Generation Spoiled? (Tips to avoid spoiling kids)

Sean and I had dinner with our close friends the other night.  We made an effort to talk about all things non-kid related as we enjoyed drinks and a leisurely meal but, naturally, we ended up talking about our kids.  Specifically, we discussed how different our own childhood experiences were, and what exactly it means to “spoil” a child.  Some of us grew up with fake Nike sneakers, powdered milk (just because), and hand-me-downs that never quite fit…our children wear Converse, drink delicious fresh milk, and have new clothes that fit (except Liam, who won’t part with his car shirts that are now a size too small, despite the new ones in the right size).  Are we spoiling them?

It’s a common fear among parents.  On the one hand, we want our kids to be healthy and happy.  Smiling faces and calm (or excited) demeanors are preferable to angry (or sad) ones.  On the other hand, we don’t want to stand accused of raising “spoiled brats”.  I have to say it:  I’ve never much cared for the word “brat”.  I’m not sure why, it just makes me cringe.  But there are books and articles everywhere right now referencing the “Generation S” (spoiled) and ways to avoid raising “brats”.

There are some who like to chalk up any unfavorable behavior to general “brattiness”, but the truth is that there is generally a reason for the behavior.  Yes, spoiled children exist in this world.  But 9 times out of 10 that temper tantrum, whining, or interrupting you hear at the supermarket or on the other end of the line is more likely the result of hunger, boredom, sleep deprivation, or other issues.

Everybody has a definition for spoiled behavior, but most of the time it includes behaviors such as excessive whining, interrupting frequently, a sense of entitlement, temper tantrums in response to the word “no”, and talking back to adults. The truth is that all kids whine, cry, have temper tantrums, and talk back at some point.  Spoiling comes in when these behaviors are seen more often than not on any given day. While one natural consequence of this behavior is that other people don’t like it and might not choose to make plans with spoiled individuals, the real danger comes in the future.  Spoiled children often grow up to become verbally aggressive adults who struggle to cope with difficult or frustrating situations.

The best reason not to spoil your kids is to help them learn to cope with disappointment and frustration.  *Hint: It’s not about the stuff; it’s about the behavior. Below are some tips to help you avoid spoiling your kids:

1. Teach manners: It sounds like a given.  For many parents, it is.  But with the hectic pace of life right now, teaching kids to say please and thank you and other basic manners can be easily forgotten.  Practice using “friendly words” around the house, both with parents and siblings.  Cue the kids often and reinforce use of good manners and helping one another.  And remember to model appropriate manners for your kids as much as possible. For more strategies on teaching manners, check out this post.

2. Set limits: Kids need limits.  They need to know what is or isn’t allowed.  How can they be expected to follow the rules if the limits haven’t been defined?  Set clear and simple limits in your home.  Post them on the kitchen wall.  Repeat them often.  When a rule is broken, repeat the rule back to your child before giving a consequence. It can be hard to say the same thing over and over.  Liam is so well versed in the rules at age 2 ½ that he regularly lists them off just because he can.  Repetition works.  Whatever you do, avoid giving in to begging! The minute your child knows the rules can be broken he will try to break them every time.

3. Help them earn it: Kids like to get stuff.  It’s part of the fun of being a kid.  “The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies” by Stan & Jan Berenstain is a great story about wanting everything in sight.  Riley would have every book ever written (as well as every stuffed animal ever sewn) if we let her.  In our house, we earn treats.  Sometimes it’s something very small, like a Tic Tac for being a good helper at the grocery store.  Other times, reward charts are used to help them earn a coveted item while working on something difficult. Riley has trouble falling asleep at night.  She earns stickers for falling asleep independently.  Every five stickers she earns a new book.  Earning something gives a child a sense of accomplishment and increases his self-esteem. At some point you will be thinking about allowance, but for right now help them earn some small treats.

4. Don’t fear disappointment: It’s only natural for parents to want the best for their kids, and few things are more upsetting (in the parenting preschoolers world, anyway) than watching your child sob over something disappointing.  Learning to cope with disappointment is an important life skill that begins with setting limits. Parents can use empathy to help their children regroup and move forward, and then think of ways to problem solve together.  Just the other day Riley really wanted a stuffed animal from the aquarium gift shop.  She had to have it.  I said no.  She cried.  I told her about a time that I wanted something but couldn’t have it when I was her age.  And then we agreed to put it on her Christmas list.

5. Keep a list: Sean looked at me with amusement when I suggested the Christmas list as a problem solving strategy for Riley, but it worked.  Whether it’s a holiday list, a birthday list, or an item for the “to be earned” pile, keeping a list gives the child a feeling of control.  I might not get this toy today, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. Kids need to know that they are being heard and their feelings are valued.  This is a simple way to show your child that you understand the importance of this item.  By Christmas, she will likely have moved on!

6. Teach coping skills: Life can be upsetting when you’re small.  It’s a big world out there and sometimes something as small as not earning that Tic Tac can really feel overwhelming. Help your child learn to cope with frustration and disappointment by teaching relaxation strategies and teaching him to verbalize his feelings. Just this morning Liam started to get upset over a race that didn’t go his way.  When I asked him why he looked so sad he said, “I just feel mad when Daddy goes to work because I miss him so much and I have to cry”.  He cried.  He gave Daddy a big hug.  He found his lovey and his favorite car.  He moved on.

7. Avoid comparisons: Every family is different.  At some point your child will realize that other preschoolers have seen Cars 2 (mine won’t) or know how to play video games (mine don’t).  Set your limits and stick with them.  Avoid commentary on other families.  We all make our choices for our own reasons.  The important thing is that your children know the limits in your family. Remember, kids with older siblings will be exposed to different things at an earlier age.

8. Teach charity: While I wouldn’t advocate discussing huge natural disasters or homelessness with toddlers and preschoolers (these topics can be very scary), it is important to teach them that it’s always nice to help others.  Donating or sharing old clothes and toys and contributing to environmental causes or animal shelters are all good ways to start teaching charity. Children feel good about themselves when they’ve helped others.  It’s a self-esteem booster.

Instill good manners, model appropriate behavior, help others, and help your children earn things and you might find that spoiling is a thing of the past (or never even occurs).  And stop worrying about that overflowing toy box.  Like I said, it’s not really about the stuff.

What do you think about “Generation S”?

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.  Liam is fascinated with trucks and cars.  I could remove all toys from this house except the vehicles, and he would be just fine.  This works to my advantage during Target trips, as I just surreptitiously avoid the car aisles and any tantrums that might erupt if I don’t buy the ten pack of cars for $34.99.  Riley sees the excitement in everything.  I wouldn’t say that she’s constantly asking for things, but when something really appeals to her she lobbies hard for it.  Does that make her spoiled?  No, it makes her crafty.  She waits until she’s certain that it’s important, and then she develops a bullet point list of why she needs the special item.  We recently spent ten days discussing the importance of a $6 “Ballet Kitty” doll.  Unfortunately for my kids, they were born to a child psychotherapist.  I have no problem setting limits and, in my house, they have to earn it.  Sure, there are occasions where they get treats.  And, like my mother, I always go overboard for Christmas and all other holidays.  To me, being “spoiled” isn’t just about the amount of items in the toy chest (I won’t lie, we have a lot of toys).  It’s what they do with what they have, and how they interact with other people that matters.  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.  While Riley and Liam remember their “friendly words” (as we call them) about 90% of the time, there’s still that other 10% when I can be heard saying, “what’s that friendly word again?”  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”. For more information about teaching manners to your kids, see my post, “Good Manners Are Headed Your Way” http://practicalkatie.com/2010/11/15/good-manners-are-headed-your-way-tips-for-teaching-manners/

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?  Liam wants EVERY single character from the movie “Cars”.  It matters very little to him that he’s never seen the movie; he just wants the cars.  He’s been asking for “DJ” and “Boost” since the beginning of January.  It’s not that the cars are too expensive.  It’s that we just had Christmas when the request came in, and I wanted him to wait.  So we talked about them obsessively, and he was happily surprised to find them at his seat for a Valentine’s Day gift.  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. Make them earn it: Riley loves books and characters from her favorite books.  We love to go to the library to borrow books, and we also like to explore our local bookstores.  She knows that a trip to the bookstore does not equal a new book or toy.  She earns those.  Riley has had a reward chart since she was 2 ½.  It all started when Liam started grabbing things from her and she chose to yell instead of ask for help.  That’s no longer an issue, and now we work on sleep related goals.  There have been others in between.  See the “Strategies In Action” tab for an example of Riley’s chart.  She earns a sticker when she meets the goal, and for every five stickers she earns a book.  Last week she chose to earn “Ballet Kitty” instead.  When she knows that she can earn what she wants, it empowers her and helps her feel like she can achieve a goal versus just hearing “no”.

5. 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.

6. Empathize: I know that when I’m tired of hearing, “I want, I want, I want” I’m ready to snap.  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.

7. 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?