Being a parent means, among other things, engaging in agonising negotiations to keep the supermarket aisles relatively quiet and the shopping trolley from overflowing with sweets. Some are successfully concluded. Others, a real failure. Although we are very adept at recognising a spoiled child on the street, we have a much harder time spotting the signs in our own children. After all, what exactly is spoiling?

I must have been quite young when I realised that life is full of problems and that if your coping system doesn’t work, you’re out of the game. Mine never seemed to work properly; it was often broken. I was very selective about where I went, where I ate (or what I ate), I didn’t talk when I should have. I couldn’t sleep in many places, and when I had to sleep somewhere else, it was a torturous jumble of thoughts and sleepless hours.

Some of these quirks were understood and treated very carefully by people close to me, but others were completely ignored. I remember, for example, that my fear of unfamiliar situations was completely disregarded on the day when it was decided, when I was about six years old, that I was old enough to guard our cattle in the village pasture. Despite my loud protests, I was escorted through the gate of the house to follow the hungry cows in search of fresh grass. Behind me, the latch of the gate creaked in sorrow, a sign that the time for mercy for my weakness had passed. Although I shouted loudly that I would not leave the gate, the fact that the cows, assisted by our spirited goat, had already reached the end of the road made me suddenly change my mind and run after them. However much I feared reaching the pasture alone, my sense of responsibility for the fate of the animals left in my care had prevailed.

But for other needs (or should I say whims?) I could rely on my family as if their only purpose in life was to serve me. I was a picky eater, in open enmity with the dishes that were routinely placed on the table, but also with the scales that dared not climb to a more respectable weight. Tired of the threats of hunger strike—which often came true and made my relatives fear that I was about to become weightless—and tormented by the tears I shed at the sight of the usual menu, my mother struggled to prepare something good for me. A thankless task, as there were three of us, and my younger siblings heroically resisted the idea of sacrificing themselves on the altar of my culinary mischief.

Somehow my mother always found a slice of bread, a real treasure in times of record wheat harvests per hectare, but also of strict bread rations. The only way to get bread was to raid the village bakery, where, after many tears and fingers frozen and bruised by the boots of other bread lovers, we would leave with one or, on some lucky days, two pieces of baked dough, the ration allocated to a family patriotically endowed with five stomachs.

By today’s standards, I wasn’t exactly a spoiled child. Maybe not even by the standards of the time, especially if I compared myself to some of those I considered over-indulged, like my friend Mara, who was treated like a queen by her parents. But it is clear that for some parents then, too overwhelmed by the daily cares and needs to deal with a child’s whims, all these difficulties of adjustment were clear signs of spoiling. Today, it seems even harder to know where to draw the line between need and want, between a parent’s authority and the relaxation that threatens to turn their child into a ‘spoiled brat’. Spoiling is all the more difficult to define because its boundaries change from culture to culture and from generation to generation.

Indulgence seen through different lenses

“With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world,” notes the American author Elizabeth Kolbert in a 2012 article. Kolbert’s conclusion is based on an examination of the privileges enjoyed by today’s younger generation, but also on a comparison of how children are prepared to take on the responsibilities of adult life in a Peruvian Amazon tribe and in middle-class families in Los Angeles. It’s easy to see that the differences in parenting styles are considerable, as are the differences between the two cultures.

Carolina Izquierdo, an anthropologist at the University of California, spent several months with the Matsigenka tribe and was impressed by the self-control and interest in making themselves useful that the children showed from a very young age. Precisely because they are trained early in adult activities, Matsigenka children build their self-sufficiency very early, and by puberty they have almost all the skills needed to survive.

The effort to get children to help with household chores is so great that parents prefer to do everything themselves.

Izquierdo, who was also involved in an anthropological study conducted in Los Angeles by her colleague Elinor Ochs, found that American parents often failed to involve their children in age-appropriate household activities. According to the study’s authors, American parents have very low expectations of their children’s involvement in household activities—by the time they are teenagers, many don’t even know how to use household appliances that make housework easier. In fact, the effort to get children to help with household tasks is so great that parents often prefer to do everything themselves.

In the examples cited in the study, children refused to take a shower or were only persuaded to do so after repeated requests, waited to be served a meal when they could have gotten what they needed themselves, or ordered their parents to tie or untie their shoes at an age when they could easily have put their own shoes on.

“We may be raising a generation of kids who can’t, or at least won’t, tie their own shoes,” Kolbert writes, wondering what values parents are instilling in their children when they reward them for tasks they don’t complete when it’s their responsibility to do so.

The problem also stems from the unprecedented authority given to children: instead of children seeking parental approval, as has always been the case, parents are now trying to get their children’s approval, say psychology professors Jean Twenge and William Keith Campbell.

There’s no easy answer to the question “How spoiled are our children?“, says paediatrician Perri Klass, who often faces this question in meetings with concerned parents of her young patients.

In every generation, to varying degrees, parents worry that they aren’t playing their role properly, and adults look with suspicion or disapproval at the indulgence they didn’t experience as children. Privileged and spoiled children have always existed, Klass points out, recalling that such children were common characters in 19th-century novels. But are today’s children more spoiled, or are there more spoiled children than ever before? The doctor says he can’t give a clear answer, given the obvious differences in educational methods in different eras. On the other hand, parents in every generation have had the difficult task of balancing the needs and desires of their child with the need to form their child’s character, concludes Klass, who argues that “we get it wrong some of the time, no matter what we do.”

What is a spoiled child?

Spoiling means different things to different parents, says George Cohen, a board member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, noting that rules and the strictness with which they are enforced vary from family to family.

Spoiling children remains a controversial topic, but there are signs of inappropriate behaviour that need to be spotted early to put things right. Some warning signs that parents should look out for are: the child does not accept a negative response, does not appreciate what the parent does for them (the most commonly used words are “give me”, not “please” or “thank you”), feels entitled to special favours, and is never satisfied with what they have.

The spoiled child’s philosophy is that life is only good if they can do whatever they want.

A spoiled child has the ‘I want, I want, I want’ syndrome'”, says psychology professor Charles Thompson, pointing out that spoiled children’s philosophy is that life is only good if they can do whatever they want.

A refusal to conform to the natural rules of family life, a habit of making a fuss in public to get what they want, ignoring their parents’ demands and displaying behaviour that attracts the dislike of others are other characteristics that complete the profile of a spoiled child.

Some children find it harder than others to accept parental authority, and almost all will test their parents to see how far they can push their disobedience, says Dr Fredric Neuman, former director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center clinic in New York. In the struggle that often occurs between parents and children, parents don’t have to win every time, but they also don’t have to let their children have the last word on a regular basis, because that will work against them, Neuman concludes. Children who are spoiled by their parents often become moody, selfish, unhappy, and dissatisfied adults, points out Michele Borba, a psychologist who specialises in working with children.

Although people associate spoiling with a family’s high socioeconomic status, there are many ways to indulge children, and money is just one of them, writes Ron Lieber, author of a book on the subject. Too many privileges and not enough responsibilities—that’s the perfect recipe for raising a spoiled child, says Lieber, who points out that money can also be a very useful tool for modelling the opposite of spoiled behaviour (which he says requires virtues such as generosity, modesty and patience).

Can you undo spoiling?

Parenting expert Tracy Baxley says her work focuses on parents’ attitudes rather than children’s behaviour, because they often don’t have the best tools and strategies for dealing with inappropriate behaviour. The experiences and traumas they have lived through often take the form of fear, overprotection of children and “misguided, but well-intentioned, love“.

Spoiling a child has nothing to do with “excessive” love, because parental love should not be limited or shown with caution, writes psychologist Aliza Pressman. Her recommendation is to help children realise that they need to adjust some behaviours, but also that they are the object of a parent’s unconditional love.

After a while of vacillating between worrying about giving too much and fearing that she was giving her child too little, author and journalist Kiri Westby has concluded that “a child who has too much stuff” is more of a symptom than a cause. In an age of material abundance, today’s children get more material things and see more of their wishes fulfilled than those of previous generations. But the real problem is that toys or sweets have become a substitute for the parental love and attention that the child desperately seeks, no matter how many objects are bought for him or her.

Westby says that her daughter is content to play with just one of her old toys, not insisting on getting a tablet, a new toy or more sweets if her mother joins in and makes the game come alive. For her part, the author says she solved the spoiling dilemma by simply checking whether a spoiled child’s insistence and gestures mask a need to spend more time in the parent’s company and benefit from the parent’s undivided attention.

Boundaries that restrain and regulate behaviour are in the best interests of the child, although, as Baxley notes, children will resist with all their might if they are not used to rules and boundaries. In an age of parents who find it increasingly difficult to say “no” to their children, we need to learn that parents will not always please their offspring if they are consistent in enforcing the rules they have set.

Helping children practise gratitude for what they have, developing their ability to wait, practising giving, and setting limits on the money they can spend and the gifts they can receive are other strategies for preventing and treating spoiled behaviour.

Teacher and author Robert Taibbi says that whenever he’s contacted about a child’s behaviour problem, he asks to meet with just the parents to see if they can work as a team—misunderstandings and differing positions are just loopholes that the children are very clever at exploiting.

Maintaining a healthy hierarchy in the family, rewarding cooperative behaviour and quality parent-child time are other anti-spoiling strategies.

As Taibbi explains, if the parent is used to nagging, criticising, giving few rewards and not spending enough time with the child, the child will learn to attract attention through negative behaviour.

Responsiveness to a child’s needs is very important, says paediatrician Lane Tanner, who advises parents to look at the reasons behind requests or demands to see if what the child wants is a spur-of-the-moment impulse or an expression of a deep unmet need.

The reasons why parents give in to a child’s pressure, even when they know it is wrong, are many—from the desire to protect children from stress and disappointment, to the need to provide things that were denied to them in their own childhood, to trying to balance the demands of school and the pressures of extracurricular activities. 

However, if parents teach their children that they can get what they want by throwing tantrums and being insistent, then they will pave the way for a difficult life later on. As paediatrician Barton Schmitt notes, these children (and, sadly, the adults they will become) “are constantly in a tug of war with their environment. They keep smashing into walls because they are living in a world that’s different from the real world.”

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.