In the pediatric office today, parents often bring up spoiling, as that mother did last week, in reference to young babies, sleep and feeding. It's as if the later, more confusing questions about how to respond to a child's demands crystallize in those early months when the new baby cries and the parents worry.
The official pediatric line — I said some version of this to that mother last week — is that you can't spoil babies by taking good care of them. But even that doesn't turn out to be simple.
"It's important to be there and to be responsive and responsible, but it also doesn't mean that you have to be totally at the whim of the baby," said Dr. Pamela High, a professor of pediatrics at Brown University and medical director of the Fussy Baby Clinic at the Brown Center for the Study of Children. "You're teaching them patterns and routine and regularity."
Parents can meet a baby's needs while still allowing her a chance to learn to settle down and sleep without being held. In a randomized study on babies with colic that was published this year by Dr. High's group, when parents got help with issues of feeding, sleep, routine and their own mental health, those colicky babies cried less and slept more.
As children get older, setting limits and establishing family routines and expectations gets more complicated. But it's still a question of balancing immediate gratification and larger life lessons.
It's also an area where we still feel comfortable and righteous blaming and judging other parents — and ourselves.
Problematic childhood behaviors once attributed to incompetent or destructive parenting are now understood to be hard-wired, set by genetics, reflecting neurological differences. We don't blame bad parenting for autism now, or A.D.H.D. But "spoiled" evokes traits and behaviors for which we're often quick to hold parents responsible.
As Roald Dahl put it in 1964 in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "A girl can't spoil herself, you know."
Image: Angry girl, via Shutterstock