How to Handle My Spoiled Niece and Nephew


I’d like your advice on what to do about my nine-year-old niece, Abigail, and my eleven-year-old nephew, Parker. They are two of the most spoiled, ill-mannered and unpleasant children you’ll ever see. They constantly complain about being bored, even though they are allowed to buy whatever they want whenever they want. Their father (my brother), a successful banker, travels a lot and doesn’t spend much time with them. Their mother (my sister-in-law, SIL) makes excuses for their rude behavior: “They’re just kids being kids. They’ll outgrow it.”

It is embarrassing when Abigail and Parker bark orders at the staff in their building (“Get our packages”) or are uncivil to serving staff (“Gimme a hamburger with fries”) or worse yet, telling their mother at the dinner table they’d rather Facebook their friends then talk with her about their day at school. My SIL just takes it. On the rare occasion I’ve suggested the kids are being rude, she reminds me I don’t have kids so I don’t really understand.

I find myself trying to spend as little time as possible with Abigail and Parker, but once every couple of months, I take care of them for the weekend so my SIL and brother can go away alone. I started doing this when they were young, and in the beginning I really enjoyed my time with them, as they were sweet and lovable. Now when they stay with me they don’t pick up after themselves, they leave wet towels on the floor, and are discourteous to the staff in my building. Any advice?

Abigail and Parker seem to fit the “the spoiled child syndrome,” first described by pediatrician Dr. Bruce J. McIntosh in his article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1989. Dr. McIntosh writes: “The spoiled child syndrome is characterized by excessive self-centered and immature behavior, resulting from the failure of parents to enforce consistent, age-appropriate limits.” Spoiled kids lack discipline, are manipulative, and are generally difficult to be around.

Many child development experts estimate that about five percent of kids are spoiled, but other researchers feel that estimate is too low. For example, child psychologist Dr. Dan Kindlon, author of Too Much of a Good Thing, interviewed more than 1,000 parents, and roughly 650 teenagers, and found that 60% of parents thought their kids were spoiled, and 15% of teens thought they, themselves, fit the definition.

Experts agree that children become spoiled and feel entitled when they are overindulged by their parents. Psychologist Phillip Calvin McGraw, best known as Dr. Phil, goes so far as to say that parental overindulgence “is one of the most insidious forms of child abuse.” He elaborates on what he means by this and offers advice on what parents can do about overindulged children.

When parents spoil their kids, it’s up to these same parents to unspoil them, but this can happen only when a parent recognizes that he/she has spoiled children and wants to do something about it. When you are with your SIL and/or your brother, as the parents, they are in charge of Abigail and Parker. So, as an aunt who has not been asked to get involved in the much-needed “unspoiling,” your best and strongest course of action is to use your home-team advantage.

In team sports, the term home-team advantage describes the advantage – usually a psychological advantage – that the home team (that would be you) is said to have over the visiting team (Abigail and Parker when they stay with you) as a result of playing in familiar facilities (your apartment) and in front of supportive fans (your building staff). Under these circumstances your brother and SIL have designated you in loco parentis, Latin for “in the place of a parent,” which refers to the legal responsibility entrusted to you to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. My advice is “Go For It”!

Next time your brother and SIL ask you to take care of Abigail and Parker in their absence, that is your opportunity to sit everyone down and let them know that you want to go over some ground rules before you agree to take care of the kids – ground rules to which your brother, SIL and the kids must commit or they will need to make other caretaker arrangements.

Without sermonizing or mentioning past unacceptable or rude behavior, you clearly state what’s important to you in terms of Abigail and Parker’s behavior when you’re in charge. Here’s your chance to set expectation and boundaries. Have just a few and be specific. For example, you might say, “Good manners at all times are important to me. I need you to say please and thank you to the staff in my building and to servers in restaurants, as well as to me. I need you to be responsible for some chores, including, picking up all your towels, clothes, toys and games from the floor when you’re done with them, and putting your dishes in the dishwasher after meals. And finally, no electronics may be used at the dinner table.” To drive home the point, you can write these out as a contract of commitment and have your niece and nephew sign it.

I think you get the idea. You make it clear that the discussion is not a negotiation, but rather, a setting out of your ground rules. They either commit to them, or they don’t. If your ground rules are unacceptable to your brother, SIL and/or the kids, you calmly and unemotionally say that you won’t be able to take care of Abigail and Parker. If agreement is reached but the kids hassle you when you’re taking care of them, you can call your brother and SIL and ask them to come get Abigail and Parker immediately, as commitments have not been kept.

Granted, the tough love I’m recommending may not win you any popularity contests, but most importantly, you may help Abigail and Parker learn some discipline and manners, at least while they’re in your presence. It’s a start.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every Thursday.
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