Are You Raising a Spoiled Brat?

Kids running you ragged? It's time to rethink discipline.

What Is Spoiled?

No one wants to raise a spoiled kid. But would you know one if you had one? By grandparents' definition, all of today's children -- with their Disney videos, Baby Gap wardrobe, and Gymboree classes -- could be considered spoiled. Also, few parents have the iron hand of previous generations, and for the most part that's good. But sometimes in the effort to be kinder, gentler parents, moms and dads let their sweet little darlings get the upper hand. Some parents put up with truly awful behavior.

Of course, all toddlers interrupt, whine, and throw tantrums, says Rex Forehand, PhD, coauthor of Parenting the Strong-Willed Child (McGraw-Hill, 1996). Those behaviors are normal ways for kids to assert their independence. What's important, he notes, is how parents react. Spoiling occurs when kids are predominantly in charge in the family. The parents have minimal authority, and kids continually get their own way by acting up. In other words, your child isn't spoiled because he whines; he's spoiled if whining consistently works to get him what he wants.

Granted, all toddlers have bratty and less-bratty days, says child psychologist Sal Severe, PhD, author of How to Behave So Your Child Will Too (Viking, 2002). And all parents have days when they cave in instead of standing by the house rules. But when whining, nagging, and misbehaving to get their way becomes a constant, repetitive behavior, you have a problem, says Severe.

To figure out where you stand, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you usually give up in exhaustion rather than enforce limits during a typical day?
  • Do you let your child regularly butt in and take over adult conversations?
  • Do you keep buying toys in an effort to avoid tantrums and keep your child happy -- even though your house is already overflowing?
  • Do you avoid taking him to the supermarket because you can't handle another embarrassing scene?

If you answered yes to more than a couple of these questions, you may be looking at a spoiled child in the making.

It's important to address spoiling now because you're setting up patterns that will stay with your family for years to come. If your 20-month-old has never heard the word no, for instance, how will she handle hearing it when she's 13 and wants to get her navel pierced?

Spoiled kids are those who never had a chance to handle disappointment early on, says Claire Lerner, a child development specialist at Washington, D.C.-based Zero to Three. The lessons they learn as toddlers -- delaying gratification, acting within limits -- will carry through to adulthood.

Why Spoiling Happens

Too much sugar, too many toys, and not enough rules are some of the main ingredients of spoiling. But why do we do it? Here are some of the most common causes.

1. You feel guilty. Today's family dynamics often set the stage for spoiling, says Gail Gross, a child development specialist in Houston. In families where both parents work, or in single-parent homes, the feeling is, "I have so little time with my child, I want it to be fun." Guilt-ridden parents tend to overindulge and underdiscipline their kids, she adds, which makes home life anything but pleasant.

2. You don't have the energy to be consistent. One day you refuse to let your child have pudding for breakfast, despite the tantrum; the next day (when you've been up all night with the baby and are exhausted), you think "Oh, it won't kill him," and give in. Such behavior teaches your child that rules aren't for real.

3. You offer too much help. When a toddler is frustrated, many parents want to jump in and help right away, says Lerner. (Rushed, stressed-out parents do the same thing.) Kids get spoiled because they start relying on Mom or Dad for everything -- getting dressed, finishing a puzzle, fetching a juice box. Your goal is to encourage your child to do things for himself, so he can say, "I can handle this" -- not do it for him, notes Lerner.

4. You want to give him everything you didn't have. Of course, buying stuff for your kids is fun, especially when they move beyond the playing-with-the-boxes phase. But giving kids too much can backfire, leading them to always be looking for the next new thing instead of being satisfied with what they have.

5. You believe he's the ultimate cutup. We've all seen parents who smile as their kids talk back, push other children, or knock over breakable objects. These parents are clueless about how to stop the behavior, so they rationalize it as being cute and funny, points out Severe. It's easier to do that than to face the problem. Other people, however, are much less charmed. And kids who aren't given limits have a difficult time respecting other people and their belongings.

Unspoiling Your Child

The good news is that now is a relatively easy time to reverse the spoiling. For starters, experts agree that parents should set consistent limits; toddlers who have clear boundaries feel secure and are less likely to act out with bratty behavior.

It doesn't really matter what the rules are; it's how consistently you apply them, says Severe. With a toddler, it's best to stick with just three or four nonnegotiatble rules, like "No hitting," "Don't interrupt adults," and "Pick up your toys," because too many orders can overwhelm kids and adults.

If your child throws a tantrum when he doesn't get his way, try to ignore the wailing until it's over. Once your child learns that he won't get the desired attention, he'll be less likely to repeat it. Redirecting is another great ploy. Try diverting your toddler's attention by getting him interested in something else, like his favorite toy.

As difficult as it may be, try not to look at tantrums as a sign of being a bad parent, but as a chance to nip spoiling in the bud, says Lerner. Be firm and clear: "I love you and I'm sorry you're mad, but I'm not giving in and you can't hit or throw things when you don't get your way." It also helps to acknowledge his feelings of frustration. Saying something like, "I know it's really hard to stop playing but it's time to go home," validates his feelings and can make him more cooperative.

It may be tough to resist spoiling now, but the payoff will be huge. Your child will learn how to manage feelings, cooperate, follow rules, and have self-control. These lessons will be beneficial throughout your child's life.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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