“Mommy, I want that video game. Josh has it and it is so fun.”
“Dad, I just have to have Nike sneakers. The others aren’t as good.”
“Mom, I need to go to the movies tonight. All the kids are going. It’s a really cool movie.”
Have you ever been appalled by the seemingly insatiable appetite your children demonstrate for the things they see advertised on television, in magazines, on the internet, in stores, and in their friends’ homes? Do you then feel upset about their seeming lack of gratitude for what they do have? When you think about all the things your children have or want, have you ever wondered, “How much is enough and how much is too much?”
An endless stream of sophisticated and unrelenting media entices children to want, want, want things they believe they must, must, must have. This appetite for things can lead kids to lose sight of how much they have in their privileged lives. Being aware of this lack of appreciation can make you consider which values you want to pass on to your children and what is really important in making a meaningful life.
It is easy to look at the materialistic and high-pressured world we live in as the reason for your children’s acquisitiveness. But you can also consider the very nature of children to understand how “Madison Avenue” is able to capture your children’s interest so strongly. Children don’t innately know the difference between wants and needs. They don’t know how to calibrate their needs or prioritize them. They are by nature impulsive, self-centered, and lacking in judgment (some more than others). Temperament plays a part, too: some children are extremely persistent and intense in their desires.
It is your job as a parent to teach your children, over time, to control their impulses, to gain greater judgment, and to become less egocentric. You can do this by helping them to differentiate between needs and wants, by teaching them the concept of “enough,” and by encouraging them to be empathic. In this way, you can move your children on the path away from a sense of entitlement and toward one of gratitude.
Why Do Parents Spoil Their Children?
Sometimes you may play into your children’s hunger for material objects for any number of reasons.
- You may not be entirely clear about your own values in regard to material things.
- You may fall prey to the “keeping up with the Joneses” frenzy we all live with.
- You may have a sense of not being satisfied yourself with what you have.
- You may want your children to have the kinds of things that you feel you missed out on when you were a child.
- You may be ambivalent about setting the necessary limits. You don’t want your children to be disappointed or frustrated. And you want them to like you.
- And, of course, it is your pleasure to give to your children.
While all of these motivations are understandable, they do make it more difficult to teach your children gratitude and a sense of satisfaction with what they have.
How Do Parents Spoil Their Children?
Most people think of a spoiled child as one who has too many material things. But it is more than that. Certainly parents can overindulge materially, but not all children whose families are affluent and who have a lot of “things” would fit the definition of spoiled. You may know of children who come from very wealthy homes who seem appreciative of what they have and who are not so obsessed with all the “things” advertised. There are also children in families with very limited resources whom you would call “spoiled” because they are demanding and lack a sense of gratitude or because a disproportionate amount of the family’s funds and attention are allocated to this child.
What mindset contributes to “spoiling”? By not requiring children to take sufficient responsibility for their actions, by doing too much for them that they could do themselves, or by giving in to their demands too often and too quickly, parents can spoil their children without spending a dime on them.
Parents over-indulge their children when they:
- regularly give excuses for their children’s not being prepared for tests.
- consistently allow them to slack on chores because the children are “too busy” or “too tired.”
- complete school projects for them or make phone calls for them long after the children should be handling these responsibilities for themselves.
Parents who do these things are not helping their children to develop coping skills they will need as they grow. The children know they can “get away” with inappropriate behavior. They expect to have their demands met; they don’t expect to have to do things for themselves; and they don’t learn the skills necessary to cope with life’s challenges. These attitudes can easily turn into a sense of entitlement.
It is tempting to want to make your children’s lives easier and to protect them from disappointments, frustrations, failures, and mistakes. But as Dan Kindlon states in his book Too Much of a Good Thing, “we can’t protect our children from the pain of growing up. Money and material things can’t protect our children from the discomforts of maturation and it can’t buy them character either.” Children need to learn responsibility, to delay gratification, to tolerate frustration, to cope with failure and disappointment, to make amends when they have made mistakes, and to give back to their family and community. Some of these are hard lessons for children to learn, but it is up to parents to teach them anyway.
What Can Parents Do?
There are many things you can consider doing so your children develop the skills and attitudes that will help them to avoid the pitfalls of being labeled “spoiled.” You can teach children important life skills that will set them on a course of appreciation, moderation, and responsibility. You can be the “executive” in your home by:
- setting limits and saying “no” when appropriate. For example, “No, it doesn’t work for me to have Sarah sleep over tonight.”
- helping them to delay gratification by not giving them everything they want. For example, “No, we don’t have time to stop for ice cream tonight.”
- not making things too easy for them by allowing them to tolerate frustration in appropriate doses. For example, “I know that learning to tie your shoes is hard to do, but I also know you can do it. I can talk you through the steps as you try it one more time.”
- letting them experience a moderate amount of disappointment and then teaching them how to deal with it. For example, “It is disappointing that you weren’t invited to Billy’s party. Is there something else you want to plan for that night?”
- showing them how to make amends when they have hurt someone. For example, “You knocked down your brother’s tower that he worked all day to build. What can you do to help him feel better?”
- holding them accountable for their behavior. For example, “Even though your teacher did not post the assignment on line, you are still responsible for finding out what your homework is.”
A Few Other Suggestions
- Review your own values about material objects, responsibility, accountability, and your own levels of gratitude versus discontent.
- Help your children to become educated and critical consumers of the media – discuss “truth in advertising” with them.
- Give your children the opportunity to contribute to the family through regular chores and hold them accountable for completing those chores.
- Spend time with your children more often than you spend money on them.
- Encourage your children to be actively and intensely engaged in some productive activity – so they can gain self-esteem and competency, have the ability to set long-range goals, learn to follow through with projects, and feel the thrill of mastery and achievement. This can make material objects less important to children.
- Provide your children with opportunities to give their time to helping others and participating in community service projects so they can see the needs that exist in their world.
- Acknowledge their wants while teaching them to distinguish between wants and needs.
- Teach them the concept of enough:
“You’ve had enough cookies today. You can have some carrots.”
“You have watched enough television tonight; it is time to spend some time with the family.”
“You have enough jeans; you don’t need any more.”
You can raise children who appreciate what they have, learn to give back, and develop skills that help them to accept responsibility and challenges. Then you can feel good “indulging” them a bit by giving things to them at birthdays and holidays and all through the year, knowing that they will show gratitude and appreciation.By Audrey Krisbergh, Certified Parenting Educator
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