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Spoiling a Child

And not spoiling a child. The difference will have a considerable effect.

Recently, I met by coincidence with two separate women, both of whom spoke to me in similar terms about their concern for their adolescent sons. “I think I may have spoiled him,” each said, almost in the same words. But the circumstances of their sons’ upbringing were quite different.

The first young man had grown up in a very wealthy family. His parents had given him many gifts over the years, including an expensive car and a motorboat of his own. In addition, he went every summer to an expensive theater camp and participated in many other activities that were even more expensive, including a group trip to Europe. There was nothing he was denied because it cost too much money.

On the other hand, he took care of these possessions and used money from his allowance to pay for repairs. He worked reliably at the theater camp hauling stage sets around. He was respectful and considerate of others. He was a good student. He was punctual and took any responsibility given to him seriously. He had regular chores around the house. When he could not get what he wanted for whatever reason, he accepted his disappointment gracefully. He was not, in my opinion, “spoiled.”

The second young man was the third child in a family of four children. His parents were not as rich as the family of the boy I just described, but they, too, were well-off by most people’s standards. They lived in a big house and took two family vacations every year. But this young man behaved quite differently than the first. He often complained, loudly, that he got less than his siblings. He sometimes borrowed their possessions without asking permission. He violated curfew frequently and would not accept punishment. He could not be counted on to do things he said he would do. He seemed inconsiderate and not concerned about the opinion of others. I thought he could reasonably be described as “spoiled.”

What, then, is the defining characteristic of a spoiled child?

A spoiled child may be recognized by an unwillingness to conform to the ordinary demands of living in a family: for example, a refusal to come for dinner on time, a demand for attention or for a privilege denied to others, a strategy for getting his or her way by creating a fuss publicly. The spoiled child is likely to be irritable and unsympathetic to others. He seems comfortable ignoring his parents’ wishes. “He wants what he wants when he wants it.” For that reason, he may seem to be impulsive. The spoiled child is likely to grow up to be a spoiled adult.

The problem with being a “spoiled adult” goes far beyond the fact that such an individual, demanding much of the time, is likely to seem unpleasant, even obnoxious, to the people around him. A spoiled person is unhappy. He feels frustrated, even cheated, if he or she is not allowed to indulge his or her wishes immediately. Being spoiled suggests to most people a desire for more and more possessions, and that is indeed one aspect of being spoiled; but another is an unwillingness to conform to ordinary social expectations. Somebody who won’t do what he or she is expected to do is spoiled. That person may seem disgruntled, complaining, resentful, and self-centered. Such a person is preoccupied by thoughts of what he or she does not have. And lacking discipline, that person may fail at work and in social situations.

The parent who sighs and tells me she is afraid of having spoiled her child is not taking this problem seriously enough. The spoiled person is discontented. It is not enough for him to have a yacht, the plumbing fixtures must be made of gold. It is not enough to be rich, he has to pretend to be even richer, it is not enough to be admired, he has to be admired by everyone. He does not need to be polite, because he can get away with being rude. He pushes himself to the front of the line. Small frustrations become intolerable. Mostly, however, since he cannot ever get enough, he will seem to others to be self-centered and insecure. Such a person is unhappy, and it falls to parents to prevent their child from growing up this way.

Spoiling a child—and not spoiling a child. I remember explaining to my kids why I wanted them to take piano lessons. I wanted them to learn, as I had learned as a kid, that I was capable of practicing for an hour a day while I could see other kids through the window playing ball. Similarly, I learned I would probably never be able to afford all the jewelry and furs and gigantic cars and far-away vacations advertised in The New Yorker. And that I was going to have to work harder than the other kids in my high school to maintain my scholarship. And that it was all okay! I did not feel deprived. In short, teaching a child to be responsible encourages a self-reliance and self-respect that does not depend on the opinion of others—let alone on having all those material possessions that these others may have.

If a child refuses angrily to behave, and is permitted to get his or her way, that child is in danger of being spoiled. Just showering a child with gifts will not necessarily spoil him; but giving him gifts, even trivial gifts such as candy, simply because he demands it, will. Similarly, a child who simply asks for special treatment will not necessarily be spoiled, but if he stomps his feet and demands it, and then gets it, he will. Conversely, a child who is dealt with firmly is not in danger of being spoiled.

Obviously, some children will be more resistant to authority than others. It should be expected that every child will find occasion to test parents and see if the parents really mean what they say. Often there is a struggle between parents and children. Parents need not win every time, but they should not hesitate to stand up to their children simply because they seem to be so upset. And some parents accede to their children’s demands out of habit. It seems that this particular issue, whatever it may be, isn’t worth having a knock-down fight about. But as time goes on, there are more and more disputes which the spoiled child wins—to his long-term detriment.

(c) Fredric Neuman, author of "Come One, Come All." Follow Neuman here.

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