At one time or another most parents will hear warnings of “don’t spoil your child!” It’s helpful to know the real cause of spoiling—and it isn’t love!
Sometimes relatives or acquaintances express concern that parents are giving too much to their child. The feared result is a child who is demanding, pampered and self-centered and expects everyone to cater to his or her whims.
We parents take such admonishments seriously. We’ve all seen spoiled kids, and we know they’re no fun to be around! As well, we realize that, for all they might rake in, spoiled children do not have happy lives.
Many followed the sad (and outrageous) case of Ethan Couch and his “affluenza” defense—that his family’s wealth was responsible for his poor choices that caused the deaths of four people when he drove drunk in 2013 at the age of 16. Couch was sentenced to 10 years of probation and mandatory treatment, which he violated in 2015.
Another case in point: Steven Miner II and his sister Kathryn Miner were raised in a $1.5 million home in a wealthy Chicago suburb. But it seems they didn’t feel they were treated well enough.
In 2009, when Steven was 21 and Kathryn was 18, they filed a lawsuit against their mother for the “emotional distress” they suffered as children from her alleged abuses, such as “failing to take her daughter to a car show, telling her then-7-year-old son to buckle his seat belt or she would contact police, ‘haggling’ over the amount to spend on party dresses and calling her daughter at midnight to ask that she return home from celebrating homecoming.”
A third example would be the sons of Eli, Israel’s high priest before the nation had its first human king. Reading the description of them in 1 Samuel 2, one can’t help but imagine that they were used to getting everything they asked for.
Eli’s timid rebuke had no effect on them at all (verses 23-25), and ultimately God gave this evaluation of Eli’s parenting: “You honor your sons more than Me” (verse 29).
So, yes, we parents should take care not to spoil our children. But what is spoiling caused by? Is it caused by too much time, attention or love?
Is it even possible for us parents to give our children too much time, attention or love?
Child development professionals have concluded that spoiling does come from overindulging, but it is overindulging in permissiveness, low standards and lack of restraint.Child development professionals have concluded that spoiling does come from overindulging, but it is overindulging in permissiveness, low standards and lack of restraint. It comes from parents giving children material things and privileges as a substitute for their time, attention and love.
As Laurence Steinberg Ph.D., author of The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting, writes, “I can think of plenty of children who have suffered because their parents were too busy, too selfish, or too preoccupied to attend to their needs. But I’ve never met a child who was worse off because his parents loved him too much. It is simply not possible to spoil a child with love” (2004, p. 27).
Madeline Levine Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works with teens in prosperous Marin County, California, has written a book outlining the danger affluence poses to families. Titled The Price of Privilege, the book’s subtitle says a lot: “How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.”
Levine writes, “Study after study shows that teens want more, not less, time with their parents, yet parents regularly overestimate the amount of time they spend with their teenagers. …
“In affluent families, where social and professional demands can be highly time consuming there is often a lack of ‘family time.’ In what some researchers call the ‘silver spoon syndrome,’ affluent kids are often painfully aware that they rate low on their parent’s ‘to-do’ list” (2006, pp. 31-32).
That’s not to say that children in prosperous families are destined to be spoiled, while children in less affluent families will automatically be well-adjusted. Bad parenting and good parenting are both equal opportunity.
The point is, there is no substitute for time and attention and giving of genuine love to your children. Material things are not a substitute, and neither are privileges and lax rules.
How should parents express their genuine love, care and concern for their children? The book of Proverbs has some very good advice:
- Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Genuine love involves time spent teaching. When parents truly love their children, they want to see them learn to distinguish right from wrong, practice good behavior and develop good character.
- Proverbs 29:15: “The rod and rebuke give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” Genuine love involves attention. In a God-centered family, parents show they care for their children by spending time teaching them God’s way of life.
- Proverbs 13:24: “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.” Genuine love involves correction and discipline. God corrects His spiritual children, and He expects that we will correct—take action to reform—our children.
- Proverbs 27:5: “Open rebuke is better than secret love” (King James Version). Genuine love is verbalized and displayed. We strengthen our family bonds when we express genuine appreciation to our children.
Marche Isabella, a marriage, family and child counselor in California, offers this advice: “I’ve never heard of a parent who on their deathbed said, ‘I sure do wish I had bought Johnny Nintendo when he was 9.’ Nor a son grieve for gifts not received—except, perhaps, the gift of time and love.”
Let your children know every day that you love them, that they are special to you and that you appreciate them. There’s no danger of spoiling them with love.
For more foundational principles about parenting, see “Helping Our Children Grow” and “Raising Children: The Early Years.”