It started innocently enough: a little pink top from Winners one week, a dollar store dolly and Tweety Bird cookie the next. But before long, I was buying my four-year-old a toy or treat almost every day. It didn’t occur to me that I might be overdoing it until she started answering the door with “Hi, what did you bring me?” Then alarm bells went off. Was I turning my daughter, Scotia, into a spoiled brat?
Most parents bump up against the S-word at some point — usually when Johnny is clamouring for more toys, candy or to get his own way. It’s a term many child-rearing experts don’t like using. “It’s calling your child a name, and it’s not always clear what it means,” says Calgary child psychologist Roslyn Mendelson. How many toys or tantrums does a spoiled child make?
That depends more on how a child behaves than on what he possesses, say the experts. It’s natural for kids to want more, more, more. But how do they handle the word “no”? There’s nothing wrong with giving your child a treat. But if you’re stuck in traffic and come home empty-handed, is a tantrum guaranteed? “There are lots of children who have lots of stuff, but they don’t necessarily have a sense of entitlement — that they should get everything they want and deserve everything they get,” says Mendelson.
While no parent wants to raise a greedy, demanding child, we do all want our children to be happy. And that makes parents easy prey for the spoiling traps.
The “guilt” trap
My prezzie-a-day habit started when I went back to work full-time, and Scotia made it loud and clear she wanted Mommy, not daycare. No question about it, those shopping expeditions were fuelled by guilt.
Guilt-ridden parents, especially working parents and divorced or separated parents, can be tempted to overindulge and under-discipline, says Michelle Moreau, a child and family therapist in Saint John. “We’re busy, we’re tired, and we don’t want to spend what little time we have with our kids fighting. We tend to give in to avoid any friction in the moment, without considering the long-term consequences.”
Escape strategy: “While we don’t really believe buying our kids ‘stuff’ is a substitute for our time, our actions can imply that,” says Lorna Blumen, a family educator with the Parent Education Network in Toronto. And children are very good at picking up cues from our behaviour. Try to resist the urge to splurge and instead carve out some time every day, even if it’s only a few minutes, when you can give your child your undivided attention. Toronto mom Jill Riley* used to dread walking in the door from work because her six-year-old son would immediately start pleading with her to play Batman. “I felt guilty that I was away from him all day, so I’d sit through this agonizingly boring game night after night for what seemed like hours,” she recalls. “Finally, I told him, ‘OK, we’ll play Batman for 20 minutes when I get home from work, then Mommy has to make dinner. He was perfectly happy with that and I started having fun once I knew I only had to be the Joker or the Riddler for 20 minutes.”
Children need firm, clear limits too — although they’ll try to test them at every turn. When little Zoe is pushing for another cookie before dinner or to stay up another half-hour before bedtime, ask yourself, “What do I want her to learn from this experience?” Probably not that she can always get what she wants if she asks often enough. Once you’ve established your hard and fast rules, be consistent, advises Mississauga, Ont., mom Carole Lee Foster. “If your rule is no buying toys at the grocery store one week and you cave the next, it all goes to hell in a handbasket.”
The “keeping up with the junior Joneses” trap
“Every single one!” of your son’s grade-two classmates is sporting $80 Geox runners, and you’re afraid he’ll feel left out if you don’t buy him a pair too. Some parents, “though they mean well…think their kids should be part of the latest fad because everyone else is,” writes Nancy Samalin in Loving Without Spoiling. Aggressive marketing campaigns targeted directly at kids add fuel to the fire.
Escape strategy: “Kids do need to fit in enough, but you have to find a balance — where they get some of the latest accessories but not everything,” says Blumen. Before getting swept up in the hype, ask yourself, “Does my child really need this? What will happen if I just say no?” An allowance is also a good antidote to over-the-top gimmes. “Ninety-five percent of the time, kids aren’t willing to spend their own money on something they thought they absolutely had to have,” says Blumen. Teresa Simonelli’s son, Alexander, found that out — after the fact. When the 10-year-old wanted an iPod for Christmas, his mom told him flat out, “Santa doesn’t bring iPods.” But when he asked if he could earn it himself, the Woodbridge, Ont., mom agreed. Alexander delivered community newspapers for three months and did a lot of research before finally buying the much-anticipated iPod. “Now he’d like nothing better than to take it back,” says Simonelli. “After seeing how much he had to spend on it, how much it’s taken of his resources, he decided it just wasn’t worth it. It really taught him a valuable lesson.”
The “smother love” trap
My daughter, now almost six, still expects me to zip up her coat and her boots. Sure, the zippers sometimes stick, but that’s not really the problem. I’ve always been too quick to do everything for her (it’s hard to resist babying my only “baby”) and now she takes my “help” for granted. “The trouble with always helping your child — whether she’s an only child or one of three — is you’re teaching her dependence when she’s capable of independence,” says Mendelson. “You’re teaching her that you’ll cater to her when she’s capable of doing for herself.”
Escape strategy: Try to resist the urge to jump in and do for your child what she’s developmentally capable of doing for herself. That’s not to say you should never carry your three-year-old when she’s tired, or fetch your teenager a snack when he’s beavering away on an essay — those are gestures of loving care that help strengthen the bond between the two of you. Occasional indulgences are fine, provided that most of the time you are also encouraging your kids to figure out how to get what they want and need themselves, says Moreau, “to instill a sense of capability and self-confidence so they feel good about dealing with the world.” Dartmouth, NS, mom Kendra Cruickshank began teaching her only child, Morgan, six, to pitch in and help at an early age. “If she eats in the playroom as a special treat, she has to bring her dirty dishes to the sink or she doesn’t get to eat there the next time.”
The “trying to be your child’s bestfriend” trap
“You’re the worst mommy I ever had!” I heard a tiny tyke shout when her mother refused to buy her an ice cream cone at our local park. The poor mom looked stricken and started searching through her purse for change. “Some parents worry that their children may start loving them less if they say no too often,” says Michele Borba, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know: Getting Back to Basics and Raising Happy Kids.
Escape strategy: Give yourself permission to say no, and give your child permission to be angry and upset with you when you do, says Borba. “Good parenting isn’t a popularity contest. It isn’t about making sure your child is always happy. You run into problems when you try to be your child’s friend rather than her parent.” Your job is to set limits and help your child learn to cope with disappointment and frustration, even if it means being a party pooper some (OK, a lot) of the time. When your toddler says she hates you, take a deep breath and stand your ground. Let her know that you still love her, but you won’t give in to unreasonable demands or allow her to misbehave.
Can You spoil a baby?
It’s impossible to spoil a baby during the first six months, the experts agree, so pamper her to your heart’s content. “The job of a parent of an infant is to meet that infant’s needs,” says Calgary child psychologist Roslyn Mendelson. “By promptly responding to her cries to be held or fed, you teach her that the world is predictable — a place where she’ll be nurtured and comforted. It teaches her trust and increases the parent-child bond.” But when your tot becomes mobile, it’s time to set some appropriate limits. “You start teaching them the word ‘no’ when they start reaching for your great-aunt’s china figurine on the coffee table,” laughs Mendelson. “You want to gently teach the word ‘no’ by saying no and redirecting. Just don’t expect them to understand and respond to it immediately. It’s a process; it takes a long time for them to get it. They have to be developmentally ready.”
In the meantime, make it your job to run defence on behalf of your baby — and Great-Aunt Alice’s treasured figurine.
*Name changed by request.