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Unspoil Your Child -- ASAP!

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Let's face it: We all want to give our kids the world. Whatever makes them happy, we're eager to pass along. But indulging every whim is a surefire way to get a spoiled child.

Unspoil Your Child Fast
We sat down with Harvard Medical School psychologist Richard Bromfield, PhD, author of the new book "How to Unspoil Your Child Fast." Here's what he had to say about tackling one of parenthood's biggest challenges.

momlogic: You say that nearly 95 percent of parents think their child is overindulged. That's a HUGE percentage. What are the contributing factors?

Richard Bromfield:
The enormity of that number underscores what common sense tells us: Parents are very much products of culture and society. This epidemic of indulgence is not proof of women and men who are bad parents. Overindulgence is a sign of the times. In this respect, previous generations of parents had it easier. Today, children and their parents virtually marinate in a stew of consumerism. Consider that companies spend tens of billions -- not a typo -- on advertising that targets our children. They must know it pays off. Today's parents are up against media, ads and keeping up with the Joneses like no other generation of parents has ever faced.

When I was a kid, the decision was white or black Jack Purcell sneakers. The limitless choices can now overwhelm even an adult who's shopping for athletic shoes. Child psychology shares some of the blame, too. The self-esteem movement, while full of good intent and holding some merit, created its own problems. That movement suggested that parents ever feed their children's self-esteem, heaping praise and rewards until they lost their meaning and until they undermined children's truly coming to know the natural and innate rewards that come with true effort and competency.

Parents did what they were advised to, and it did not always work. Throw in personal forces, like wanting their children to know joy, to make them happy, to not be angry and contemporary parents' discomfort with their authority, and the prevalence of overindulgence is easy to grasp.

ml: How can we raise happy, healthy kids without giving them everything they want?

Reversing the wording of that question starts to provide the answer: "How can we give our children everything they want, and still raise happy, healthy kids?" It is hard for a child to learn to be happy or contented when she's trained to ever need more and to ever need instantly. We systematically instill our children with the seeds of discontent. In the common variety of indulgence, children often feel unsettled by their wish for something else or more. At its worst, children come to feel devastated and unloved whenever they do not get their way.

Life skills, like playing a musical instrument or learning a craft, come through experience, rehearsal and increasing competency. When parents give their children everything they want or ask for, they deprive the children of opportunities to work on life skills such as learning to wait, to be patient, to cope with the endless frustration that is part of everyone's life. And when parents ever do for their children, rescuing them from every natural consequence, they likewise deprive the children of the opportunity to learn how to make it go better next time. In a cruel paradox, parents' gifts of indulgence steal away more precious gifts, like learning how to grow into an adolescent and adult who can handle life with some resilience.

ml: There's a lot of competition amongst kids. Oftentimes, parents give in to requests because they want their kid to have what the next kid has. What advice would you give?

RB:Again, when I was a kid, it was easier for parents. My parents often said no, but they knew that my friends' parents were probably saying the very same thing next door or down the street. It is different today. The pressure on today's parents to keep up with everyone else is so much greater. To resist that, and the corporate-engineered influences of advertising and the media, is much like David going up against Goliath, only Goliath is now the size of a skyscraper-tsunami. And I do not exaggerate.

My advice is as simple as it is difficult: Commit to the values that you believe are core to your parenting. To do what you believe is right, even when others are pressuring you to do otherwise, takes courage and conviction. The more parents remind themselves of their own parenting ideals, the easier it will be to take the better path and make better parenting choices.

ml: "Holding your ground" is easier said than done. Do you have some tips on how to say no and mean it?

[If you] know what you believe, sticking to your guns becomes second nature. At first, you might need to prepare and psych yourself to stand firm and not surrender to your child's demands and fortitude. But what does she know? She comes up to your knees and doesn't even have her own credit card yet. That reporters repeatedly ask me the question "How can parents say no?" says it all, doesn't it? "Just say it" seems to be the answer. But as a parent whose kids used to be small, I know how hard that can be. Keep in mind, however, that kids watch and learn more from parents' actions than their words. Save the lectures ... and put your planning, thoughtfulness and energies into strong parenting deeds. The newfound contentment and cooperation that you discover in your home life will quickly tell you that your change was necessary and that it works.

ml: People would say that explaining yourself to your child might help them understand. Why is it not a good idea?

I think it is fair to say that yesterday's parents did not talk to their children as well as today's parents. Today's parents are often their children's best friends, their confidantes and so on. That is mostly a wondrous thing. In doing so, though, parents have trained their children to be high-powered negotiators who could take on any corporate attorney in a courtroom. Children would rather plead their case to not go to sleep until midnight than have to go to bed. Wrestling and struggling with parents is more fun to a child than is following their parents' directives to do this or that.

By caving in after hours of follow-through, parents actually turn their children into persistent battlers who can hang in there for hours, for they know that if they only resist long enough, their parents will eventually surrender and they, the kids, will get their way. Dare I say, sometimes it is not only OK, but wise, for parents to say, "Because I am the parent and I say so" -- and then stick to it.

Fortunately, spoiled children are a result of indulgent parenting. All it takes to undo and reverse this process is to stop spoiling from this day forth. Lead in a new and unspoiling way, and your children will soon follow.

next: My Mommy Nemesis
18 comments so far | Post a comment now
Debs October 29, 2010, 9:34 PM

I’m a teacher rather than a parent, and trust me, when children walk into my classroom they quickly learn the meaning of the word no. They also learn that they are EXPECTED to do their homework, follow instructions, and listen when I talk. My brother and sister raise their children in a likewise manner. This is how we were raised. When I do become a parent my attitude shall remain the same. As a child, I went to bed when told, did my homework, and helped with the housework. There was no arguing or negotiation. There was certainly no “I want, I want, I want.” It surprises me constantly when the parents of my students come to me and say they don’t know how to get their children to sit down and do their homework.

These expectations of mine do not make my classroom a harsh or unwelcome place. My students and I play plenty of games and they’re given lots of rewards. This weekend’s homework, actually, is homework that the kids love. They’re to go and buy some candy to bring to school on Monday, that’s when we’ll be doing Halloween activities. It’s just that making it clear to children what your expectations are, and outlining that it IS an expectation, not a discussion, removes room for negotiation and endless, “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” discussions with other teachers or parents. It might be difficult at first, but in the end, everyone knows what the rules are and all the stress caused by constant negotiation and bribery is gone.

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