Can You 'Unspoil' a Child?

Surveys show that around half of us feel we are raising spoiled kids. It's time to turn the tide. . TunedIn by Westend61/Shutterstock

Have you ever been told your child is spoiled? I have, once, by a relative I consider a friend. It stung. At the time I told myself her perspective was just skewed; she had three kids, I had only one, so of course it looked like my (then) only child was getting more attention and resources. But as I reflect on her comment through the lens of my kid's behavior today, sometimes I think she may have been right.

I can explain how it could have happened: Two working parents who didn't want to say no. Generous grandparents who doted on their first grandchild. Plus, what parent doesn't want to give their child the world?

In a Parents magazine poll, 42 percent of readers admitted their child is spoiled and 80 percent said they think spoiling kids now will have an impact on them in the long term.

Maybe we're giving too much. Is it too late? Can parents unspoil our kids?

It is possible, says Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and best-selling author of "UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World." And it's worth doing, though it won't be easy, she says.

Why spoiled is bad

Pampered little girl on pink bed in pink dress
We want to give our kids everything, but that should include limits, rules and discipline. Jeanne Provost/Shutterstock

"Though we love our kids to death and hate to see them unhappy, there are clear disadvantages of raising a spoiled child," Borba says.

Spoiled kids are unpleasant to be around. "[Other] kids are turned off by their bossy and selfish behaviors. Adults don’t like their often rude and excessive demands," she says.

Since pampered children are used to getting their way, they often have a tougher time handling disappointment. They may be less persistent and give up quicker, says Borba. Giving them too much actually may make kids more unappreciative. Borba says they risk becoming chronically unsatisfied adults.

Lastly, if kids are more concerned about their own needs, their capacity to identify other people’s wants and needs is diminished. "The long-term danger: Raising a child with 'truncated character' whose concern is always me me me," she says.

How to spot spoiled

Spoiled is not always this obvious, and it's not always about material things.
Spoiled is not always this obvious, and it's not always about material things. Michael Kraus/Shutterstock

While it's not hard to identify another child as spoiled, it may be more difficult to judge your own kid. Borba has a four-word test that will help set aside any parental bias and allow you to evaluate your tot:

No. How does your child respond when you say no? "Spoiled kids can’t handle the word; they expect to get what they want and usually do," says Borba.

Me. Does your child think the world revolves around her? "Spoiled kids think more of themselves than of others. They feel entitled and expect special favors," she says.

Gimme. Is your child greedy and hard to satisfy? "Spoiled kids are more into getting than receiving. Because they have so much, they usually just want more. Because they have a lot they tend to be unappreciative," she says.

Now. Is your child patient? "Spoiled kids can’t wait and want things instantly," she says. And that's often because parents find it easier to give in than to postpone the child’s request.

5 ways to dial down the spoiled

Girl at bakery counter
Reward your child for things like showing empathy for others or being patient during a trying time. Pressmaster/Shutterstock

"Remember, attitudes and behaviors are learned, so they can be unlearned. Research shows that when it comes to our kids’ character, parents are the key influence," says Borba. "Just keep in mind that while you can turn an unspoiled kid around, it isn’t going to be easy or pretty, and the older the child the harder the change will be."

1. Stop apologizing (to an extent). Saying "I'm sorry" is appropriate when you accidentally step on a child's foot or throw away a treasured art project. But you shouldn't apologize when it starts to rain and a trip to the playground gets canceled. It's not your fault, and apologizing to your kid for the weather is silly. Instead, empathize with their disappointment, which shows you respect their feelings. "Helping a child accept that she won't get everything she wants is an important life lesson," Karen Ruskin, Psy.D., a family therapist in Sharon, Massachusetts, told Parents magazine.

2. Start teaching empathy. "Kids who are empathetic can understand where other people are coming from because they can put themselves in their shoes and feel how they feel," writes Borba on her blog. This makes them more generous and caring. You can nurture your child's empathy by pointing out other people's emotions. Look at facial expressions and mannerisms. Borba gives this example: “Did you notice Kelly’s face when you were playing today? I was concerned because she seemed worried about something. Maybe you should talk to her to see if she’s OK.”

If your kid loves to be praised, then praise the qualities or behaviors your child does for or with others, Borba adds.

3. Stop tolerating selfishness. "Start by clearly laying down your new attitude expectations: 'In this house you are always to be considerate of others,'" writes Borba. "Then loudly state your disapproval each and every time your child acts selfishly. Be sure to state why their behavior was wrong, and if the selfish attitude continues, consider applying consequences."

For example: "I’m very concerned when I see you monopolizing all the video games and not sharing them with your friend. You may not treat people selfishly.”

4. Start teaching patience. Screens and search engines encourage instant gratification. In real life, kids need to learn to wait.

"The trick is to slowly stretch your child’s ability based on current capabilities and maturity. It also helps if you teach a child a 'wait' habit – or something to do during the seconds, minutes, hours, or days (depending on age)," Borba says. For example, a young child must sing "Happy Birthday" while waiting for your attention, or a tween has to wait at least a day before buying something they're just dying to have.

5. Stop giving in to tantrums. Bickering or debating the rules with your children is pointless. You decide the family rules and tell them how it is. Don't give in to whining, pouting and tantrums just to get them to be quiet, Borba says. And brace yourself, because kids who are used to getting their way will be upset at first.

"This might be hard if you think your main role is to be your kid’s best friend," she says. "Reset your thinking. See yourself as the adult, and recognize that hundreds of child development studies conclude that kids whose parents set clear behavior expectations turned out less selfish kids."