Unspoil Your Child: Raise a Child, Not a Tyrant

Could you unknowingly be spoiling your child? And if you are, what can you do about it? Here's how to "unspoil" your child.

By Georgia Orcutt

You took your son downtown to do a few errands. He had a tantrum outside the toy store because you refused to buy him a toy, and then he staged a meltdown because you wouldn’t buy him a doughnut. You gave up on looking for a birthday present for your sister and didn’t stop at the grocery store on the way home because you knew there would be another scene if you did. You’re putting off asking him to pick up the toys he’s strewn around the living room, and you suddenly remember you’re out of the only cereal he’ll eat. Could you unknowingly be spoiling your child? And if you are, what can you do about it?

Unspoil Your ChildTo find some answers, we talked with Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., a clinical faculty member at Harvard Medical School who has been working with children and teenagers for 26 years. He finds it disheartening and dismaying to see a fullsized adult backing down from a pint-sized toddler. In his book, How to Unspoil Your Child Fast (Basil Books, 2007), he points out that by trying to make life too easy, by striving to bring only smiles and laughter, parents risk precisely what they fear most: children with paper-thin self-esteem who haplessly rely on outside things for stimulation, satisfaction and happiness. He explains that a child needs boundaries and structure to grow and will seek them when they are absent. A child who perpetually pesters his parents may be searching for the limits he needs to grow straight.

Did having your own kids give you insights into what spoils children?

I struggled as much as any parent. Raising my son and daughter taught me a lot about children and about parents. I think today’s parents, myself included, have it harder than ever. Most of us try to be the best parents in every way, an impossible task made harder by the enormous pressures put on us and our children by corporate America, keeping up with the Joneses, an overwhelming abundance of choice, and a society that seems to move faster and faster. Resisting those forces is far easier said than done. My kids are at the age where they are growing into their own. My son is a senior in college and my daughter is a senior in high school. My wife and I are lucky that they’re both good people who are honest, hardworking, caring, and reliable – qualities we strove to inspire.


You warn parents about praising a child for every little thing she does. Why?

Loving parents want their children to feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, the self-esteem movement failed miserably. Children grow to feel good and able, not by being continually praised and rewarded, but by growing genuine skills and competencies. In a bigger sense, the resiliency we all want our children to possess comes down to their feeling confident in their ability to handle life and whatever curve balls it throws at them. It’s hard to learn to handle life if your parents are always protecting and rescuing you from its consequences.


Your advice applies to toddlers as well as teenagers. Can spoiling them begin with a baby?

This is sensitive territory. New parents have enough to do without worrying about spoiling their babies. Infants and very young children cannot be spoiled with too much love and responsive parenting. However, your question aptly wonders at what point do parents start down the road to spoiling.

Perhaps it can help parents to remember that it is OK, for example, for young children to be angry when they don’t get what they want the second they want it. Responding to your toddler’s needs is a healthy thing; proclaiming him Emperor of the Home is not.


You talk about "interventions." How and why does this technique work?

Most parents, myself included, want to be good communicators with their children. And so we are prone to talk – a lot. Sometimes, though, strong actions can say more. For instance, a parent buys his little girl a toy at the mall, but soon after, the girl starts demanding and bossing and refusing to cooperate with other errands. Try calmly walking back to the toy store and returning the toy. Your child’s jaw will drop. “You can’t do that!” she may exclaim. She may throw a storm of a tantrum or beg for your mercy and a second chance. Stay tough and you may soon meet a more congenial child.

Likewise, many contemporary parents have trained their children to be tough negotiators. These knee-high F. Lee Baileys will push their cases until 11:59 at night in hopes that their parents will tire and cave. When parents settle, they teach their children a dangerous lesson that if they just persist long enough, they will get their way. When parents set clear limits or consequences and stick with them, however, they teach their children important life lessons, such as how to wait and how to tolerate frustration.

Were you spoiled as a child?

I mostly wasn’t spoiled. From early adolescence, I held jobs and paid for things like skates, albums, Jack Purcell sneakers, going to the movies and Red Sox tickets. I rode my bike and took buses to get around, and my parents rarely wondered whether my teachers were treating me well or whether a play experience was satisfying for me. There were no playdates. I played with the children who lived nearby. But those were different times. I grew up in Revere, a working class city, and while, I suppose, there were spoiled children there and then, it seemed as if a generation of mothers and fathers raised their kids much like my own parents did. Since writing the book, many parents have pointed out to me that they purposely give to their children so that they’ll know how to enjoy life and its pleasures in ways that they, the parents, were never taught. But, of course, being overindulged may not be the surest path to happiness and contentment.