Is Your Child Spoiled Rotten?

Experts tell parents how to decode the spoiled child.

7 min read

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.

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."

Many experts agree that most moms and dads love their children, and simply want the best for them. Their efforts, however, can sometimes have the opposite effect if they're not mindful.

"There are parents who don't want their kids to experience hardship or emotional stress of any kind," says Schmitt. "In the process, they teach the kid to have a personality that gets into all kinds of emotional stresses, because their behavior is unacceptable."

Pressures from the outside world can also make it tough for parents to exert enough discipline, says Kindlon. With a greater consumer culture than ever before, more demanding academic and extracurricular requirements for children, longer work schedules for parents, less family time, and a generally more lenient society, many mothers and fathers feel more inclined to go easy on their kids.

Plus, some moms and dads may use their kids as "Prozac," says Kindlon. "In past generations, the parents didn't care whether their kids liked them or not," he explains. "Now, given there are other things in our lives that aren't that satisfying, having good relationships with our kids is something that makes us feel good."

Then there are the persons who simply do not know how to be firm with their young. "There are people who cannot tolerate anger from another person, including their child," says Constance Katz, PhD, a psychotherapist based in New York City.

There are, indeed, many obstacles to the proper disciplining of kids. The bottom line is, however, that children need parents to raise them to be responsible and social adults.

"Kids need to know that there are firm limits out there, because it's not very secure to know that the limits change everyday," says Thompson. One way to teach children boundaries, he says, is to actually give them choices, beginning at 18 months old -- the age when people are capable of making simple decisions about right and wrong.

Choices may involve things like "Do you want orange juice or tomato juice?" or "Do you want to wear this outfit or that one?"

It is important to give kids options that you, as a parent, can live with. "You don't come home and say, 'Okay, you three kids, what do you want for dinner?' You might have three short orders,'" says Thompson.

As the children grow older, the list of options obviously becomes more complicated. But, if kids have practice with making simple decisions, they can be more trusted to make more difficult choices later in life, adds Thompson. "If you take the time [to present options to kids] in the first 11 years of life, it will pay off in dividends in the teen years. The child doesn't have to be a rebellious teenager."

Consistency is also key in preventing a child from thinking he can get away from following the rules. This means moms, dads, and whoever else is caring for the child are in agreement with each other on rules and discipline. "A unified front is so important," says Schmitt. "A child knows when adults don't come from the same position."

Steven Adelsheim, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, says one way to keep kids from becoming spoiled and self-centered is to expose them to diverse environments. "It's important for children to have experiences with others who have a wide range of needs, and people with different challenges, so that they can be more sensitive to the diversity of people in the world," he explains.

Adelsheim, himself, has four children, one of them a teen daughter who coaches a Special Olympics basketball team. Since his daughter's involvement with the team, he has seen her become more sensitive to the needs of other people. He says she is able to get past differences, and observe more similarities with others.

If there are extenuating circumstances -- such as an extended vacation, divorce or a major crisis in the family -- it's even more vital to enforce the rules. Structure helps children adapt to stress, says Kindlon.

Yet moms and dads also need to be sensitive to the needs of the child. "Parents have a job of figuring out what is behind the pleading and demanding," says Tanner, noting that kids' desires might be momentary -- such as if they saw something appealing on TV or in the toy store -- or the child might be signaling a deeper need, such as time with a parent.

If parents find themselves always angry at their child, because the kid doesn't answer to them, or if they feel their rules have become too excessive in response to the child's bad behavior, then it may be time to make changes, says Ross Black, MD, a spokesman for the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Moms and dads who want to do something about spoiled children need to do the basic things that need to be done to prevent spoiled kids in the first place, including setting firm limits, being consistent, and providing choices.

The process of unspoiling, however, may be a lot harder because it would be like breaking a bad habit, says Black. He suggests having an initial conversation with the spoiled child, laying down what is going to happen to avoid confusion.

"You can approach it by saying, 'I don't like what has happened with what we've been doing, so we need to change. I still love you as my child, but when you do these kinds of things, I feel concerned and I would like to change that,'" says Black.

The child may say she does not want to change, but parents need to stand firm and say things will change, and to present options of how the change could take place.

For more help with disciplining a child, Black suggests the following resources: self-help books, courses that offer a special technique called Parent Effectiveness Training (PET), pediatricians, and behavioral psychologists.