I had an interesting conversation a few days ago with a grandmother who was concerned that she was going to “spoil” her infant grandson by holding him too much. The notion that giving too much attention or affection will “spoil” a baby is a pretty common misconception in our culture. So today, we will take a look at the whole idea of spoiling a child.
The Bible is clear about the consequences of raising “spoiled” children. But what does “spoiling a child” mean? According to the Christian writer, Mark Ballenger, the Bible defines spoiling your child as parenting actions that cause your son or daughter to become undisciplined, disrespectful and generally imbalanced because of your excessive giving or lack of discipline.
Pediatrician Bruce McIntosh, who coined the phrase, “Spoiled Child Syndrome”, characterizes a spoiled child as one who exhibits “excessive self-centered and immature behavior, the lack of consideration for others, temper tantrums, the need to have their own way, being obstructive and manipulative, resorting to crying or yelling when they want something, wanting whatever everyone else has, keeping a messy room, never helping out around the house, and refusing to go to bed as scheduled”.
So – how do parents and grandparents spoil children? And what can you do to avoid it? It is all about understanding and responding appropriately to the child’s age and stage of development
A young infant cannot be spoiled with too much attention. It is simply not possible. Young babies cry to let their caregivers know that they need something. Maybe they’re hungry, or uncomfortable, or lonely. Whatever it is that they’re communicating, it is important for the adults who are caring for them to respond in a loving, nurturing and consistent way. That’s how they learn to trust that the world is a good place where they matter and will be safe and loved. So don’t worry about picking up and holding that little baby too much. It is what he needs during the first six to eight months of life.
Things start to shift a little when the baby becomes mobile. She still needs for you to respond to her cries in a nurturing, loving way. She still needs to be comforted and cuddled and cared for. But she also needs to be allowed to struggle a little. If, for example, a toy is slightly out of reach and she is interested in the toy, let her do some problem solving and figure out how to scoot, creep or crawl toward the toy before you rush to the rescue.
At this age, she will begin using different cries and sounds to convey different meanings. This is the time for parents to learn the different cries and respond to them accordingly. A little fussy crying before drifting off to sleep is not a reason to jump up and run to her crib. A cry of frustration because you have stopped her from doing something that is dangerous is OK. Be understanding and kind, but continue setting limits for her safety and well- being. It’s ok to let her cry a little. She is beginning to learn to cope with minor frustrations. It’s a good thing!
This is also time to watch your own behavior. At about six months of age, babies begin to watch their parents’ facial expressions and use this information to understand how to behave in a given situation. If you look worried or anxious every time your baby encounters a new experience, he will think there’s something to worry about and feel insecure. For example, if you bring him to the church nursery while you attend worship service or Life Group, but you linger and show him that you’re not comfortable leaving him, he will be more likely to feel anxiety and fear than if you act in a matter-of-fact way and drop him off with calm confidence and a breezy smile. He might cry at the moment of separation, but he is likely to relax and enjoy the new experience after a few minutes.
And then they become toddlers. Are temper tantrums a sign that your toddler is spoiled? No. It’s a sign that he’s a toddler. This is the age at which your child is beginning to understand that he is a separate person and he can exert his will. He will go through a period of negativity and tantrums. And it will pass. The tricky part at this stage is to hold your ground. Don’t give in to a tantrum or a toddler’s angry demands. If you’ve set a limit, then stick with it. Stay calm and confident and your toddler will eventually learn that he can trust you to provide safe and reasonable limits that will keep him safe and well.
So, if holding won’t spoil a baby and toddler tantrums don’t mean your child is spoiled, then how does spoiling happen? Let’s look at some examples.
“Your child might be spoiled if …
… you find yourself cooking something different for your preschooler at every meal because she refuses to eat what the rest of the family eats.. Of course you need to consider food allergies or other special dietary needs, but a steady diet of chicken nuggets and pizza is going beyond what is necessary or good for your child. If she misses a meal because she’s engaging you in a battle of wills, she is not likely to die of starvation. Let her know that the meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans will be there for her when she gets hungry later and move on with your family evening.
… tantrums continue well beyond toddlerhood. If your kindergartener throws a fit when you refuse to buy a toy at the store or give in to a demand for ice cream, he is trying to manipulate you. Don’t give in!
… she can’t function without you being by her side at all times. If your five year old can’t go to sleep unless you’re sitting by her bedside, or if she throws a fit every time you drop her off at Grandma’s house for the weekend, there’s a problem. This is a sign that your child is overly dependent on you and is not learning to be comfortable with other people.
… he acts younger than his actual age. If he continues toddler behavior beyond the toddler years and there is not a disability causing a developmental delay, then this is a sign that he is not feeling very secure about himself.
Here are five tips for raising an unspoiled child.
1. Set limits for safety and family interactions. Clearly relay what is acceptable behavior and what is not acceptable behavior and enforce the limits.. Children want and need limits and will be much happier when they realize that those limits are firmly in place.
2. Focus on the positive. Encourage your child’s positive behavior and avoid harping on the negatives.
3. Talk with your kids about their behavior. As your kids get older, you can sit down together and discuss problem behavior. Use open-ended questions, like, “II wonder why this keeps happening. What do you think?”. This kind of question can help your school-age or teenage child do some introspection and learn ways to manage their own behavior in a more mature and positive way.
4. Keep your cool. Losing your temper and showing your own bad behavior won’t help your child learn and grow into a mature adult. Model the kind of behavior you want to see in your child.
5. Be consistent and follow through. If you’ve told your child that there will be a particular consequence for a particular behavior, then follow through and show your child that you mean what you say. Threatening twenty times or counting to ten just shows your child that you’re not really going to be your word.
If you follow these rules and discipline your kids the way God disciplines us, your child will grow up to be a blessing to the world.