Are You Spoiling Your Kid?

From the very first infant feeding to college tuition, parents are constantly giving to their children.

Some parents give more, and others less; yet we all wonder at some point, “Am I spoiling my daughter?” or, “Is buying this item for my son truly a good idea?”

Is there a guide or checklist that can inform parents when they are giving to their children in a healthy manner versus overindulging them? How can we know whether we are spoiling our children?

Let’s examine a child’s developmental stages:

When a small soul is born, the baby’s fist is clenched- a symbol of his position in humanity as a ‘taker”. As he grows, we hope that he will learn to open up his palm and become a “giver” with an outstretched hand.

For the first few months of his life, a baby is only capable of seeing the world through his very own point of reference. At approximately eight months of age, the baby learns the concept of “object transience” – the idea that objects exist even if he is unable to see them. At this stage the baby realizes that his parents or primary caretakers are separate from himself; this is the age where stranger-anxiety occurs, and his newfound discovery make the game of “peek-a-boo” so much fun!

In a healthy setting, as the baby becomes a toddler, he learns to interact with others and discovers that his actions can affect other people’s reactions. He will learn age-appropriate social skills and delight in giving back to his parents; with a smile, sharing a blanket, or a Lego project. A child in a state of fulfillment will generally develop normally.

In an unhealthy setting, where a baby’s emotional and/or physical needs are not sufficiently met, a toddler’s interaction with other people will constantly be an attempt to manipulate them to fulfill his needs. This child is typically left with a TV as a babysitter for long periods of time and develops poor social skills when he begins to associate with his peers.

Paradoxically, it is the giving and nurturing of a child which allows his to become a giving and nice person.

We all know narcissistic adults who are only capable of seeing the world through their own selfish viewpoint. These are the people that get insulted easily, manipulate others to do their wishes- often using guilt-trips, and ‘kiss-up’ to those that are on a higher socio-economic level than themselves.

In essence, narcissistic adults are unknowingly trying to get the love, attention, and nurturing that they lacked in their childhood.

Now, what does all this have to do with whether I should buy my teenage daughter a new Jaguar or not?

There are only two types of spoiling:

1) Alternating between not giving a child enough and then giving much too much.

Example: A jet-setting father who spends more time overseas than at home will purchase expensive gifts to compensate for the lack of attention he gives his child.

2) Giving to a child because of your insecurity and need for the child to depend upon you.

Example: An unconfident mother will buy her newlywed daughter a home and furnishings so that she maintains a feeling of usefulness, not because of heartfelt generosity.

There is no direction booklet which states “the appropriate framework of gift-giving to children without crossing the border of spoiling is giving the amount of the square-root of their age multiplied by the median income in a five-mile radius of your home each calendar month.”

Ironically, the way to inoculate your children from being needy, narcissist adults is by giving to them in a consistent and age-appropriate manner.

If the majority of their classmates have it, your child should have it- or at least a means of earning it.

Even though you walked to school five miles, and it was uphill both ways, and it took you a year to save enough for a beat-up bicycle- if all the kids in the neighborhood are riding bikes, get one for your kid.

If you live in a neighborhood or school district where children are given extravagant things, you may want to rethink your place of living as your children get older and begin to understand “keeping up with the Jones”.

By far, the most essential gift you can give your child is love, which children spell T-I-M-E!

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  1. Jennifer says:

    Life is so different for my children than when I was growing up, and it is hard to know if I’m giving them enough or too much.

    Thank you for pointing out that there can be no hard-and-fast rules, and that we must use our judgment in raising our children. This is an ongoing discussion that my husband and I have, as he came from a more financially-challenged background.

    Jen, mom of Taylor 5 and Dylan 2

  2. Mark Blankenbuehler says:

    I have a bit of a problem with “If the majority of their classmates have it, your child should have it- or at least a means of earning it.” Just because lots of other kids have the newest cell phone, ipods, and notebook computers does not mean I should provide one or even give them the option of getting one. I know the statement is made with the parents judgement in mind but it simply sounds like “keeping up with the Jones'”.

  3. Thank you so very much for this article. Many of my parents that are raising their child and single could benefit from this advice. Many of them reflect on the value choices made as a child and realilze that their childs happiness is more important than preparing them to compete in the 21st Century. Many of them end up having to give in and crush under the pressure adiminstered by their child!

  4. You stated, “if all the kids in the neighborhood are riding bikes, get one for your kid.”
    I’m not sure it’s good advise to give your child something just because most other kids have it. Sometimes families have different religions than most or different incomes or different ideas. That doesn’t mean they love their children less, it just means they place a different value on things. For example, I’m a high school teacher (and mother of a 15 and 6 year old) and I see most the kids with cell phones. That doesn’t mean that those kids who don’t have them should get them. Their parents may have a very good reason for not wanting their child to have one. Their parents don’t love them any less, it’s just that they don’t place a high value on cell phones. Not enough parents make their children work for what they want. I see a lot of spoiled, selfish kids who get what they want, even if it costs their family their last dime. Perhaps we should stop trying to “keep up with the Jones'” ourselves and teach our children the value of earning what you get, regardless of who has it already.

  5. Krisann says:

    Giving them things to keep up is one thing, but if they want it enough to earn it, and they value it because of their effort, then maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.
    Thanks for the reference about the two types of spoiling, it helps.

  6. I feel if most of the kids have these things and as long as I can omfortably afford it I Will buy those things. I think the key is living within your budget.

  7. Rob Williams says:

    I strongly agree with Mark Blankenbuehler’s comment; this sounds way too much like keeping up with the Jones. We have raised our children (3) to be independant thinkers….not to want what others want simply because we fall victim to powerful marketing machines.
    Your closing comment is far more accurate….quality time/love with your child is still the greatest gift.

  8. As the mother of a 27 year old and a nine year old, I am in a unique position to hear from my older, very articulate child why exactly the rule “if the majority of their classmates have it, so should they”. It was very painful, and did my son no favors, to always be the child who couldn’t get the expensive shoes, who didn’t have the things that truly most of his classmates were wearing. We’ve spoken a lot about this, and the truth is there-if you live in an area where you are on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, it would be better to move. No one will ever like or understand or I venture to say even become a stronger character by not having what his/her peers have. It creates unhealthy longing, and conversely, accentuates and promotes materialism, to overcome childhood deficiencies, often at the expense of healthier and more balanced ideals.

  9. I give my children the opportunity to save the money for big ticket items that they really want. My son (then 12 yo) knew the Wii was coming out more than a year in advance. He saved his allowence ($4 a week) birthday and Christmas money and money earned from extra chores for over a year in order to have the money when the system came out. In fact he had done so well that not only did he have enough money for the system, he was able to buy several games for it. He is very proud of his ability to save for the system and takes very good care of it, probably because he understands the cost of replacing it.

    My children often ask why all the kids in their school (a mostly low income area too) have all of the latest and greatest things. I have no answer for them other than to tell them that we give them what we can afford and other than that they have the choice to earn it for themselves. My girls aren’t nearly as good at saving as my son is and my frequent answer to them is “You obviously don’t want it bad enough to wait.”

    I think that in this “get it now” credit card debt society that waiting is good for kids. Saving for an item teaches them patience and the value of the item.

    I’m also big on checking out the free section of our newspaper and freecycle web sites as well as asking friends and neighbors if they know of anyone getting rid of stuff their kids have outgrown. My children are learning about “Reduce, Reuse and Recyle” at school so putting this into practice is a great lesson. Even if the swing-set isn’t brand new it is still new to them. I have friends whose kids won’t even reuse old printer paper to make paper airplanes! I don’t want my children to think that everything has to be brand new.

    I do however often splurge on items that will get them outside, a trampoline, mobile basketball hoop, scooters, and bikes. I want them to understand that our family values exercise enough that I will be generous in that area. I don’t think that cell phones, video game systems and ipods are important enough to go into debt for. But if my children think that they are very important then I will give them the opportunity and encouragement to earn that item for themselves.

    Joy, Mom to Nate 14, Mia 10 and Anna 8


  11. We need to be very careful as parents that we don’t connect our ‘value as a person’ with the ‘value of the things’ we do, have or gift.

    We also need to apply that same care with our children. A child needs to know that they themselves are the valuable thing not the stuff. There will always be someone who has more, there will always be someone with less… this fact has nothing to do with our value as human beings.

  12. I, too, agree about placing your child with appropriate peers. I’d love to scrape together the funds to send my daughter to a top school but know the peer pressure to “accessorise” would hurt all of us. We’ll work out a suitable alternative that suits our budget and our values.

    It’s also about working with other parents to explain your point of view. Many won’t be wanting to give their kids the gadgets but have no solidarity with their own peers (the parents). Stand together and don’t let the kids divide you!

  13. I can understand perhaps purchasing a couple things that you were going to purchase for your child anyway, but to buy lots of things (that’s just what some are) just because the neighbor’s have it just reflect one’s own sense of insecurity, which sooner or later, your child will grow up and realize it. They will also realize that you do things just to “keep up with the Joneses” instead of thinking in an intelligent manner, modeling for your child or even asking your child the “reasons” for wanting something and “if they really need it”. Yes, during the teen years, there’s no doubt that teens want to “fit in” so it will not hurt once in a while to get them some clothes, etc. so they won’t feel like an outcast because during the “teen years”, their “social” being is very important to them. But these things can be given as birthday presents, or earned by allowance or even purchased 50/50 style by your child and the parent. You’d be surprised how many chores would be done around the house if you use this type of plan. You just say, “I’m not opposed to buying you it, but I need you to chip in.” For younger children, there are so many good, imitation style clothing, etc. out there that should satisfy them. If it doesn’t, then I think one needs to sit down with their child and explain to them what’s important in life, and it’s not material things.

  14. This is a fascinating discussion! I had never considered the idea that “If the majority of their classmates have it, your child should have it- or at least a means of earning it.”

    When I first read it, I reeled in shock, but upon further reflection, I do see the wisdom in it, as well as the comment that you may need to reconsider where you live. I think the key to the above statement, though, is the part about the means to earn it. I believe if a child is given the chance to earn something, they then begin to choose which things are really that important.

    I don’t like to just give my children everything, and in the past I’ve subscribed to the theory that if everyone else has it, we most certainly do NOT need it, but I think I need to rethink that thought, because I do not want to create an “unhealthy longing, and accentuate and promote materialism,” as Carol mentioned above.

    What an interesting topic to ponder more!

  15. First of all, I’m really enjoying the variety of opinions. There is no texbook answer with raising children. But as a child who was the ‘lowest rung of the economic ladder’ (As stated above), I wish to share something…
    Because I grew up in the wealthiest city in the state, and I went without, I was motivated to start my own business at 20. Esther and Jerry hicks of “Abraham” state: “Desire is born from contrast”. So, although I was teased and went without, I know in my heart, I NEVER will again. I am stong, ambitious and confident. Aren’t our favorite stories the rags to riches kind?
    As for my children, I will encourage them to find creative ways to earn money. Will I let them be teased for their clothing? No. But will I buy them the newest video system. Not necessarily. When it comes to buying a car, I will match what they come up with. Indulged children never learn how to pick themselves up when they fall. A little bit of struggle makes us all stronger. And being a parent means loving them enough to not enable them, so that they may know their own potential.

  16. We have oodles of “stuff” and most of it is from fabulous local thrift stores. My kids have tried so many different types of board games, had oodles of stuffed animals, action figures, and electronic gizmos, etc. We have an abundant flow of goodies. We are working on clearing out this spring and will have a garage sale and also donate. It’s a reused circle of mega proportions! I think it’s possible to be really abundant and to teach values at the same time.

    I think some of the materialism and must have is from advertising and from kids not understanding the true nature of the get and spend and throw cycle. As an antidote to mass media messages, I connect what they purchase to its impact on the environment and others. Today we just watched a video called I think it’s an awesome piece of consumption reality…I always thought the college economics model left out a huge chunk. I think good decisions come from an informed reality. I’ve shown the kids the landfill and talked about how it’s growing from all the thrown stuff. They really get it. And they aren’t “denied” anything. I just ask that they understand the reality of their purchases.

    Kids really do make wonderful decisions when given wonderful information. I think a lot of the purchasing decisions they make are from peer pressure and media advertising. I think sustainability discussions are an amazing antidote to advertising. But a better antidote for my kids seems to be thrifting & garage sales and crafting and saving for items with their own allowance. It’s sort of a model of abundance rather than repression and can’t have. They really regulate themselves when it’s their own money they are spending!

    When they “must have”’s amazing how they make decisions (whether retail or thrift) that are precise and well thought out. A lot of times, the kids use their allowance money to purchase what they want, either retail or by thrifting.

    As for clothing, we talk about how boring it is to go in to a retail store and see rack after rack after rack of the same colors and styles. They are absolutely dressed to the nines from thrifting…boutique clothes..good quality and I consign their items and let them have money to get more.

    As one example of children making choices, my daughter really wanted a toy and then didn’t buy it because of the huge amount of packaging and the high price.

    It’s like the kids get to make a choice for something that helps the environment and that is so fun. I can always tell when the latest fad toy has lost its peer group significance as oodles of the item will be in the thrift stores.

    Lest this sounds naive…I’m watching it work in my own family and thought someone else might use it as a springboard in their own or relate to it a bit.

  17. “If the majority of their classmates have it, your child should have it- or at least a means of earning it.”

    I agree with Gina and Rob Williams that we shouldn’t just *give* our kids things because their classmates have them. When we do this, our kids don’t learn how to make independent judgements — “Do I really need it?” and instead learn to “keep up with the Jones”. And they get spoiled.

    However, I strongly agree with Joy, Alicia, J.D., and Paula. As opposed to just saying “no” to our childrens’ requests, (and have them resent that) we can give them “a means of earning it”. In other words, let them save up for what they want and buy it with their own allowance, birthday $, etc. My parents have done this with me, and it would made me reconsider whether that doll or toy that all my classmates had or I really wanted was something really important to me. If it wasn’t I dropped the idea. If it was, I worked hard for it.

    By doing this, my parents made me appreciate what I bought, and so I didn’t misuse it, or forget about it right after I got it. They taught me self-control; I couldn’t always get what I wanted. They taught me the value of things — not everything is free, or easy to come by. They taught me good budgeting skills, and how to save up.

  18. mrs. berger says:

    wonderful article, interesting letters.
    i have a question:
    facebook! all the girls are on it. my 14 yr dtr could be on it for hrs, on end. please help i think its a pure waste of time and energy and brain……
    please write, i poke my head on once in a while and she does not like that, ive read by mistake, some of the stuff, and im not happy. what to do? new era in life, she can write to boys also too easily, i really despise, no control. sorry help!

  19. Lovin Mama says:

    Hi, Mrs. Berger –
    That’s a very difficult question… if you really exercise “control” (like locking the computer with a password) she may resent it.
    If you make the computer an earned privilege (like only after homework is done) that might help you curb the timeframe, but it probably won’t keep her off facebook (or other undesirable sites).
    Can I suggest something that might have worked when I was 14?
    If my mom sat down with me, showed an interest in me, wanted to see my “profile” and the profiles of the friends & boys I was meeting there…
    If she wasn’t terribly judgemental but also wasn’t goofy about trying to connect… if she expressed some of her concerns based on what she remembered about being 14 (like “isn’t it flattering when boys pay attention to you? — there was one boy who paid attention to me but he turned out to be a jerk…)
    I think I would have liked personalized stories that would help me think through my own actions instead of flat-out, seemingly ignorant “control measures.”
    Just a thought! I’m interested to read what other people suggest to you.

  20. Maybe we need a blog about facebook.

  21. I find this discussion very interesting too. My daughter is 13 and we have tried to raise a child who understands our family values. If you start early, it can help. When her classmates started getting cell phones in 4th grade, I told her that when she had 5 friends with cell phones whose families had the same values as our’s, she could get one too. She finally got her cell near the end of 6th grade.

    Another thing that seems to have gone out of vogue is laying items away. When I was growing up, that’s how we were able to buy clothes for back-to-school or summer vacation. My mom would take us to the store and tell us we had X$ for out wardrobes. We would pick out the clothes but then they’d be put on layaway and my mom would pay on them each week until they were paid off. It meant waiting for a few weeks before we actually got the items, but it was worth it. If we chose instead to buy outright, we were given 1/4 the amount of money. I learned what would get me the bigger wardrobe!

    I recently used this concept with my daughter. She was going to a semi-formal dance. I told her I would give her $20 for a dress. We checked the local Goodwill but couldn’t find anything. We checked the sales racks, but she didn’t see anything she loved. In the end, she chose a $45 dress. I layed it away. I put the $20 down on it and each week her allowance went directly to the store. The week before the dance the dress was paid for. If lay-away isn’t available for an item, you can buy it and have your child put it on lay-away at home.

  22. Mrs. Berger
    i believe that your daughter wants you to know what is going on in her life whether she acts like it or not!! she is still so young and needs your protection and guidance.
    i like the comments Lovin Mama posted.
    I was very open to a nonjudging stepmother at your daughter’s age. Unfortunately I didnt get the guidance i needed at that time. She meant me no harm, but she left decisions about boys, sex, alcohol, and school too open for my own decisions at the age of 15 and 16.
    Our teens are not capable of making rational adult decisions. Many times they blame the parents for situations they get themselves into when the parent does not get involved to protect the child. that seems unfair, but it is true.
    if she knows that you know about something and she winds up getting hurt doing that activity, she could resent you later.
    i suggest getting the computer out of her room in a positive way if possible. i also think you 2 should have an activity you enjoy doing together (preferrably not shopping) that can help you communicate better and more often.
    I also do not think you have to apologize for reading some of her posts. Her “privacy” is important but it is not unlimitied. It should be based on trust and maturity in my opinion. I also think a limit on her time on facebook is a must. i am sure you can think of a positive way to do this. Invite her to the dinner table, to watch a tv show together, on a walk, etc. If she turns you down then you can explain how important she is to you and you miss her. work together to come up with something you will enjoy together. Tell her you respect her, but it is too important to you to let her refuse. Be loving and firm about it. You are the parent!!
    One last thing- I wouldnt get frustrated and tell her exactly how you feel about the facebook. I fear that will shut her down. We all remember spending hours on the phone as a teen. think of this as a form of that. Even then we needed guidelines. Mine were clear, no calls after 9, i didnt call boys, i had to respectfully get off if my parents needed the phone or told me to get off. If i couldnt follow the rules, I had to give up my phone time and possibly be grounded depending on the case.
    i am not saying those should be your guidlines, they are just an example.

    good luck and let me know!!!@

  23. Re: Facebook (or the equally disturbing myspace)

    I think it is important to monitor what your child is doing online. My daughter is not allowed to have either of these accounts. There is NO benefit to having them as a young teen.

    My daughter must give me the passwords to every account she keeps- e-mail, AIM- and I look over her shoulder and also check her contacts. If I see a name I don’t know, I ask her who it belongs too. Unfortunately, it is very easy for kids to have several IDs. I checkmy history and look for things that are unfamiliar. Also-the computer is in the family room with the monitor facing the room so I can see what she is doing.

    If you’ve read disturbing things that your child has written or others have written, you need to deal with it. If others have written those things, have your child ban them. If your child has written them, ban your child from using the computer for a bit. The punishment will therefore fit the crime.

  24. I must repectfully disagree. I don’t think that facebook/myspace are like talking on the phone.

    As teens, we didn’t randomly dial a number and start talking to the teenager on the other end. We knew who we were talking to.

    And while gossip was certainly a part of the phone game, it wasn’t spread with the lightning speed that the internet allows. If someone posts something, it can then be sent to hundreds of people immediately. Then those people can comment and spread and it easily snowballs. Instead of taking a few days for a rumor to spread through the school, it now takes seconds.

    It is also much easier to post anonymously than it is to phone anonymously. When you are anonymous, it’s much easier to say hurtful things or tell outright lies.

    These social networking sites have NO merit when it comes to teens. None.

  25. Jo Angiulo says:

    Wow, these are great things to share back and forth. I don’t like my kids to do without, but I love the idea of them saving and waiting. I never, ever want my kids to want things because their friends have them. They need to be independent in their thinking and need us as parents to encourage it and show by example through our own actions.

    As far as young teens on myspace or facebook, bad idea. In all respect to Ms. Berger – you are the adult and need to have that respected by your daughter. The influential garbage that goes on and on and on during their “hours” of sitting on the computer can not be good. When we are raising our children, hopefully we are teaching them some decent values and are spending enough time with them to really get to know them and to be influential as someone they love and respect. When they then go out of their little world within the family, you would hope they choose good friends with the same value. When they go to myspace or facebood – they are not choosing – all of the sudden they are exposed to everything – good and bad. As they spend “hours” on the computer, do you really think they are not absorbing all this garbage and it is taking root in their being??? The last thing I want for my kids is to become a part of the immorality our young kids face every single day between tv, the internet, the teen type magazines, mtv, yuck yuck yuck! Once our children are out of school – none of this stuff will mean anything, except what type of influences have been drilled in to them. We are responsible as parents to deter the bad influences and encourage the good ones.