Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: The Secret Word to Avoid Spoiling Your Kids

mother and father spoiling their girl
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Dear Readers,

Below is an unabridged article I wrote for CitiBank’s Women and Company. Perhaps my advice will be helpful to parents and grandparents alike.

The Secret Word to Avoid Spoiling Your Kids

How does spoiling happen?

Experts agree that children become spoiled and feel entitled when they are overindulged by their parents.  Let’s face it – who isn’t guilty of using the lure of potential purchases to try to change their kids’ behavior every now and then, typically with disappointing results?  In fact, many times when a parent promises to buy something their child wants “if you behave,” or “if you do your homework,” this may really mean they’re feeling all options have been exhausted, leading to: When all else fails, pull out the credit card and head for the mall or do some online shopping.

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Based on her research, psychologist Madeline Levine, Ph.D., suggests that shopping done to soothe emotions and address frustration can give kids a false sense of security and control over their lives. A new purchase can create a momentary good feeling, but it is actually not a sustainable way to reduce stress. As soon as the thrill of the purchase wears off, the troublesome feelings of insecurity or inadequacy resurface, only to be replaced by yearnings for other purchases to keep them at bay.

Parents of all income levels funding this unfulfilling cycle of consumerism are confused. On the one hand, it makes sense at some level that parents would unconditionally share their good fortune with their children, especially in affluent households. What good does it do to have money if it isn’t used to bring pleasure and delight, especially for one’s children? On the other hand, many parents find that they never seem to be able to give their children enough. Their kids keep asking for and getting more and more, and yet their behavior becomes more and more challenging, and in many cases, outright bratty, with an increase in sullen demands.

Surprising Role Models

This may come as a surprise, but Warren Buffet and Sir Paul McCartney are good role models to help parents address these issues. Although both are fabulously wealthy, both demonstrated good parenting when it came to making sure they didn’t spoil their children.

Sir Paul McCartney, Britain’s richest musician, is the father of five children, including three he had with his first, and now-deceased, wife, Linda: musician James, photographer Mary, fashion designer Stella. James, Mary, and Stella were raised with the expectation that they would be able to support themselves, and each does. Of course they had the advantage of being introduced to influential people along the way who were well aware of their father’s celebrity, but nevertheless, each is successful in his/her own right by developing skills and talent and doing a lot of hard work.

Similarly, Susan, Howard, and Peter Buffet do not expect, nor are they getting, any mega-inheritances, even though their dad, Warren Buffet, is the third richest person in the world. When interviewed about their dad giving his billions to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, all three said they’re proud of what their dad is doing. Granted, they will get a huge amount for their own charitable foundations, but very little for themselves.

In a Fortune interview with Warren Buffet (June 26, 2006), when he was questioned about what he and his wife Susie (now-deceased) intended to do with their wealth regarding their children, he said, “Certainly neither Susie nor I ever thought we should pass huge amounts of money along to our children. Our kids are great. But I would argue that when your kids have all the advantages anyway, in terms of how they grow up and the opportunities they have for education, including what they learn at home — I would say it’s neither right nor rational to be flooding them with money. In effect, they’ve had a gigantic head start in a society that aspires to be a meritocracy. Dynastic mega-wealth would further tilt the playing field that we ought to be trying instead to level.”

From a parenting perspective, Warren Buffet and Sir Paul McCartney are to be commended for insisting their children be self-supporting, even though enough money was available to give their kids a lavish lifestyle without their ever having to work. This same parenting goal of not spoiling one’s children can be established in any family.

So what to do?

I suggest that the simplest way to eliminate spoiling is through the use of one word: budget. When it is consistently explained that budgeting requires planning and saving, you’ll be able to respond to requests calmly: “We did not budget for the new toy you would like, so we need to talk about it and plan ahead for it.” This kind of conversation helps children of all ages deal with disappointment, learn to defer gratification, and most important, it decreases the chances of children developing attitudes of feeling entitled.

Trips to the toy store can be easy and straightforward: “Remember, we budgeted to buy your friend a birthday present, and that is all we’re buying at the store.” Saying no to a child about immediate purchases is no longer a battleground when buying decisions are handled around budgets. Even young children will begin to ask, “Can we budget for a new toy for me?”

A child asking this question is a far cry from the unpleasant scenes that all too often take place around purchases when children are used to getting whatever they want, whenever they want it.  And, as children get older, they can be taught about the two main types of budgets: the family budget (e.g., “We’re saving for a trip to Disney World”) and the personal budget (e.g., “You need to work, save, and contribute 50 percent toward your class trip to Washington, DC.”)

Many parents need to talk about budgets and budgeting out of financial necessity — and all parents should find ways to talk with their children about budgeting out of developmental and emotional necessity, even if money is an abundant resource for them. Case in point:  I once witnessed a teenage boy badgering his dad to buy a new car for him. (The dad had some recent, phenomenal luck selling some stock and was newly wealthy.) The son said, “Why can’t I have a new car? We’re rich now.” The father replied, “No, we’re not rich. Your mother and I are rich. If you want to be rich, you’ll have to work for it.”

Read Next | This Is How Parents Are Becoming Afraid of Parenting


Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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