Amy Rush felt bad for her 3-year-old little boy, Michael. "He was always getting dragged to his older sister Meaghan's activities or waiting for me to help her finish her homework," says Rush, of Franklin Square, New York. So when a swim meet ran over or homework help was more involved than Rush expected, she appeased Michael with a piece of candy.
But soon enough, the plan backfired. Instead of seeing the candy as a reward for being patient, Michael started demanding it constantly -- as early as eight in the morning. "He would whine if I didn't give in right away," she recalls. "I knew he was becoming spoiled and that things had to change immediately."
Spoiling a child starts with something small, like a piece of candy, and morphs into a plague of demands and tantrums. Many of us associate a spoiled child with an overflowing toy box, but "the key is not what a child possesses, but how he behaves," says Linda Acredolo, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Davis, and coauthor of the forthcoming Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start (Bantam).
And spoiling is an especially confusing concept for parents of very young children, as toddlers have tantrums at the drop of a hat. It's hard to sort through what behavior is simply part of growing up and what indicates a brat-in-the-making. But figuring it out is vital, because the consequences of always giving in can be severe. Not only do overindulged kids make life unpleasant for others, but they may also have trouble making friends and functioning happily.
"A spoiled child's parents may indulge his every whim, but other kids won't," says Acredolo. "They will quickly notice that they're repeatedly getting the short end of the stick and will move on to other playmates."
This particular generation of kids, experts say, is very vulnerable to becoming spoiled. Children are becoming more accustomed to receiving lots of toys and other material goods from the earliest ages.
"A child in my toddler's day care recently turned 2, and every kid in her class got a huge goody bag that was overflowing with at least $20 worth of toys and gifts," says Rebecca Isaacson, of Brooklyn, New York. "It makes you feel like you have to compete or your kid somehow misses out."
At the same time, the growth of children's TV shows -- accompanied by streams of commercials -- means that toys and treats are continually dangled before their eyes. And the expansion of licensed characters into new product categories makes it hard for parents to draw the line; kids aren't just clamoring for the newest SpongeBob DVD but the accompanying book, bath toy, and train set as well.
The other piece of the puzzle is how you respond to your child's demands for things other than material goods. Many parents question whether attending to the cries of a toddler who demands play time when you really need to prepare dinner is a form of spoiling, too.
"It's tough to grapple with," says Alisa Ackerman, the mother of 16-month-old Keenan. "He gets so upset whenever I leave him with a sitter, so much so that I'm always late for appointments. My husband thinks it's because I've pampered him with attention, but I'm not sure that's true," says Ackerman, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. "The burning question is, how do you know when you're being kind -- and when you're being overindulgent?"
According to experts, spoiling is as much about a child's developmental stage as it is about toys, candy, and getting her own way.
For most of your child's first year, you can put your spoiling concerns on the back burner. It's impossible to overindulge an infant, because before the age of about 9 months, babies are incapable of being manipulative and cry only when they really need something, such as food or comfort. During this time, it's critical to address your baby's cries promptly to help him feel secure.
Things get decidedly murkier when a child hits toddlerhood, and tantrums over everything from socks to sandwiches become an everyday occurrence. But this behavior is not the earmark of a coddled child; rather, it's a perfectly normal part of child development. In such outbursts, kids assert their independence and vent frustrations when they're unable to express themselves effectively.
"How you react to tantrums can determine whether or not your child will become spoiled," says Claire B. Kopp, PhD, a developmental psychologist and research associate at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, and author of Baby Steps: A Guide to Your Child's Social, Physical, Mental, and Emotional Development in the First Two Years (Holt). "For example, a toddler can play with his toys on his own but may prefer to be held all the time. He'll react with a tantrum if he doesn't get what he wants," notes Kopp.
Always giving in to such demands sets the stage for overindulgence.
First, you're teaching him that fussing is an effective way to get what he wants.
Second, you're not allowing him to learn how to entertain himself. As he gets older, a child who is unable to play on his own becomes more and more demanding and dependent upon a parent to amuse him. "If he's really upset, hold him," says Kopp. "But if he just seems bored, encourage him to play with toys that interest him."
Most important is to hold your ground on the issues that matter. "You will spoil a toddler by failing to provide structure. Be firm about things like bedtime and safety rules," Kopp says. "She can have her way with things that don't matter. Let her wear an orange shirt with green pants."
As a child approaches age 3, she'll begin to understand that she can't get everything she wants, so her responses to "no" should become less stormy. But her impulse control is still rather limited; she'll still grab things in the supermarket and won't be happy when you request that she return the Count Chocula to the shelf.
On a brighter note, by preschool, kids begin to clue in to the feelings of others. "You can create and uphold rules that address others' needs and feelings -- for example, a preschooler can't take another child's toy without asking," says Kopp.
But cluing in to others also means that your child notices when the little boy down the block gets a new toy every week -- and may want the same arrangement. And 3-year-olds also like to acquire things, so parents have to be firm about when new toys are purchased (on birthdays or during holiday time) and when they are not (when you see them in the store).
When showdowns occur, take advantage of your preschooler's growing social sophistication:
Whether you have a toddler or a preschooler who's demonstrating a bit of bratty behavior, there are several strategies you can use to put a halt to it.
You, your spouse, and your caregivers have to follow the same set of rules when it comes to indulging or standing firm. "If one parent is firm and the other gives in under pressure, a child can become very confused about what he can have and what he can't," says Kopp. As he gets older, he can use one parent's policy against the other's to get what he wants.
Many a spoiling battle has been lost because a parent gets embarrassed when her child loses it in public. Vow to remove yourselves from the situation promptly so you won't be tempted to cave in.
If, for example, your child falls apart at a friend's birthday party because he didn't get any presents, take him out of the situation and find a quiet place where you can help him calm down. Don't fuel the fire by arguing or going into detailed explanations.
Dorre Kleinman, of Brooklyn, New York, agrees. "My 16-month-old, Sasha, always gets upset when we have to leave the playground. She cries for more time and fights with me when I try to put her in the stroller," says Kleinman. "But I don't debate it. I just strap her in and start rolling along. She usually calms down in a few minutes."
If you know that your child can't go into Wal-Mart without begging for toys, see if you can leave him at a friend's house or with a babysitter while you shop. Eventually, you can take him with you again. It's possible that he'll have forgotten about what he used to do, and you and he can start up your outings once again on a new footing.
And don't visit potential hot spots together when either one of you is tired. You're more likely to give in if you've had a long day, and your little one is more likely to melt down if she's not refreshed and well rested.
If your child already has some bratty behavior you'd like to change, take the de-spoiling process slowly so it's not a shock to his system. For example, if you've routinely let your son grab a handful of lollipops at the dry cleaners, cut down on the number he can take over several visits until he gets accustomed to the idea that he can only have one.
Before you both go to a party or the store say, "I know that you can do a great job at being a good boy while we're shopping." If he succeeds, praise him, and sing his praises to friends and relatives while he's in earshot. "You could say something like, 'You won't believe how great Josh behaved at the supermarket today -- I'm so proud of him,'" suggests Thompson.
Making toy donations to children in need helps kids start to appreciate what they have. "I encourage my 2-year-old to help me gather old toys to give to local charities," says Leah Yagodich, of Cincinnati. "Even very young kids can begin to grasp how fortunate they are."
Barbara Solomon is a mother of three and a writer in Scarsdale, New York.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2005.