Plus tips to reverse the damage by fine-tuning your approach to child discipline

When you picture a spoiled child, you may think of a kid with a house full of extravagant toys. But child discipline experts say its behaviors — not possessions — that define the spoiled child.

“A spoiled child is one who’s demanding, self-centered, and unreasonable,” says Harvey Karp, MD, creator of The Happiest Toddler on the Block DVD and book. He tells WebMD spoiled children may be easier to get along with when they get their way, but giving in to their demands ultimately makes them feel isolated and confused. “There is a seed of discontent that you sow when you allow a child to be spoiled,” he says. “They’ve used so much manipulation to get what they want, they don’t know when someone is genuinely giving to them.”

Psychologist Ruth A. Peters, PhD, author of the child discipline manual Laying Down the Law, agrees. “Spoiling doesn’t prepare them for anything but heartache later in life,” she says, adding that a spoiled child typically grows into a spoiled adult, and spoiled adults have trouble maintaining a job, a spouse, and friendships.

So how can you tell if you’re spoiling? Read on to learn 10 common mistakes parents make that can allow a child to become spoiled. If some of these sound familiar, don’t worry — it’s never too late to change course.

1. Making Your Child the Center of the World

Making your child’s wishes the top priority in every circumstance teaches her that the world revolves around her. This could prevent her from learning to consider other people’s needs and desires, says Susan Buttross, MD, chief of the Division of Child Development and Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “Children need to understand give and take,” she tells WebMD. “When take is the only function they know, they tend to be frustrated.”

2. Ignoring Positive Behavior

Today’s busy parents may not notice when children play quietly or stay out of trouble. If you never let them know when you are pleased, Karp says, you miss the opportunity to reinforce positive behavior.

3. Accidently Rewarding Negative Behavior

Karp tells WebMD many parents make the mistake of simultaneously ignoring the positive and rewarding the negative. If you only notice your kids when they whine and cry, you send the message that tantrums and tears are the best way to get your attention.

4. Failing to put Clear Limits on Your Child’s Behavior

If you don’t set and enforce guidelines for good behavior, Buttross says, you’re likely to raise a child who is rude, uncooperative, and disrespectful. Karp adds that young kids are uncivilized by nature — part of your job as a parent is to teach social virtues, such as patience and respect.

5. Not Enforcing Rules Consistently

While some parents fail to set limits, others set “mushy or inconsistent” ones, Karp says. This occurs when you tell your kids, “Don’t do that,” but allow them to do it anyway. Examples of inconsistent limits are allowing your toddler to play with his food on some days but not on others or allowing an older child to violate her curfew when you just can’t muster the energy to fight about it. If you don’t enforce rules consistently, you give your child the message that they’re really not that important. And of course what you really want to teach your child is the opposite.

6. Picking Fights You Can’t Win

“You can win the battle of not giving your child candy,” Karp says, so no-candy rules are worth upholding. But there are many other standards that are much harder to enforce — such as making your child eat broccoli. “They can close their mouths or spit it out,” Karp points out. In cases like this, you are destined to lose the battle before it begins. And unfortunately, the consequences of this loss go far beyond wasted broccoli — picking fights you can’t win proves to your kids that they can defy you and get away with it.

7. Not Holding Your Child Accountable

Refusing to hold your child accountable when he does something wrong sends the message that he never makes a mistake, Buttross says. This teaches your child to blame others whenever problems arise. Instead, teach your child the importance of taking responsibility for his own actions and then user firm boundaries to make sure he does so.

8. Giving Your Child Gifts for the Wrong Reasons

What you buy your children is not as important as why, Peters tells WebMD. She cautions against making “unreasonable” purchases, such as buying your child a new bike because she is bored with the one you bought her a few months ago.

Another common mistake is buying out of guilt, Karp says. When a child makes a pitiful face or says, “You’re the worst mother in the world,” this is not the time to buy a gift. Allowing yourself to be manipulated won’t do your kid any favors. She may get what she wants, but her joy will be diminished in knowing that you bought the gift because she goaded you into it.

9. Giving in to Temper Tantrums

Relenting when your child throws a temper tantrum is an extreme form of rewarding negative behavior. It proves to kids that they can get whatever they want by throwing a fit — which is not how things work in the real world. “If you throw a temper tantrum as an adult, bad things happen,” Peters points out.

10. Acting Like a Spoiled Child Yourself

How you interact with your family serves as a model for how your children will behave with others, Karp says. “If you whine and complain in front of

[your kids], they will emulate that.” He says the proverb has it right — “They do what you do, not what you say.”

Spoiled for Life

Spoiling has consequences that go beyond the immediate trouble of managing an unruly, spoiled child. It sets up patterns that can last a lifetime.

“Probably one of the greatest disadvantages that spoiled children face is the fact that they have not learned to work for something that they really want,” Buttross tells WebMD. “There is no work ethic, no lesson to really strive for something.”

Since spoiled people get what they want through manipulation, they develop “a dysfunctional way of relating to people,” Karp says. “Those habits can take 10 years of therapy to break.”

Reforming a Spoiled Child

Don’t panic if you’re just realized your child may be on the path to becoming spoiled. Child discipline experts say you can repair the damage.

“Tell your child the truth,” Peters advises. “Say, ‘I’ve blown it’ and explain why there are going to be some changes.” When setting new rules, be clear about the consequences. “The less nagging, the more action, the better.”

The experts we consulted suggest the following strategies to get a spoiled child back on track:

  • Set consistent limits — Give your child clear rules and boundaries. If you decide to bend a rule every now and then, explain that it is a special exception.
  • Establish consequences for breaking the rules — Consequences can range from revoking privileges to confiscating a favorite possession.
  • Create incentives for good behavior — Depending on your child’s age, you may want to try a “star chart.” The child gets stars for good behavior, with 10 stars earning a coveted prize.
  • Teach that giving is as important as receiving — Encourage your children to participate in activities that help others. Take them shopping to choose gifts for friends and family members.
  • Help your child learn to take “no” for an answer — If you have decided to decline your child’s request, don’t let temper tantrums or any other form of manipulative behavior change your mind.
  • Be a positive role model — Show respect and consideration toward others and your child will follow your lead.

Toddler Tips

If your child is in the under-three age bracket, it may not be time to worry yet. “It’s common in the beginning of the toddler period for kids to have some of the characteristics of being spoiled,” Karp says, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are.” In The Happiest Toddler on the Block, he explains that toddlers are primitive and uncivilized, like little “cavemen.”

In addition to clear limits and positive role models, toddlers need a crash course in civilized behavior. “Think of yourself as an ambassador from the 21st century to the Neanderthal people,” Karp suggests. This means you must learn to speak your child’s language and respectfully show him your ways. A couple of Karp’s tips for taming toddlers:

  • The fast food rule — When you order food at the drive through, the cashier always repeats your order to let you know she got it right. Karp recommends doing this with frustrated toddlers. Before reprimanding them, “first repeat back what they want. Say, ‘You really want that ball? You’re mad that Billy took it away? OK, but that voice hurts my ears.’” This lets them know you empathize with them, while conveying that whining is unacceptable.
  • Catch them being good — Acknowledge your toddler’s accomplishments throughout the day, whether it’s stacking blocks or sharing a toy with a sibling. This will help identify positive behaviors, rather than just singling out negative ones.

Lifelong Benefits

Maintaining a consistent and effective approach to child discipline isn’t easy, but it bestows lifelong benefits. “You raise a child who is loving and self-loving, who empathizes with others, who is honest and not manipulative,” Karp says. “You teach them how to pick their friends and their spouses, because if they learn how respectful people communicate, they’ll look for that in their own relationships.”

The next time your child throws a tantrum at the supermarket or tries to guilt you into bending the rules, think about the long-term consequences of giving in. But don’t worry about being perfect all the time. Karp says the overall pattern is more important than any given moment. “Do it right 80% of the time and you’ll end up with a really good kid.”

Written by Sherry Rauh, posted at