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Sunday, January 22, 2012

How Do You Spoil a Child?

I had an interesting conversation the other day with an acquaintance on the issue of spoiling children.  He was saying that we needed to watch out and not spoil our children--that it was important not to give them too many things.

I generally agree with that statement.  However, he was using the word "spoil" in one way, and I use it in a slightly different way.  I think we all need to keep clear on what it would mean to "spoil" a child.

In a larger sense, for something to spoil is for it to go bad.  So the essential issue for me in whether children have been "spoiled" is not whether they have been given too much (although this is one way for them to become "spoiled") but whether they have been treated in such a way as to harm their psychological development.  In my way of thinking, if a child is deprived of everything, they can be "spoiled" or made bad in a totally different way.  I know that this is not the way that "spoiled" is normally used, but it makes more sense to me.  A spoiled child in the larger sense is one whose development has been seriously harmed.

So the issue in my mind is not simply one of whether a child gets a lot of things.  For some children, that might not "spoil" them.  I think that spoiling might or might not occur when children have a lot of possessions.    Now having said that, I would generally agree that children getting too much too quickly is a real hazard to them emotionally.  Here is why.

1.  I think it creates problems for children to give them everything they want so quickly that they do not have to work for anything.  Working for something builds skills and psychological strengths. 

2.  It may create problems for children to give them so much that they cannot really appreciate any one thing because it is just one thing in a mountain of things.  If we do not appreciate what we have, we cannot appreciate the fact that we are blessed to have anything.  We also are not likely to appreciate the fact that others may have very little.

3.  I think that having too much too quickly also keeps us from learning patience.  The desire to have it now, or the feeling that we need it right now, has to be tempered by the ability to be patient for what we want.

So I do not believe that the essence of spoiling a child is simply in having many things, although that creates a hazard.  I think that the essential aspect of spoiling children (in this particular sense) is depriving them of the opportunities to learn to work for something, to learn patience, and to learn to appreciate each and every object they own.

So while I might quibble with my friend over some details, I do believe that if we do give our children too much, then it is hard, if not impossible, for them to appreciate each item.  And if we give our children too much too quickly then the acquisitions will come so fast that they cannot learn patience.  And if we give our children too much too quickly, then they will only have the opportunity to work for a small fraction of what they have.

But overall our emphasis in parenting needs to be helping our children grow up straight and healthy; it does not need to be keeping them in a state of semi-deprivation.  We need to focus on giving them the real gifts of life: patience, a work ethic, and appreciation for what they have. 

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