Section B

Stop Spoiling Your Children

While traveling for various speaking appointments, I frequently stay overnight in the home of a family and am assigned to one of the children's bedrooms. In it, I often find so many toys that there's almost no room — even for my small lavatory or toilet kit. And the closet is usually so tightly packed with clothes that I can barely squeeze in my jacket.

I'm not complaining, only making a point. I think the tendency to give children too many toys and clothes is quite common in American families. I think in far too many families not only do children come to take their parents' generosity for granted, but also the effects of this can actually be somewhat harmful to children.

Why do parents give their children too much, or give them things they can't afford? I believe there are several reasons.

One fairly common reason is that parents spoil their children out of a sense of guilt. Parents who both hold down full-time jobs may feel guilty about the amount of time they spend away from their children and, as accommodation for being away so much, may attempt to compensate by showering them with material possessions.

Other parents provide too much because they want their children to have everything they had while growing up, along with those things they pined for but didn't get. Still others are afraid to say no to their children's endless requests for toys for fear that their children will infer they are unloved or will be made fun of if they don't obtain the same toys their friends have.

Spoiling a child also happens when parents are unable to stand up to their children's unreasonable demands. Such parents fluctuate between saying no and giving in — but neither response seems satisfactory to them. If they refuse a request, they immediately feel a wave of regret for having been so strict or ungenerous. If they give in, they feel regret and resentment over having been too easy. This kind of variability not only loosens the parents' ability to set limits, it also sours the parent-child relationship to some degree, robbing parents and their children of some of the happiness and mutual respect that is present in healthy families.

But spoiling children with material things does little to reduce parental guilt (since parents never feel they've given enough), nor does it make children feel more loved (for what children really desire is parents' time and attention). Instead, the effects of providing too much can be harmful. Children may, to some degree, become greedy, selfish, ungrateful and insensitive to the needs and feelings of others, beginning with their parents. When children are given too much, it undermines their respect for their parents. In fact, the children begin to sense that a parent's unlimited generosity is not right. The contradiction as a result may be that these children, conversely, will push further, unconsciously hoping that, if they push too hard, they will force their parents into setting limitations.

Also, spoiled children are not as challenged to be more creative in their play as children with fewer toys. They have fewer opportunities to learn the value of money, and have less experience in learning to deal with delay in satisfaction, when every requested object is given on demand.

The real purpose of this discussion is not to tell parents how much or how little to give to their children. Rather, my intention is to help those parents who have already sensed that they might be spoiling their children but don't know how to stop.

Sometimes you may feel uncertain about whether to give in to many of your children's requests. That doesn't mean you can't change. First, you should try to determine what makes you submit or feel guilty. Then, even if you haven't uncovered the reason, you should begin to make firm decisions and practice responding to your children's requests in a prompt, definite manner.

Once you turn over a new leaf, you can't expect to change completely right away. You are bound to fluctuate at times. The key is to be satisfied with gradual improvement, expecting and accepting the occasional slips that come with any change. And even after you are handling these decisions in a firmer and more confident manner, you can't expect your children to respond immediately. For a while they'll keep on applying the old pressures that used to work so well. But they'll eventually come to respect your decisions once they learn that nagging and arguing no longer work. In the end, both you and your children will be happier for it.