Spoiler Alert! (Tips for increasing pro-social behavior)

One result of the high level of consumerism in this country is that parents seem to be questioning whether or not they are “spoiling” their kids.  Will the extra toys result in behavior deemed “bratty” by others?  Will they fail to learn the value of the dollar if they always get whatever they want?  Do they always get whatever they want?  Between birthdays, holidays, and other “special” occasions it can be hard to set limits when it comes to toy collecting.

While toddlers know only to throw a tantrum when they can’t have something in front of them, preschoolers are quietly learning the art of manipulation and scheming new ways to talk you into that coveted stuffed animal.  Preschoolers are also at the age where they really want to have the same clothes, toys, etc. as their friends.  Developmentally, they are learning that shared interests can equal friendship (ex:  We both like to play dolls at school, so we are friends).  When they see an interesting toy at a playdate they are likely to want that toy too.  It can make shopping trips difficult, that’s for sure.

People regularly ask me how to make sure that they’re not raising a “brat”.  They see other kids who they think appear “spoiled” and worry that their kids are on the same road.  I often tell moms that a good first step is to stop trying to evaluate other kids.  Yes, there are “spoiled” and “bratty” kids out there.  But there are also kids who are having a bad day, week, month.  Give the other moms a break and try to stay focused on how you can raise a kind, generous, and grateful child instead.  You never know what someone else is up against.  Below are some tips to help you raise a polite child:

1. It’s not all about the stuff: Whether you believe in a well-stocked toy cabinet or a few essentials, the important thing to focus on is behavior.  It’s not toys that make the “bratty” child, it’s how they choose to act in response to those toys and how you allow them to act that earns them the title.  Sharing is one of the most important social skills to teach, and also one of the hardest to learn.  Children feel like they have very little control in their lives; they like to have their possessions.  Start early.  Bring “share” toys to the park.  Invite friends over to work on sharing toys.  Have your child choose a few toys that don’t have to be shared, but make sure that they share the others.  Use an egg timer for toddlers to work on trading toys after two minutes.  Involve preschoolers in planning a playdate (create and post a checklist) so that they know what comes next and when to switch activities or toys.

2. Daily Manners: Manners need to be worked on daily.  Kids get busy and forget at times.  It’s our job to remind them.  Around here we always say please and we thank each other for everything, no matter how small.  Polite behavior starts at home.  When they master it at home, it comes as second nature in the real world.  Being grateful for what they are given is very important.  Always cue them to say “thank you”.

3. Set Limits: We all know that they don’t need everything they want.  The question is how willing are you to set the limit in order to teach the lesson?  If you are anything like me, you have no choice but to head to places like Target with two kids in tow.  Decide in advance on a treat (we always stick to the dollar rack) to avoid power struggles in the store.  And remember, fair is fair. If you bend the rules for one kid, you have to bend them for the other(s).

4. Keep a list: They can’t earn everything they see, and some coveted items are just too big.  Riley and I have a saying when it comes to wanting new toys, “put it on the list”.  We talk about how birthdays and holidays are times when they get larger gifts.  Who says the Santa list has to be written in November?  When things start adding up I remind her of the other items and we talk about what interests her the most and why.  She even helps Liam when he gets frustrated.  I recently overheard her saying, “it’s ok Liam, we can put it on your birthday list for your party” when he couldn’t get a racecar set at Target.  If they are always being shut down, they feel helpless.  If they know they can choose to keep it on a list for later, it gives them a sense of control.

5. Empathize: Toddlers and preschoolers want things.  The world is a huge place with a lot of stuff, and part of their developmental task is to ask for things and then learn to cope with the answers.  It’s how they learn.  I find it helps to empathize with them.  When Liam really starts to cry over a car I often say, “it sounds like you really wanted that car and you’re sad that Mommy won’t buy it.  I know how that feels.  Sometimes I really want something new but I know that I have to wait and I feel sad about it”.  A little understanding goes a long way in the mind of a child. Riley wants specifics, so we sometimes talk about the fact that I really like to buy new jeans but that they are expensive and I can’t just buy every pair that I like.  Give them concrete examples to help them understand.

6. Praise the good: It’s not that you have to praise every little thing along the way (although I probably tend to do so!), but praising them when they demonstrate pro-social behavior helps them to feel good about their choices and encourages them to repeat those behaviors.  A simple, “great job remembering your manners” when they don’t have to be cued makes them feel good.  Focus on the positive to encourage future positive behavior.  I recently challenged myself to avoid saying “no” for three days.  I only said it twice during those three days, and both times because one of the kids was in physical danger.  What I learned is that my 2 year old is the one saying no most of the time, and that the atmosphere does change when you focus on the positive instead of constantly redirecting the negative. They need to hear “no” when it counts, but otherwise positive reinforcement makes for a happier household.  While I’ve always been a proponent of positive reinforcement, we all hit a funk sometimes.  Take it from me and try the 3 day no “no” challenge. You might find that you really don’t need it much at all.

8. Books: Check out “The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies” and “The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners” by Stan and Jan Berenstain, “The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog” by Mo Willems, and “Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique” by Jane O’Connor for good reads on manners, delayed gratification, sharing, and other pro-social behavior.

If you focus on manners, delayed gratification, earning those coveted treats, and being grateful you will probably find that “bratty” behavior is not in your future.  Leave the “spoiling” to the Grandparents; it’s part of their job description…isn’t it?  Stay focused on the positive and watch the polite behavior unfold!

How do you set limits to avoid “spoiling” your kids?

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)

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    Spoiler Alert! (Tips for increasing pro-social behavior)