Is Your Child Spoiled?

Who’s ruling the roost? Set age-appropriate guidelines, and take back control.

Medically Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on December 02, 2012
5 min read

Every parent has probably heard it at one time or another: "You're going to spoil that child!" Yet what do we really mean by spoiled child? How do you know if your child is spoiled, and what can you do to avoid spoiling them if you haven't done so already?

Most child development experts cringe at the use of the term "spoiled child."

David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, says, "That's really a term from a different era. Parents who 'spoil,' often out of the best of intentions, really want to give their children everything without their having to work for it. But the world doesn't work that way."

You cannot "spoil" an infant, Elkind says. "Infants cry when they need something, and it's hard to spoil them because they're not trying to manipulate or maneuver. In infancy, you really need to build the feeling that the world's a safe place."

Later on, he says, it's certainly possible to spoil your child by giving him or her too much, not setting boundaries, and not expecting your child to do what's healthy. But there's no spoiling a 6-month-old.

Peter A. Gorski, MD, director of the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies, says, "There is so much questionable parenting literature out there that still talks about spoiling babies. This is a myth that really needs to be addressed."

Research shows that infants whose parents respond quicker to their needs, including their cries, are happier and more independent by their first birthday, Gorski says. They learn to trust that you'll be there when they need you.

What about toddler temper tantrums? Are these children spoiled? No, Elkind says. Tantrums are simply a part of normal development. "This is a time kids are differentiating themselves, and they do that by saying no," he says. "That's normal." It doesn't mean you don't need to set limits for your toddler or that you should always give in. But saying "No no no no no!" every time you want them to get dressed or eat lunch doesn't mean the child's spoiled. It just means they are 2.

So if an often-cuddled infant and a toddler with tantrums are not spoiled -- how do you tell if your child is?

  • The cafeteria dining plan. "You serve dinner, and the child doesn't want to eat what's on the table, so you always have to go out of your way to make a special meal," Elkind says. Once or twice is one thing, and of course children with special dietary needs must always be accommodated. But a child who insists on special orders every night could be on the way to being spoiled. "If a 5-year-old misses a meal it won't hurt him," Elkind says.
  • Tantrums. They're normal in toddlers. But when a 5- or 6-year-old throws a fit because they don't get what they want, that's age-inappropriate. "For little ones, it may be the only way they can express their feelings, but in older children, tantrums are manipulative," Elkind says.
  • Extreme dependence on parents. If your child can't go to sleep unless you're there, won't ever let you leave him with grandma or a babysitter, and throws fits when it's time to go to school or day care, that's a problem, Elkind says. "Your child depends on you, yes, but as they get older, children have to learn to be comfortable with other people and with being on their own.”

Instead of "spoiled child," Gorski prefers to use the term "overindulged" or "overprotected." These children may indeed "run the house" -- but it's because parents treat them like they're much younger than they are. "A key warning sign," he says, "is any child much older than the toddler years who continues to act like a baby or toddler -- kicking and screaming, biting other children, not using age-appropriate ways of communicating thoughts and feelings. This is a sign that they're not very secure about themselves."

Set age-appropriate boundaries so that kids go after life exuberantly, testing the limits, Gorski says. You can start in the toddler years.

  • Establish your outer limits of safety. For example: "Never touch the hot stove," and, "Never run into the street." Relay what is and is not acceptable and never vary the message you give about safety, Gorski says.
  • Reinforce positive social behavior in a similar way. Know what you will encourage, such as saying please and thank you and playing gently with friends. "Reinforce positive behavior more than you harp on negative behavior," Gorski says.
  • Talk openly with your children about behavior as they get older. "School-age and adolescent children are capable of insight, so sit down and to try to figure problems out together," Gorski says. For example, if you ask a child "Why are you doing this?" the child may not be able to tell you. But if you say "I wonder why this keeps happening," that open-ended question might give the child room to speculate. You might be surprised by what you learn.
  • Stay calm. Losing your temper with bad behavior only makes you feel bad and look out of control (kind of like a spoiled child), and it doesn't teach the child better behavior.
  • Be consistent. Always do what you say you're going to do. If you tell your child there will be consequences for a certain behavior, they should know you mean it. "This time I'm really taking the toy away if you don't play nicely," doesn't work when you've already said it 10 times.

A kid being out of control is a cry for help, not a sign the child is spoiled, Gorski says. "What's best of all is to start early and consistently to set limits, to understand developmental needs of the infant and young child for this delicate, critical balance between freedom and limits."