Unspoiling Spoiled Kids

by Ted Spiker

Unspoiling Spoiled Kids

Tell 'em to get their own juice box. Why doing everything for our kids is turning them into spoiled children, and how to undo the damage

“What?! I cleaned it already!” my son yelled, gesturing to the floor.

He grudgingly took the rag and tile cleaner I held out. As he sprayed halfheartedly around the toilet, I explained that a swipe with a piece of TP doesn't cut it. We'd been over this 392 times.

I knew this was our doing. It's often much easier for my wife or me to clean things ourselves. Another reason this is partly my fault: I didn't properly take the time to teach him to either a) shoot straight or b) be accountable for when you don't. But I didn't know how bad it was until he muttered: “When am I going to start getting paid for all this?”

I didn't lose it in front of him, but my emotions swirled like a 12-ingredient smoothie. What the…? He thinks it's OK to make a mess and expect me to clean it or get a reward? Have I, by expecting too little, cheated him of the values he'll need to cope with, uh, real life?

Spoiling kids has been discussed everywhere lately, as parents grapple with the decisions that may be easy in the short term (Fine, you can have a toy at the dollar store), but have implications for the long term (Is my laundry done yet? I have grad-school classes).

The most recent research, headed by psychologist Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, showed that a stunning 88 percent of parents deemed their kids at least somewhat spoiled. There are several ways this generation stands out. “Kids are more materialistic, and at younger ages. You've got four-year-olds asking for Nikes, not just sneakers,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Don't Give Me That Attitude! Preschoolers have never been known for patience, but today's kids have brought a whole new meaning to “I want it NOW.” “High-end stores and restaurants, and airline first-class cabins, are actually banning kids under six because their behavior, in general, is horrific. They call it the Brat Ban,” notes Borba. Look at the proliferation of blow-out birthday parties, even for honorees too young to remember them. “Parents tell me they feel more guilt because they're working longer hours,” says Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! “More guilt leads to more compensating and less consistency.”

Part of the issue is that even parents who know they're headed down the wrong road feel turning things around will take too long, be too hard, and won't work anyway. “My kids are still pretty young,” shares Debra Noonan, mom of a 4- and an 8-year-old in Langhorne, PA. “But it still seems like it's too late—and I'm too exhausted—to change the things I've let slip.” Many experts say that common attitude is wrong, noting that small shifts (not seismic ones) will get you going.

Parents typically fall into the first trap—giving in to whining—when their child is around 18 months, as language is taking off, says Severe. “But as soon as children see parents are serious, they tend to adapt,” says Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., a child psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. However, “most parents never get serious,” Bromfield adds.

“It's hard to hang tough. I struggle with not giving my kids what they want, even though I know it will cause problems later,” admits Danielle Saliman, a mom of three in Englewood, NJ. “Let's say they ask for a snack an hour before dinner. If I say yes, nobody eats dinner. Then at bedtime, it's ‘I'm sooooo hungry!’ The next thing you know, I'm giving in. What mother sends a kid to bed hungry?”

Ready to make a U-turn? Fasten your seat belt: Our directions will get you there.

Play More

Kids today have decreased resilience and increased anxiety, depression and narcissism—all factors that contribute to the entitled aura they're getting growing up in this trophy-for-showing-up era, says Peter Gray, Ph.D., a psychology research professor at Boston College and author of Free to Learn. “I attribute all of these changes to the decline in free play,” he says.

Eighty-five percent of the moms Gray studied say that, as kids, they played at least twice as much as their children do. With the job outlook, parents worry about their child's future more than parents did a generation ago. “Childhood has become a time of ‘résumé building’—the right preschool, the college-track sport, the trendy extracurriculars,” Gray insists. But he argues that play is exactly how we all learned life skills. “Little kids swing high to the point where they feel fear when parents aren't looking, but they actually have a good assessment of reality. And if there's a scuffle, they learn self-control—because their pals might leave if they lash out. Play, by its very nature, is an exercise in give and take.”

The take-home is that we have to throttle back and give our kids room to take risks, to play games without the pressure of us yelling…er, cheering…on the sidelines. Do that, and you've made your kid's playmates your assistants in teaching self-discipline. And, yes, there's also tons of value in our playing with our kids.

“Belly-laugh and rough-and-tumble play with your children. This changes the function of the right brain, facilitating bonding,” says Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. “All kids need help with self-discipline, and playing with other children—and you—is probably the best way to learn it.”

Focus on Values

Hear the word “spoiled” and most people think of parents who can't say no.

So when parents decide to reverse the tide, they hyperfocus on “no,” and on punishment, says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Yale University. But it's not about cracking down. It's about creating a value system that lets kids learn life skills.

“There's so much research saying that the last thing you should do is punish,” Kazdin says. “Say you want your kid to help clean up. How do you get him to do it? You say ‘We need to get four things done. Which do you choose?’ Start by doing it together, gradually fade out of the picture, then praise the child as he does more.”

The reason this works, Kazdin says, is because you're approaching it in terms of values—helping people you love, and pride in a job well done. You're not iron-fisting it. Though it may seem that giving kids control over which chores they do would contribute to an entitled feeling, it's the opposite. “Choice is important in guiding behavior,” Kazdin notes. “And it doesn't matter whether it's a real choice or a choice to give them the illusion of control.”

The value system extends to material things, too, says social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D. She says we need to (ouch!) examine our own values. If you always nab the latest phone, handbag and laptop, your child sees that—and expects the same. “If you don't think about your buying attitudes,” she says, “your child won't change.”

Take It Slow

Ever go on a diet and decide every dinner will be chicken, broccoli, water? How long does that last? The shock of changing everything means we change nothing. Same holds true for unspoiling kids. Truth is, you have to make slow and progressive changes, says Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker. That's especially important because of how we got into this situation in the first place—our lives are crazy-busy. “If early evening is the roughest time, purposely do less so you have time to enforce the changes,” Pearlman says.

Make a Plan

What exactly do you want? To get him to put his clothes in the hamper? Put his snack in the bag? “The trick is zeroing in,” says Pearlman. Not sure? Ask the preschool teacher what he does on his own.

Remember His Age

“Toddlers are irrational,” says Pearlman. “You can't explain why you are doing something. They also don't care that it's good for them.” Show them you mean business by your tone of voice and body language, and by ignoring tantrums. Saliman, the mom who gave in to bedtime snacks, learned the lesson. “I've found the whiny stomping lasts two minutes, and they move on.”