Can You Spoil a Child?

We have an adorable new baby, and we find her so delightful that we pick her up whenever she cries. Some people are telling us that we’re “spoiling” her. Are we? It doesn’t feel like it. What do we have to do in order not to spoil this child as she grows?

No, you’re not spoiling your baby. It is, as the saying goes, impossible to spoil a baby. When you delight in her and respond to her, you’re teaching her that your family is a safe and loving place, that she is wanted in this world, and that even though she is small and helpless, she can have effectively get her needs met by making them known. As a psychologist I often work with people who did not get these messages in infancy, and the effect is devastating!

However, as your child gets older it will become possible to “spoil” her. There are two ways to spoil a child. Dr. Hugh Missildine, in his book “Your Inner Child of the Past,” calls them “overindulgence” and “oversubmissiveness.” Overindulgent parents have bought the media message that a parent should constantly entertain his or her children, so they meet all their child’s needs, wants, and wishes before the child even asks. An at-home mother can easily become a one-woman daycare centre, toy store, arts and crafts director, theatre manager, and so on. Working parents can “burn out” doing everything for their children at the expense of their own needs.

The problem with overindulgent parenting is that it deprives the child of the opportunity to think for himself, make decisions, and develop his own needs and preferences. An overindulged child never has to struggle or take the initiative to get something for himself. He never has to work for anything. He never has to entertain himself (perhaps with creative, imaginative play) when his parents are busy and he’s bored with all his toys. This child is “spoiled” into believing that life will provide for him without his own effort, and when he grows up he will expect everyone to read his mind and provide for him in this way.

The other kind of spoiling is oversubmissiveness. An oversubmissive parent gives in to all her child’s demands, often because she fears the child won’t love her if she doesn’t. She just isn’t able to say a firm “No.” The child learns that whining will work to get what she wants, and if whining doesn’t do the trick a temper tantrum will. The parent has no time to herself, can’t get anything happening without an argument, and has to listen to whining continuously. When she’s had too much, she explodes in anger, and then gives in to the child even more because she feels guilty for exploding. Children need to learn that there are firm and consistent limits, and that they won’t be allowed to take advantage of other people. The child with an oversubmissive parent doesn’t learn to accept a “No” from other people, or to set limits for herself. She learns to get her way by fussing, temper tantrums, and the ever-present threat : “If you loved me, you’d do what I want.”

The child “spoiled” by oversubmissive parenting grows up into a teenager and adult who can’t set limits on herself, and who won’t respect other people’s limits and personal boundaries. She will make life miserable for her parents, spouse, and children, infringing on their rights and feelings without even being aware of them.

A new baby needs to have all her needs responded to, so she feels secure, loved, and effective in communicating her needs. As she grows a little older it’s important to help develop her independence by not being overindulgent, and her respect by not being oversubmissive. If when your child’s a year old you still get up at night for her on a regular basis, and you never get a sitter and go out to have time for yourselves, you are spoiling her. She is not learning that when you leave you will return, and that you too have needs which she should respect. The real trial years regarding “spoiling” come in the preschool years, when the child develops a clear will of her own. That’s the time to assert your personal boundaries, let “No” mean NO, and allow her to entertain herself some of the time. Provide for your child’s needs, and teach her to provide for them herself as she grows. Set limits, and teach your child that other people matter. If you do these things, with love, your child will not be spoiled.