The fear of accidentally ‘spoiling’ their first child is one of the main reasons parents choose to have a second. I guess, the logic goes; you are less likely to ‘spoil’ two or more children since you are too busy, too poor or too exhausted.
And if you do find yourself with the extra time or resources to be too generous or too doting, the siblings will swing into action and neutralise the damage by duking it out over toys or the remote. If that isn't enough, they can throw in some other daily reminders of how tough the real world is by teasing, belittling, punching and even abusing each other. No chance of spoiling now right?
I have an only child, a boy aged 14, and despite doting on him and giving him a lot of stuff he doesn’t need and letting him travel business class and stay in really nice hotels and resorts, and despite him being well into his teenage years, he appears to be nothing but charming, easy going and pleasant. He is popular at school, and with other parents. Hiss teachers all think he’s delightful.
But his personlity was like that from day one. On the third day of his life a nurse carried him down the hall towards my room for a feed. She was carrying two babies, one was crying. When she reached my room I said "Oh that's not Tom is it? " and she said "Oh no Tom wouldn't carry on like this." I cried a day later "I'm not good enough to be his mother." It wasn't just my own low self esteem talking, it was clear even then that he was a really nice person. He didn't make a fuss, he was even-tempered, co-operative, sweet, placid and smart.
And in coming years, despite being treated like a precious little prince, he kept it up. All through school he was easy going, receiving consistently top marks for his attitude and application. He's never been in trouble, never saught attention, never mucked up or bullied anyone. As 'spoilers' my husband and I have done our best but to no avail. We have failed, utterly.
So what exactly is ‘spoiling’? It's a word, a concept, you never really hear these days, except as a put down to an only child. It actually sounds old fashioned, like something Mary Poppins would have railed against before sending a 9 year-old down a chimney with a wire brush.
According to the online dictionary it exists in two forms. The first in reference to inanimate objects like apples and the second with reference to humans (children).
Diminish or destroy the value or quality of.
"I wouldn't want to spoil your fun"
synonyms: mar, damage, impair, blemish, disfigure, blight, flaw, deface, scar,injure, harm
Harm the character of (a child) by being too lenient or indulgent.
"The last thing I want to do is spoil Thomas"
synonyms: overindulge, pamper, indulge, mollycoddle, cosset, coddle, baby, wait on hand and foot, kill with kindness.
My understanding of spoiled children, learned mostly from TV shows of the 60s, is that they have poor social skills, butt into adult conversations, bully other kids, whinge and whine and demand stuff and then throw tantrums if they don’t get it. Think Bonnie in Gone With The Wind: "I want a pony." Have I ever met a child like this? I have to admit the answer is no. I’ve met plenty of children I didn’t like, some came good when they grew up, others did not. And I’ve met plenty of adults I didn’t like, but none of them were ‘spoiled.’ They were narcissists, egotists, people who lacked empathy even psychopaths but never anyone I’d call spoiled.
Weirdly the thing I notice most about the dictionary definition of ‘spoiling’ is that it sounds like something I’d like to be on the receiving end of. I like pampering, cosseting, overindulging and in fact spoiling myself. I pay good money for good chocolate, fine red wine, facials, overseas holidays and spa packages and I’m not alone.
The very vocabulary used as a ‘how to’ for ‘spoiling’ a child are advertising cliches used to sell us things we don’t need but desire. “Pamper yourself” “Indulge yourself” “Spoil Yourself” These little words can sell anything from luxury cars to toilet paper.
If it’s so desirable to spoil ourselves, why is it so dangerous to do it to our children? What happens to children who have been pampered, indulged and spoiled?
Let’s consult WebMD:
David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, says, You cannot "spoil" an infant. "Infants cry when they need something, and it's hard to spoil them because they're not trying to manipulate or maneuver.
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."
So you can’t spoil babies in fact pampering, indulging and giving in to all their demands is good parenting. Sounds like the sort of thing you might be better at if you’ve got more time and fewer distractions.
But what about older children? Toddlers, they have lots of tantrums and this is a classic sign of a spoiled child.
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 him or her to get dressed or eat lunch doesn't mean the child's spoiled. It just means he's 2.
So what about older children? Well Gorski is reluctant to use the word spoiled even then and prefers to use the words ‘over-indulged’ or ‘over-protected.’
But even these terms are vague and problematic since over-indulgence and over-protection are a shifting set of goal posts which change based on socio economic, cultural and generational context. To a child or teen living in the slums of Brazil or India, children in the suburbs of any American city, like the cast of Glee, must seem totally overindulged. I grew up in middle class Australia in the 70s and 80s and even to us the likes of Ferris Bueller and the cast of the Brady Bunch seemed spoiled with their fancy phones, giant sized cars, huge houses, enormous fridges, colour TVS and swimming pools.
Like wise, if children from 1930s America could see how their great grandchildren are living today they’d be shocked, even repulsed, at the way they address their parents like equals, are driven to school in air conditioned luxury, play in padded playgrounds and are each given a medal just for showing up to the game.
Does that mean the children of America are all over-indulged and over-protected? Well some people would actually argue yes.
In her book 'A Nation Of Whimps' Hara Marano outlines the downside of all this 'spoiling.'
“Armed with hyperconcern and microscrutiny, parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the lumps and bumps out of life for their children today. However well-intentioned, their efforts have the net effect of making kids more fragile. That may be why the young are breaking down in record numbers or staying stuck in endless adolescence.”
Marano is of course talking about the Millennials, or Gen Y, and she’s not the only one to voice concern about this generation of 'slackers.' In fact, the criticism of Millennials has been widespread enough to be cliched. They have been called lazy, narcissistic, divas, slackers, entitled and irresponsible. Tthe word ‘spoiled’ has been dragged out of mothballs, dusted off and spread thickly on the lot of them. “Millennial ‘divas’ too spoiled for workplace, study suggests.” That’s the Washington Post quoting research that says employers just don’t much like people under 35. What?
Author Sally Koslow thinks it’s the fault of the Baby Boomers. In her 2012 book “Slouching Toward Adulthood” she outlines the fashionable idea that 20 and 30 somethings (Millennials) have become a generation of ‘Adultescents’ thanks to the over indulgent, helicopter parenting of their baby boomer parents who set out to build self-esteem above all else. The results were a generation who: “…delay choosing careers, couch surf their way around the world, definitely not “put a ring on it” and postpone parenthood until 40?”
Is it just me or does this sound a little familiar? I grew up in the 70s when ‘young people’ or as they’re now called the ‘baby boomers’ were called long haired louts, lazy, drugged out, drop outs and bums by people wearing B52 hairdos, horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a pipe. Their music was the work of the devil and their attitudes to work and life (peace and love) threatened the very fabric of society.
Of course, anarchy didn’t prevail and they mostly grew up, knuckled down (sold out) and had families. The world didn’t end but an arguably immoral war did and some would say they had a positive impact on society. They were innovative and progressive. As a Gen Xer, we always thought of Baby Boomers as ‘spoiled.’ Still do. And if you were being fair you could argue that Millennials are the generation doing it toughest thanks to the Great Recession. Could their attitudes to life have been wrought by hardship and unemployment rather than their parents over indulgence?
The point is, writing off an entire generation as 'spoiled', 'entitled' or inadequate isn’t any better, rational or helpful than writing off all children who grew up without siblings as 'spoiled', or writing off gay or trans children as freaks or Asians as nerds. And it makes me wonder why you would do that.
Perhaps it’s because people find groupings of other people they don’t identify with or understand threatening and even alien and feel inclined to criticise or even vilify them to make themselves feel better. I can understand that older people, struggling with technology would find Millennial tech savviness threatening, especially in the work place and especially when you’re supposed to be their boss.
In the case of only children, I imagine the label ‘spoiled’ was given to a group of children who were seen as getting too much of a good thing. Too much of that all important parental attention. The privacy of their own room, unlimited, unfettered access to which ever device they choose, freedom from battling for their fair share, freedom from bullying, abusive siblings. In the end isn't that just jealousy?