There is no one right way to be a “good” parent and regardless of how that looks across families on any given day, one thing is clear: good parents connect with their children.
Naturally, connection varies depending on the age and abilities of the child. With an infant, it could just mean cuddling. For a toddler, connection might be stomping around the house together pretending to be dinosaurs. When a child is a bit older, it might look like reading favorite stories together or talking about hard things that happened at school. Regardless, at all ages and stages connection blossoms from love, time, and attention that allows children to feel their true needs are being met. This positive experience allows kids to feel safe and secure at home and in the world. But sometimes parents wonder, can this type of attention “spoil” a child? The short answer is a resounding “NO.”
When a child is seeking love or time or attention, they may “ask” for it with their behavior and it’s often up to the parent to figure out what’s going on. A baby may cry; a toddler might throw a tantrum; an older child becomes snarky. Does responding to these “requests” with time, love, or attention “spoil” the child? Despite what you may have heard from well-meaning grandparents, aunts and uncles, it absolutely does not. The view that meeting a child’s emotional needs somehow “spoils” them and “teaches them to act out” could not be more misplaced.
Imagine for a moment that you are in physical or emotional pain. You begin to cry in front of your best friend or partner but they ignore you, hoping that by doing so you’ll express yourself somehow “better.” How would you feel? Probably a lot worse — and alone. But if your confidant responded with some compassion and met your “request” for connection with something like, “Oh no! What’s going on? I see how upset you are,” you’d feel heard and likely that would be the beginning of the feeling moving through you. In other words, your emotional state would shift quite quickly. The same is true for children, and typically once their need is met, they’ll stop crying/raging/pouting/whining.
It’s critical to remember that meeting a child’s needs is not the same as spoiling them. Per developmental psychologist Tina Bryson, PhD, “Spoiling is NOT about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can’t spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself. In the same way, you can’t spoil a baby by holding her too much or responding to her needs each time she expresses them.”
So what, you ask, does “spoil the child”? Spoiling happens when parents create a world where he or she feels they are entitled to getting their way, or anything they want, whenever they want it — essentially creating the conditions where the child expects everything to come easily. Meeting a child’s needs is not the same as fulfilling a child’s wants and whims.
As Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, author of The Whole Brain Child, explained: When kids are given whatever they want all the time, they lose opportunities to build resilience and learn important life lessons about delaying gratification, about having to work for something, about handling disappointment. Having a sense of entitlement, as opposed to an attitude of gratitude, can affect relationships and goals in the future when the entitled mindset comes across to others and doesn’t help the child learn grit and determination. Importantly, parents need to give kids practice at having to delay gratification and even do without — building resilience and giving them opportunities to work through disappointment.
Children learn valuable skills when they have to deal with emotionally uncomfortable or challenging experiences. One (albeit extreme) example: a child leaves his homework unfinished on the table and his parent completes it before rushing it to school to turn it in. In this scenario the child doesn’t learn from the consequences of an unfinished or late assignment. The parent swooping in helps no one. Instead, the child begins to expect that things will always be taken care of.
So how can parents meet their children’s needs without catering to their every want? One way is by focusing more on giving their full attention and less on giving them stuff. Kids will naturally be disappointed if you tell them, “No, you can’t have that.” But learning how to move through that feeling of disappointment is tremendously valuable. In addition, parents can look for ways throughout the year to set up family rituals that create memories; to teach children about giving to others and allow them to participate in the generosity. Sometimes parents simply need to replace indulging materially with indulging affectionately.
Fortunately, there’s lots of room for flexibility and creativity in child-rearing and we know prioritizing children’s needs over their whims can help shape them into generous adults who don’t suffer (or make others suffer!) from their sense of entitlement. Let’s admit it — we could all use more of that in the world.
At GetzWell, we love guiding families through all manner of challenges and concerns. From sore throats to emotional intelligence, we’re here to support parents and kids. Call us to learn more!