When you picture a spoiled child, you may think of a kid with a house full of extravagant toys. But child discipline experts say its behaviors — not possessions — that define the spoiled child.
“A spoiled child is one who’s demanding, self-centered, and unreasonable,” says Harvey Karp, MD, creator of The Happiest Toddler on the Block DVD and book. He tells WebMD spoiled children may be easier to get along with when they get their way, but giving in to their demands ultimately makes them feel isolated and confused. “There is a seed of discontent that you sow when you allow a child to be spoiled,” he says. “They’ve used so much manipulation to get what they want, they don’t know when someone is genuinely giving to them.”
Psychologist Ruth A. Peters, PhD, author of the child discipline manual Laying Down the Law, agrees. “Spoiling doesn’t prepare them for anything but heartache later in life,” she says, adding that a spoiled child typically grows into a spoiled adult, and spoiled adults have trouble maintaining a job, a spouse, and friendships.
So how can you tell if you’re spoiling? Read on to learn 10 common mistakes parents make that can allow a child to become spoiled. If some of these sound familiar, don’t worry — it’s never too late to change course.
1. Making Your Child the Center of the World
Making your child’s wishes the top priority in every circumstance teaches her that the world revolves around her. This could prevent her from learning to consider other people’s needs and desires, says Susan Buttross, MD, chief of the Division of Child Development and Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “Children need to understand give and take,” she tells WebMD. “When take is the only function they know, they tend to be frustrated.”
2. Ignoring Positive Behavior
Today’s busy parents may not notice when children play quietly or stay out of trouble. If you never let them know when you are pleased, Karp says, you miss the opportunity to reinforce positive behavior.
3. Accidently Rewarding Negative Behavior
Karp tells WebMD many parents make the mistake of simultaneously ignoring the positive and rewarding the negative. If you only notice your kids when they whine and cry, you send the message that tantrums and tears are the best way to get your attention.
4. Failing to put Clear Limits on Your Child’s Behavior
If you don’t set and enforce guidelines for good behavior, Buttross says, you’re likely to raise a child who is rude, uncooperative, and disrespectful. Karp adds that young kids are uncivilized by nature — part of your job as a parent is to teach social virtues, such as patience and respect.
5. Not Enforcing Rules Consistently
While some parents fail to set limits, others set “mushy or inconsistent” ones, Karp says. This occurs when you tell your kids, “Don’t do that,” but allow them to do it anyway. Examples of inconsistent limits are allowing your toddler to play with his food on some days but not on others or allowing an older child to violate her curfew when you just can’t muster the energy to fight about it. If you don’t enforce rules consistently, you give your child the message that they’re really not that important. And of course what you really want to teach your child is the opposite.
6. Picking Fights You Can’t Win
“You can win the battle of not giving your child candy,” Karp says, so no-candy rules are worth upholding. But there are many other standards that are much harder to enforce — such as making your child eat broccoli. “They can close their mouths or spit it out,” Karp points out. In cases like this, you are destined to lose the battle before it begins. And unfortunately, the consequences of this loss go far beyond wasted broccoli — picking fights you can’t win proves to your kids that they can defy you and get away with it.
7. Not Holding Your Child Accountable
Refusing to hold your child accountable when he does something wrong sends the message that he never makes a mistake, Buttross says. This teaches your child to blame others whenever problems arise. Instead, teach your child the importance of taking responsibility for his own actions and then user firm boundaries to make sure he does so.
8. Giving Your Child Gifts for the Wrong Reasons
What you buy your children is not as important as why, Peters tells WebMD. She cautions against making “unreasonable” purchases, such as buying your child a new bike because she is bored with the one you bought her a few months ago.
Another common mistake is buying out of guilt, Karp says. When a child makes a pitiful face or says, “You’re the worst mother in the world,” this is not the time to buy a gift. Allowing yourself to be manipulated won’t do your kid any favors. She may get what she wants, but her joy will be diminished in knowing that you bought the gift because she goaded you into it.
9. Giving in to Temper Tantrums
Relenting when your child throws a temper tantrum is an extreme form of rewarding negative behavior. It proves to kids that they can get whatever they want by throwing a fit — which is not how things work in the real world. “If you throw a temper tantrum as an adult, bad things happen,” Peters points out.
10. Acting Like a Spoiled Child Yourself
How you interact with your family serves as a model for how your children will behave with others, Karp says. “If you whine and complain in front of [your kids], they will emulate that.” He says the proverb has it right — “They do what you do, not what you say.”