As the dust settles in the aftermath of the gift-giving frenzy, a lot of parents might wonder if they’re spoiling their children. The typical reaction to the word ‘spoil’ is, ‘To give your child too much, or to do too much for him.’ But, if you love somebody, especially a young and vulnerable child, doesn’t it seem right to shower him or her with attention and affection?
I don’t think the problem is giving a child ‘too much’ love—or even too many holiday presents, for that matter. The real problem lies in not allowing him to experience the consequences of his actions and choices. Let’s say your son breaks an expensive gift due to carelessness. Do you immediately replace it, or do you let him live through the disappointment and frustration that goes along with doing a dumb thing? This is where a lot of parents go wrong. It’s not that they give their kids too much. It’s that they try to shield them from the consequences of their not-so-smart decisions.
I love to read biographies because they’re a great way to better understand people. It’s remarkable how many successful, self-actualized people had pretty rotten childhoods. So what’s the lesson? Is it better that children be emotionally abused and neglected by neurotic parents, so they’ll accomplish more in life? Of course not. Besides, plenty of kids raised in happy and loving homes do well. The issue, once again, boils down to whether kids are allowed to suffer the consequences of their choices when they deserve to do so. This doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t be there for their kids; it just means that parents shouldn’t pretend they can do everything for them.
The most unpleasant side effects of not giving children consequences tend to manifest in the teenage years. By then, it’s too late to change history, and it’s more of a struggle to turn things around. Dr. Gregory Ramey, a child psychologist writing for Cox News Service, identifies nine classic characteristics of a spoiled child or teenager:
1. Rarely shows appreciation or says, “Thank you.”
2. Doesn’t seem satisfied with whatever she gets.
3. Asks frequently for things and gets upset if he doesn’t immediately get them.
4. Doesn’t have any family responsibilities.
5. Frequently complains about being treated unfairly.
6. Rarely offers to help someone else.
7. Expects others to accommodate her wants.
8. Rarely compromises or shares with others.
9. Has a “what’s-in-it-for-me” attitude.
Do any of these sound familiar?
In one case study, Ramey detailed how he sent a spoiled teenager away from his office and worked instead with the parents on behavioral and attitudinal change. The main problem seemed to be that the teenager’s parents gave him pretty much everything he wanted. The issue wasn’t so much their generosity, as the fact that the teenager developed a sense of entitlement. They were puzzled when he would pout, act up and be generally uncooperative when he didn’t immediately get the latest, greatest computer game or video goodies. By rushing out to make sure he had the best of everything, his parents had inadvertently taught him that he could ‘cajole, whine, beg and threaten his way to get whatever he wanted.’
When I see people in this situation with their kids—or any other obnoxious loved one—my first thought is, ‘What are you doing to encourage this behavior?’ I believe that none of us are really victims. If we have a child who’s acting like he or she is entitled to everything, then we must have done things—verbally and behaviorally—over a long period of time to encourage this attitude. It might FEEL like we’re victims because we’re getting the opposite of what we intended (‘I work hard to give him everything he wants, and all I get in return is this ingratitude!’). Well, that is frustrating, but where is it written that good intentions always lead to good results? A change of attitude on the parents’ part is what’s required. They helped foster this situation, and only they can reverse its course.
Spoiled teenagers (and others with a sense of entitlement) are not just obnoxious or ‘selfish.’ In fact, they’re quite sad. They’re unprepared to face the real world where nobody is going to provide for them simply because they demand, want or need it. They’re vulnerable and frightened, which is why many of them return home in their 20s or 30s. A growing number of young people are doing this in today’s entitlement-oriented society. They’re not prepared for reality, so they limp home with a depressing sense of failure, cloaked in an attitude of arrogance and anger.
There’s no doubt that the loving thing is to shower your child with moral support and affection. But it’s also a loving thing to allow him to feel the consequences of his choices. It’s OK for her to fall flat on her face, and you don’t always have to help her up. Be there just in case, but give her a chance to get up on her own—and roundly applaud her when she does. Sometimes life and love are about helping, but just as often they’re about independence, self-reliance and—brace yourself now—leaving people alone to fend for themselves. Don’t be afraid to let someone you love stand on his or her own. It might just transform their sense of entitlement into a real-world sense of self-reliance and independence.