How to Avoid Raising a Spoiled Child

While you want to make your children happy, you also want to raise kind, compassionate people. You want them to become grateful and appreciative adults. Find the perfect balance with our expert tips.

kids feet with naughty corner sign on wall
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Christina Ali admits that her son Issac, 7, is pampered. And she knows exactly why: When Issac was in kindergarten, Ali, who lives in Cooperstown, Pennsylvania, was attending college full-time while also taking care of her twin fifth-graders. Stretched too thin, she slowly began indulging Issac's every wish in an effort to avoid his inevitable tantrums. But his behavior can be out of control. "At the store, he always has to get Matchbox cars or he'll whine or scream. At home, we have to cook a separate meal for him, not what everyone else in the family is having," she says. The result: Issac is overindulged and self-centered—and Ali feels responsible. "I realize now that I shouldn't have given in so often, but I was exhausted and simply trying to salvage my sanity," she says.

Parents cave for all sorts of well-intentioned reasons. We like to please our kids and create happy memories. We want trips to stores and restaurants to be pleasant and hassle-free. Plus, giving in is a lot easier than saying no. Many parents also feel guilty for the time they spend away from their children, whether due to work, the need to run errands, or (heaven forbid) the opportunity to socialize with other adults. It's understandable: "When you only have a few hours a day to be with your kids, you don't want to ruin the fun," says Louis J. Lichtman, Ph.D., author of A Practical Guide for Raising a Self-Directed and Caring Child.

Although there's nothing wrong with buying your kid an occasional small toy during a supermarket run or taking him to the zoo as a special treat, you raise the risk of creating a spoiled brat if you do these things in response to their incessant pleading. Your job is to reinforce good behavior, not bad.

But too often things go the other way. In a Parents poll, 42 percent of readers admitted that their child is spoiled and 80 percent think spoiling kids now will affect them in the long term. "You do your kids a terrible disservice if they go out into the world thinking it revolves around them," says Dr. Lichtman. If your child acts entitled, it's not too late to reverse this behavior with the help of these attitude-adjusting tactics. Read on to learn what being spoiled really means, and what you can do to avoid raising a spoiled child.

What Is a Spoiled Child?

Spoiled child is a derogatory term for children who behave in a self-centered, immature way. This behavior stems from the way they are and/or have been raised. It results "from the failure of parents to enforce consistent, age-appropriate limits," the American Academy of Pediatrics writes. And many spoiled children are described as "overindulged," "selfish," and/or "narcissistic."

What Are the Characteristics of a Spoiled Child?

While there are numerous ways to tell if your child is spoiled, some of the most common signs include:

  • Difficulty hearing and/or processing the word "no"
  • Dissatisfaction with what they have
  • Being and/or acting in a self-centered manner, i.e. spoiled children think the wold revolves around them
  • Frequent meltdowns and tantrums
  • Are sore losers
  • Regularly start sentences with "I need"

Spoiled children also struggle to follow rules, as they believe they do not apply to them.

How Can You Avoid Raising a Spoiled Child?

Avoid apologizing for disappointments.

"I'm sorry" has its place in family life—when you lose your temper, for example, or accidentally throw away your child's precious artwork—but there's no need to be remorseful about not being able to buy your child a shiny new toy or beloved pair of brand-name boots. It's beneficial to empathize with their disappointment, since doing so shows that you respect her feelings, just don't harp on what caused it. Say something like "I know you're sad that we can't get those boots, but it's not in the budget."

"Helping a child accept that they won't get everything they wants is an important life lesson," notes Karen Ruskin, Psy.D., a family therapist in Sharon, Massachusetts.

If your 6-year-old remains determined to get those Uggs, say something like, "Yes, those are awesome boots. What do you think about teaming up on this one? Here's what I'm willing to pay toward them; you can save for the rest." This gives your child some control over the decision and lets them know that they'll need to earn special things rather than simply be given them.

Don't debate your house rules.

When it comes to rules, there should be no argument or debate. Endless bickering is pointless, since the outcome is predetermined. It also takes the temperature up to 11—which no one wants. "Your kids have the right to be disappointed or upset when they don't get their way, but you shouldn't engage them in a verbal back-and-forth," says Amy McCready, author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time... The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding, or Yelling. Let them know we do this because "this is what we do as a family" and move on.

Manage meltdowns.

No parent likes listening to a tantrum, whether it's from a child who refuses to leave a playdate or an 8-year-old who slams their door over your refusal to buy a cell phone. But giving in is far worse. The main reason a kid will continue to have meltdowns is that they're successful. Don't engage the behavior and it will stop... eventually.

If you're home, simply ignore it as long as your child is not in danger of hurting themself or others, suggests McCready. While you need to keep an eye on your tantruming child in a public place, giving the behavior too much attention virtually guarantees a repeat performance. Instead, calmly take your child to the car where they can finish. When kids realize that you won't be manipulated when they make a scene, they're less likely to try that tactic in the future.

Teach your kids the lost art of patience.

Spoiled kids feel entitled not only to get the things they want but to get them immediately. We live in a touch-screen world of instant gratification. You can reach someone via text in seconds. Almost any question they ask can be answered with a quick Google search. Thanks to Zoom and FaceTime, your child can "see" Grandma anytime they want. These technologies cause kids to develop unrealistic expectations about getting what they want when they want it, says Dr. Ruskin. And since many requests—for stickers, collectibles, sweets, and more—offer easy ways to bring a smile to their face, we tend to say yes more often than we should. But doing so won't help your child learn to be patient or discriminating.

Refusing or at least holding off on indulgences will help your child develop self-discipline and allow them to place a higher value on the things they receive. It's critical to teach your kids restraint by example as well. Look for opportunities for them to see you waiting for the things you want. If you see a pair of jeans at the mall that you decide not to buy, for instance, let your child know why. Say "They fit well, but my old jeans still look good" or "I'll wait until they go on sale."

Give encouragement instead of gifts.

"A child who receives compensation for every little accomplishment will start to lose their natural drive to excel at things," says McCready. By contrast, specific praise ("You've worked hard on your passing, and it paid off in today's match") will stick with your child a lot longer and boost their motivation. It is great for their self-esteem. That said, there's nothing wrong with acknowledging your child's achievement, whether it's for a great effort in building a block tower or a positive report card, as long as you label your treat a celebration rather than a reward. Letting them pick their favorite place for dinner won't spoil them. Promise.

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