and see what she likes or likes to do.”
—And giving doesn’t have to be seasonal only. Take children to visit hospitals, soup kitchens or nursing homes throughout the year. Help them come up with ideas to raise money and to for charity in order to make giving a regular part of their lives.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE
Allowing children to struggle and solve their own problems builds strength and self-esteem. Raising awareness about others’ needs teaches personal responsibility. It’s best to begin with setting boundaries when they are young, but it’s also never too late to make a change. While inflicting disappointment and consequences on our children is never easy, experts agree that it’s the best thing parents can do for them.
“Give kids your personal attention,” advises Dr. Schuman. “Kids are made more secure by ‘no’, and especially by the willingness of parents to admit that they make mistakes, don’t have all the answers and aren’t perfect,” he says.
Says Miller: “You want to be popular, but the kids who know their own and their parents’ boundaries are really the ones who are better behaved.”