How to Unspoil a Child

Most parents do not intend to spoil their children. It happens gradually: you give in to whining, you let chores go undone, or you buy too many toys and treats, and your child slowly becomes bratty and entitled. Fortunately, you can undo the damage. Start with Step 1 to learn more.

Part 1: Identifying the Causes
Admit that your child is spoiled. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one, so stop making excuses for your child’s behavior. Admit that he or she is spoiled.

Find causes. As a parent, you have a critical role in shaping your child’s behavior. Your actions are the most important ones. Parents spoil their children for a variety of reasons, but most fall into one or more of these three categories:
Wanting to make your child happy. Parents quite naturally want their sons and daughters to feel happy and enjoy their childhoods. They may, therefore, overindulge their children. You may be especially likely to fall into this trap if you had a difficult, unhappy childhood.

Wanting to protect your child’s self esteem. Some parents worry – usually unnecessarily – that disciplining their children or failing to fulfill their children’s desires will lead to low self esteem. This
well-intentioned concern can lead to overindulgence.

Taking the easier path. You may realize that it’s easier to give in to your child’s demands than to listen to hours of whining and complaining, or that it’s easier to do a chore yourself than to get your child to do it properly. If you do these things too often, you may wind up with a spoiled child.

Keep a parenting journal. It can be helpful to write down both your parenting decisions (including those you think may be mistakes, like giving in to whining or buying an unplanned treat) and your child’s behavior. Doing so may enable you to pinpoint particular causes of bad behavior and develop possible solutions.

Imagine your child in someone else’s home. It’s easy to become so accustomed to your child’s bad behavior that you do not notice it or know what problems to tackle first. Try imagining your child’s behavior in someone else’s home or in a public place. What would concern you? Which behaviors would embarrass you? Start with those.

Part 2: Re-Educating Your Child
Make a decision to re-educate your child. Decide what kind of behavior will be acceptable and what methods you will use to reinforce that behavior. Start right away, and have confidence in your decision.

Set the rules. Make clear, simple rules that will eliminate overindulgence without expecting perfection. Your child needs to know exactly what is expected. Specify penalties for violations of these rules.
If your child is young or tends to be a visual learner, write these rules down and display them in a prominent location.

Be consistent. Once you have set rules, stick to them. If you don’t, your child will simply learn that you can be successfully challenged, ignored, or bargained with.

Apply punishments fairly. Do not explain and re-explain your rules again and again. Instead, when your child violates a rule, give the predetermined consequence, without any unnecessary discussion. If, for example, your child does not clean his closet even though he or she is required to do so and even though you gave a warning, then simply apply the punishment you’ve already designated – say, no television for the week. Do not admonish the child again or lash out angrily.
Empty threats will only make the situation worse. Do not threaten your child with punishments repeatedly or say “this is your last warning” more than once. Be consistent, and be the authority.

Do not give in to whining, complaining, or any other bad behavior. Once you have said “no” to something or given a punishment for a particular behavior, do not go back on your decision. Stay calm, even if your child makes a scene. If you never give in, your child will learn that these tactics no longer work.
In public, this strategy can feel embarrassing and stressful, but it’s still better than giving in to bad behavior. If you must, leave the location and deal with your child at home, but do not go back on your decision.

Part 3: Maximizing Your Odds of Success
Avoid overprotecting your child. Children need to learn to take care of themselves and help others; they need to develop a solid work ethic and gain responsibility. If you protect them from all disappointments, they will not learn what they need to learn.

Emphasize house rules for the whole family. When children are very small, it’s naturally fine to pick up after them. As early as possible, though, start teaching self-sufficiency and emphasizing the fact that every family member must contribute to the success of the household.
You might begin by teaching your child to pick up his or her toys after playing. As he or she grows, add additional expectations.

Be a role model. It won’t work to expect your child to work hard if you don’t work hard yourself. Make sure your child sees you working and knows that you are often taking care of chores and errands when you would prefer to be doing something else.

Tackle chores together. Bigger chores – cleaning one’s room, for example, or doing the dishes after a meal – can be overwhelming for children, so work together, at least at first. Doing so allows you to teach your child how to do chores properly. It also helps your child feel more comfortable and capable.

Follow a schedule. You are more likely to be successful if you follow a schedule for chores and other expectations. Children are less likely to complain once they realize that, for instance, they will always be expected to clean their rooms on Sundays.

Involve other authority figures. Make sure that you and your spouse or partner are on the same page, and let grandparents, babysitters, and other caregivers know what you are doing. It’s better if these people do not undermine your efforts by giving into extreme whining, excusing bad behavior, or showering your child with gifts.

Teach patience. Children often struggle with patience, but they will be more successful in life if they learn that they need to wait and/or work for their rewards. Explain to your child that he or she cannot have what he wants immediately or all the time.
It can help to involve your child in planning something desirable, like a trip. Explain that you must first save a certain amount of money and that other specific conditions (vacation dates, weather conditions, etc.) must be met. Emphasize how much more rewarding the trip will feel because you waited and planned for it.

De-emphasize material things. No matter what you can afford, it’s better not to buy your child everything he or she might want. In particular, try not to reward good behavior only with material items. Instead, reward your child with time spent together doing something fun.
If your child is particularly invested in acquiring a certain material thing, use it as an opportunity to teach the value of a dollar. Help your child earn money and save it. For more expensive things, you can require that your child earn and save only a percentage of the cost.

Ignore complaints about what other children have and do. When your child says “but the other kids have . . .” or “but my friends don’t have to . . .” tell your child that he or she must follow the rules of your family. Emphasize the fact that you are doing what you believe is best.

Accept that your child will sometimes feel disappointed. Do not rush to comfort your child every time he or she feels sad or disappointed. There is no need to apologize for applying the designated punishment for a bad behavior or for refusing to buy a toy or treat your child has not earned. Disappointment is part of life, and this is one way that your child learns.

Understand that unspoiling a child is a gradual process. It takes time to spoil a child, and it will take time to teach new values and better behavior.

Most children have natural impulses toward compassion and helping others. Cultivate these impulses by teaching your child that giving is more important than receiving.

Dealing with a spoiled child can be frustrating, but try not to scream at your child or use physical punishments for bad behavior. Strive for a calm, firm, matter-of-fact tone.

Sources and Citations



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