Is your child spoilt?

You’ve seen the warning signs in other children. Lying in the supermarket aisles screaming the place down. Pushing and shoving other children and being rude to grandma. But do you have a blind spot with your own child?

writes Dr Nicola Davies


It’s natural for parents to want their children to have everything. But giving them what they want, when they want it, isn’t always beneficial to their long-term personal, emotional and social development. So when does giving your child the best tip over into spoiling?


In a mini-survey, pre-school staff and parents of young children were asked what they thought was the most common indicator that children are being spoiled. They all responded the same: throwing a tantrum when they don’t get what they want.


All agreed that children are spoiled when they insist on having their own way and respond with threats, screaming, or even hitting, when they don’t. They also raised another trigger point for spoiling: children are spoiled when they are given too many toys or gadgets.


Tantrums may not be the trouble


Tantrums are actually not always a sign of being spoiled. Developmental paediatricians say that toddlers, who aren’t yet adept at using words to articulate their feelings and thoughts often throw tantrums out of frustration. For children aged one to three, throwing an occasional tantrum may be within the normal range of behaviour.


Also, children who are overly stimulated, tired or hungry, may have

a ‘meltdown’ in public. Although this looks and sounds like a tantrum, it usually stems from physiological discomfort or the inability to cope with environmental stress. Throwing a tantrum is more of a manipulative behaviour aimed at gaining attention

or getting their own way.


A more accurate sign that children are being spoiled is when their behaviour towards their parents, teachers and peers is disrespectful and inappropriate for their developmental age.


‘Spoiled’ means ‘overindulged’


We commonly use the word ‘spoiled’ to describe children who are demanding, self-centred, rude, stubborn, and who refuse to respect the authority of their parents or teachers. Developmental experts prefer the term ‘overindulged’ which holds less negative connotations.


Parents, and grandparents, may be guilty of overindulging children

by buying them too many clothes or too many toys, or giving them too much attention and too much liberty. Instead of teaching children how to look after themselves and their things, adults do everything for them. Kids are allowed to do what they want, when

they want, often because it’s easier for parents than putting their foot down.


Why parents spoil kids


There are three ways you can overindulge or spoil your children: by giving them too many things; by doing too many things for them; and by being inconsistent in setting boundaries.


No parent sets out to overindulge their children. Most child behaviour experts say that, often, we overindulge our children and give them what they want because we think this shows we love them. We want them to be happy and to have good self-esteem, so we panic when they are in tears.


Parents sometimes even manipulate circumstances so that children ‘win’ a lot and their whims are gratified much of the time. In reality, knowing how to handle loss or defeat is an important

skill for children to learn.


It’s understandable when parents feel they simply don’t have the energy to teach children to do chores around the house – it’s a lot faster if you do it yourself. But hard work and perseverance are crucial traits of successful people and children need to learn this: they don’t know it instinctively.


It’s also all too easy to overlook setting – and sticking to – behavioural boundaries and household rules, and to fail to follow through with consequences of misbehaviour. After all, we are

overworked and stressed. Our own consistency in discipline will give children working models for their emotional self regulation:

if we don’t set boundaries, it is unlikely that our children will do either, when they become adults.


There is also an understandable and very real fear that children might end up resenting or hating you if you are firm with boundaries. In particular, when going through painful experiences,

such as parental separation or divorce, sickness, injury, or death in the family, parents often allow children more liberty and more things. Although the intention is to divert them from the

unpleasant feelings and situations that confront them, parents forget that learning how to handle fear is also an important lesson.


Dangers of spoiling


When our children get things they want too easily, they develop a sense of entitlement. Faced with challenges in life, they easily feel frustrated and give up. When they suffer defeat or failure, they may feel emotionally overwhelmed: they find it difficult to accept or work through challenges.


When children always get their own way and always get what they want, they tend to exhibit poorly developed social and communication skills.


They don’t learn how to negotiate or share. When they don’t learn

how to accomplish activities of daily living such as household chores, they lack life skills that other children their age have already developed.


More importantly, when children are the centre of attention at home and are lavished with undeserved praise, they tend to become self-absorbed, self-centred and lacking in empathy for others. They don’t have a sense of responsibility for their own actions, or a sense of how their actions affect others. This can make later life and relationships extremely difficult for them.


Can spoiling ever be good?


Most parents, and indeed anyone who has any interaction with children whatsoever, would probably agree that spoiling can never be a ‘good’ thing, no matter what the circumstances. If children are ill or unhappy, parents often feel an almost irresistible urge to indulge them. And grandparents, seeking to be loved and accepted, may find it hard not to over-indulge. But spoiling almost inevitably sets up problems for the future.


‘Too much of everything is never beneficial. We can reward our children for good deeds but we cannot give them what they want just to pacify them,’ says Lotte, mother of seven year-old Leona.

And Mylene, mother of three-year old Kai, adds: ‘The very meaning of the word “spoil” means to destroy the value or quality. It means that children are led to destroy themselves.’


Consistency is key


Sadly, spoilt children become ‘spoiled’ literally – that is, their qualities as individuals are impaired when they are overindulged. Most experts agree that parental consistency is key to avoiding

the danger of overindulging children. Help them to thrive by being consistent with praise and encouraging them to recognise that they can get through difficult times. This will make them much happier than if they always get just what they want.



China’s Little Emperors...


In 1979, to stem the country’s burgeoning population growth, China declared that couples could only have one child. Married couples had to pay stiff penalties if they had a second child.


A generation of Chinese children grew up coddled, showered with gifts and attention, and lacking in socialisation skills and discipline. In their homes, these children often reigned and their every whim was catered to. The behaviour of these children in school and later on, as adults at work, was so marked that it has been dubbed the ‘Little Emperor Syndrome’.


A study published in 2013 by Monash University in Australia looked

at the impact on children of being the only child in the family. The

behaviours and personalities of children born before the One Child

Policy came into effect, and after, were measured and compared. The researchers found that only children who were overindulged were less trusting, less conscientious, more averse to taking risks, and had more pessimistic outlooks. This study is often cited to illustrate how overindulging children impacts on their personality and emotional responses in the long-term.


Signs that children are spoiled


‘When they have things that are not appropriate for their age, like gadgets for toddlers. When they throw tantrums because they don’t get what they want. When they get wild in public and don’t accept a “no” from their parents. When they don’t show respect and hit their parents or ignore their instructions and warnings’

Mylene, mother of three-year-old Kai.


‘When they get easily frustrated because they don’t get what they want. When they won’t share with other kids. When they always want to win when they play games with other children’

– Maria, mother of 5-year-old Jose Luis.


‘When they insist on what they want, usually using a loud voice to get attention’

– Lotte, mother of seven-year-old Leona.


‘When they are selfi sh or when they boss other children around. When they want and demand toys, clothes or their favourite food’

– Jenny, preschool teacher.


November/December 2015

All information is correct at time of publishing