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Can You Unspoil A Child?

The short answer: Yes, but it takes some doing, say experts.

Originally Published: 
"Unspoiling" a child takes time and a lot of perseverance and TLC.
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Several years ago, I had the privilege of taking a helicopter tour of Hawaii’s Big Island. My husband and I shared the ride with three strangers, a snazzily dressed family: mom, dad, and an 8-ish-year-old son named Alex. As we sailed over Kilauea and Mauna Loa, gasping, the parents nudged their son, repeatedly saying over our shared mic/headphone line, “Alex, did you see that?” “Alex, wasn’t that cool?” Mostly Alex shrugged and stared at his tablet, looking vaguely peeved. I sensed he was, shall we say, very accustomed to doing things most people would count as a once-in-a-lifetime treat — and that, to him, volcanoes and verdant cliffs were just more of the same.

I was pregnant on that trip, and back in the car, we joked that we’d die before we let our kid get so spoiled that he found an $800 chopper ride over gushing lava boring. Luckily, we’ve (mostly) succeeded. But I understand how easy it is to give in and say yes to the mid-store whining fits — or even just the sweet requests from the person you love more than anything — until you realize you’ve caved so reliably that any no hits your kid like a slap.

Spoiling a kid doesn’t typically happen as it seemed to have happened to Alex, with luxuries flowing so abundantly that even the coolest stuff is dull. Rather, it tends to occur on a slippery slope and a smaller scale, and just about any parent is susceptible to it. In fact, a Parents poll found that 42% of readers felt their own child was spoiled — and 80% of those worried it would affect their child’s life in the long run.

How does spoilage develop?

See if this sounds familiar: You’re at the grocery store. The Pez dispensers are at checkout. “Can I have one, Mom?” “Sure, it’s only $2.” Except, next time you’re at Walgreens or the local bookstore, and that Pez dispenser becomes a $28 stuffed animal the size of an infant or a boxed set of every Frog and Toad book, because kids have no concept of money or scale or why one thing was a yes but now this thing is a no. “But why?!” your child asks. People in the aisle turn to look. Is it hot in here? The hell with it, you think, and put it in your cart. Didn’t it feel so good as a kid when your parents said yes to things? Don’t you treat yourself occasionally, too?

Or try this one — a scenario I definitely, definitely am not guilty of. (Sigh.) Your child is an inquisitive little wonder, and you want to encourage all their interests and stoke their joy. “You’re obsessed with dinosaurs, sweetheart? Sure, let’s buy this hyperdetailed Parasaurolophus figure. And the stegosaurus. And the Pteranodon. Aw, look how much he loves Twirlywoos! Let’s trawl U.K. Ebay for weeks until we find the red ship playset and spend more on shipping than we do on a week’s meals.” (Again, this is something I would never, ever do.) After a while, your kid may learn that all he has to say to get what he wants is, “But I’m really into this, Mom.” Even though “this” is just some dumb book of Minions stickers or the ten millionth bouncy ball.

Of course, not every kind of spoiling relates to material goods; there’s also the kind in which less-than-ideal behavior is allowed to persist. Pick your battles, yes. But do fight some of them. A child who incessantly interrupts, a child with little interest in the needs or desires of others, a child who refuses to follow directions — that’s a kind of spoiled, too.

We all mean well, and nobody spoils their kid on purpose. But unspoiling them is something you must do deliberately because it will take time, effort, stick-to-itiveness, and maybe even a little introspection. Here’s what experts recommend.

1. Start by looking inward.

Does it upset you to say no to your kid? If so, is it because you feel that they might not love you as much? Did you grow up in a house where you weren’t always sure how loved you were? See how quickly we got from “I overindulge my kid” to big-deal Freudian stuff? That’s because spoiling a child often has roots in the way you yourself were raised, and in the common view of parenting as “a second chance to make up for all the ways our own parents did not raise us well,” writes Diane Ehrensaft in Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Children Too Much — But Not What They Want. If you want to get to the heart of the spoiling, don’t look at the psyche of the little person asking. Look instead at the person who can’t seem to answer with anything but yes.

2. Halt the bribes.

Rewarding bad behavior with a “please stop doing that” prize is a one-way ticket to Spoilsville, partly because it doesn’t work for longer than a minute or two. That is, you may be winning the battle (or heading one off), but you’re not even coming close to winning the war. Writes Alan Kazdin and Carlo Rotella of Yale’s Parenting Center, you “might get the desired behavior for the moment, but the… behavior will not be locked in as a habit or as an expression of a general characteristic we wish to develop, such as honesty, kindness, or generosity.”

3. Make “no” a complete sentence.

Kids are born negotiators (perhaps you’ve noticed?) and as tenacious as a bull when they’ve got something in their sights. Expect them to ask you multiple times for something they want, even after you’ve said no. One key to making the “no” stick is to avoid explaining too much. Your child isn’t interested in hearing your rationale — so all your explanations do is give them more stuff to argue with. Don’t get roped in.

4. Spoil them in nonmaterial ways.

Pop some popcorn and put on a movie for just the two of you. (We’d also firmly recommend snuggling.) Get on the floor and play with them, even though it’s a slog and your knees creak and dinner isn’t even started. Listen intently to their stories, even the really long and aimless ones. The more your child knows they’re loved, the more they feel contended, at ease, and happy to go about their day without misbehaving or begging. And the more you connect with your child, the less you need to worry that you have to buy their love with laxness — or loot from the toy store.

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