Magical Thinking and Spoiled Children

Sandra Dodd

I won't build up to the punchline: I don't believe money makes kids spoiled, and I don't think they will be spoiled by getting their way about things.

It seems to me after all these years of hanging around discussions of whether it hurts to give kids what they want, that "spoiled" is a boogey man parents use to scare one another and themselves. From observation and nosiness/curiosity and teaching I've gathered a lab sample of lots and lots of families. I truly believe that very much of such behavior is genetic. And with that proposal there comes the modelling problem--nature or nurture?

"Spoiled" has more to do with a bad attitude than with privilege and wealth (of stuff, or of attention, or of money). Selfishness and casual cruelty and thoughtlessness are the marks of being spoiled, whether a child has stuff or not.  When a poor child is that way, people say "Well what do you really expect? Poor kid has nothing." When a rich child is that way, they say "OH, it's directly attributable to all that STUFF he has."

So parents who have traditionally wanted justification for treating children "like children" (seen and not heard, told to wait until they’re older, told things are none of their business) jump on this accepted social truth and use it as an excuse when they tell their kids "NO!" They disguise "no" as a kindness. "I don't want you to become a spoiled brat."  Or they say "You're only asking for this because I bought you something last year, so now I'm sorry I ever bought you anything," and soon the insults are fast and furiously eroding trust and respect.

It is possible for a parent to do more damage by giving something and then taking it back than by never giving anything at all. We know a kid with a sweet but poor dad and stepmom, and a more affluent real mom. She gives him COOL stuff–a guitar, a car–but then doesn't let him have them or use them for all kinds of minor offenses.  She sold something he had (I forget what) because he was "bad," and she sold it without his approval–just sold it to strangers to teach him a lesson. The lesson he learned was his mom is not a reliable or fair person, and he rendered the car unsellable with a bat or a sledgehammer or something, just in case she was planning to benefit from taking that one back too. And she says he's a bad, bad boy. Only at her house, it seems.

So the attitude and intent seem more important than the dollar value or the mass of stuff.

Holly, who just turned nine, gets an allowance of 75 cents per year of age, so she was, up to last week, getting $6 a week. Now $6.75.

We took her to Disneyland. She had saved all her birthday gift money (which amounted to about $35 from her grandmothers and her brother), and her allowance for several weeks, and she had loaned me $20 a few months before and said "Keep it for Disneyland." She had $104, some in cash and some in "the bank of dad."

She came back from three days at Disneyland with $84 and a cute safari hat.

Nobody discouraged her from spending her money. She just doesn't NEED anything, because she gets lots of things when she wants them, and so she doesn't have that desperation to acquire.

Kirby, at 14, gets $10.50 a week and he has a job that earns him $30 a week or sometimes a bit more.

He bought one Mad Hatter hat and a little skull of Elvis (which he calls "the skull of pharaoh" after the pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) to use as a table marker for a game called 7th Sea.  Marty was practically penniless. We kept offering to buy him something if he really wanted something. He finally got a skull (without pompadour) for a game marker, and a pirate scarf with Mickey Mouse ears (which he's sharing with me). I think they knew if they had REALLY wanted something–a toy or a t-shirt or whatever–that they could have had it. So their decisions were not made on any basis except "Do I really want this? Would it make my life better to have it?"

When a child is needy, he's rarely needy of things.  He wants proof of regard and affection but he might not know that. If his life needs to be made better, he'll try whatever he can (until he gives up trusting and trying).

I have known children with nearly nothing who suffer preventive deprivation by parents who don't want to spoil them, who are bullies away from home and always clamor to have their way, to be first, to have more. I have known children who are given their way, an opportunity to be first, and more than they ask for, and they are fine with going second, with sharing, or with giving up the best seat to someone who just really wants it.

There is no magical prevention for bad attitude, but if parents are modeling a bad attitude with their own unreasonable selfishness or arbitrary system of denying children, they should expect their children to show arbitrary selfishness to others.

If you've never thought of these things, please consider them. If you find yourself thinking or saying anything like “You think you're entitled to things" or "You're so full of yourself," please consider the effect this will have on the image a child has of himself. Children ARE entitled to love, protection, and positive experiences within the parent's means. They SHOULD be full of self awareness and self regard.

"You can't give what you don't have," some people say, and if you want your children to give generosity and kindness and patience to others, you should give them so much they're overflowing with it.

(Article appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Enchanted Families)
I think forbidding toy guns is another instance of superstitious magic practiced unwittingly by parents.

The idea that one can make a sacrifice to assure future success is ancient among humans, isn't it?

Deprivation doesn't create appreciation. It creates some or all of desire, neediness, curiosity, fascination, resentment, obsession, anger...

Unfortunately the real sacrifice parents make too often is their child's happiness and their own hope of a full and healthy relationship with that chid and future adult.

Sandra Dodd from the toy guns page
Pam Sorooshian, Joyce Fetteroll and others
on saying YES! to our children.
Generosity Gratitude Abundance