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Is Your Child Spoiled Rotten?

Experts tell parents how to decode the spoiled child.
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WebMD Feature

When Junior and his mother walk into the doctor's waiting room, there are two seats available: a big chair for grown-ups and a stool for kids. Junior takes the adult seat, and starts to throw a tantrum after Mom asks him to move. With resignation, she squats onto the little seat.

This scenario is not so uncommon, says Barton Schmitt, MD, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital in Denver. In his office, he sees kids wield power over their parents at least a couple of times a week. Sometimes it's a preschooler who's emptying out his mother's purse, taking out all of her credit cards. Another day it's a tot who's stretching out her father's glasses. In each instance, the kid gets his way, even after some parental protest.

Some people may call these children spoiled.

Schmitt suspects that about 5% of kids are spoiled in that they lack discipline, are manipulative, and are generally bothersome. His estimate, however, may be far too generous, if one author's research proves accurate.

In 2000, Dan Kindlon, author of Too Much of a Good Thing, interviewed more than 1,000 parents, and roughly 650 teenagers, and found that 60% of parents thought their kids were spoiled, and 15% of teens thought they, themselves, fit the bill.

Defining "Spoiled"

Kindlon did not ask his subjects what they thought the term "spoiled" meant, but he believes that they would all have different answers -- as did many of the child-development experts interviewed by WebMD.

"A spoiled child has the 'I want, I want, I want' syndrome," says Charles L. Thompson, PhD, professor of educational psychology and counseling at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "His philosophy of life would sort of be 'Life is not good unless I'm getting my own way.'"

The word "spoiled" has many different meanings in different cultures, says Lane Tanner, MD, associate director, division of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, Calif.

"Very often a grandparent will shake her head with a grin, and say 'My daughter is spoiling that baby so bad,' and that's praise," says Tanner.

A spoiled kid is someone who sits inside on a cold day -- sipping hot chocolate and watching TV -- while her dad shovels snow in the driveway, says Kindlon. He notes that such children often feel entitled not to have to contribute to responsibilities. They also usually have parents that emotionally indulge them -- for example, excusing them from chores because they already have a tough school schedule.

"What's spoiled for one parent may not be for another," says George Cohen, MD, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on the psychosocial aspects of child and family health. "Many parents think what their kid is doing is okay. Others are much stricter."

Whatever one's primary definition of spoiled is, arguably, there are children who could use a bit more discipline. They usually find it hard to share, wait their turn, appreciate what they have, and accept that they cannot always get their way.

Life, for these kids, is often difficult, says Schmitt. "They are constantly in a tug of war with their environment," he explains. "They keep smashing into walls because they are living in a world that's different from the real world."

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