Unspoil your child, starting today

If you’ve clicked on this story, then congratulations. Let me give you a big hug for admitting that small truth buried deep in your heart that you might have spoiled your child. I know, I know: entirely unintentionally. Believe me, I know that no parent, no matter how busy or well-off, spoils their child with the intention of raising a brat. We think we do our best, yet we ourselves don’t know what our best is.

More often than not, I notice among other parents I know, and with my own kids, that spoiling a child starts with having absolutely no energy to deal with the persistent being that a child is. In order to have the mental energy to say “no” to your child in a balanced way, you need to be of a balanced frame of mind yourself. If you are unhappy in general, bored, dissatisfied, struggling in some way or just plain unable to deal with the pressures of being a parent, then it is most likely that you are going to find ways to make up for that guilt by overcompensating.

How do we overcompensate?

Presents, toys, books, clothes, screen-time, even delayed bedtimes so they can play with their friends, expensive vacations and eating out whenever they ask are some of the ways we give ‘too much’ to our kids. Yes, there is definitely something called too much. And it comes on very early in a child’s life. Ever caught yourself asking your kids, “But how can you be bored, you have so many toys!” Or, “Where are all those Pokemon cards I got you?” and received a shrug or a cool, “I don’t know,” in response? Well, congratulations. Your kids are saturated and don’t know how to enjoy new things for more than an hour.

How do you know if your child is spoiled?

  1. They insist on getting their way, each and every time.

  2. They speak to you disrespectfully. This is not just talking back or arguing; this is specifically saying rude things that drip with lack of respect.

  3. They treat their toys carelessly. They feel no sadness if something is broken or lost. They regularly leave things scattered instead of putting them away. They don’t know where any of the expensive toys are.

  4. They throw tantrums every single time you say no.

  5. They complain when you give them the smallest chore to do.

  6. They are easily bored, don’t have respect for strangers, elders, their friends, teachers etc.

  7. They don’t like to share or give away things, even the things they don’t use.

  8. They are generally ungrateful.

If you’ve said yes to at least three of these things, you’re probably raising an entitled child. A loveable, smart, warm child, sure, but also a child who has gotten too used to getting his or her way. But don’t worry, you (and only you) can help this situation and bring your child back to the responsible, kind, emotionally-stable one that you intended to raise. Read on.

Project un-spoiling.

  • Say no. And then stick to it.

Many times, in the heat of the moment, we deny our child what she wants. And when things quieten down, your heart softens at her big doe-eyed appeal, her pristine tears rolling down her softly-rounded cheeks, and you say yes. Well done on being played by your little one. Stop. When you say no, just stick to it. Be the adult. Don’t give into your temptation to feel better by saying yes. Saying yes will make your child happy and, therefore, make you happy. Refrain from seeking that temporary feeling of joy. Because the lasting consequence of saying no will bring you more.

  • But before you say no, understand why you’re doing it

This takes discipline. And it’s tricky. So when your child asks you for something, genuinely tell them you will think about it. Then, actually think about it. This teaches the child patience and it teaches you to understand why you’re saying no. Are you saying no because enough is enough and now you have to do something? Or are you saying no because your child doesn’t need the thing she’s asking for; she just wants it because it’s shiny and new. Once you understand this, take a deep breath, gather some courage (a little liquid courage if need be) and say no. Then, try your very best to stay calm in the face of it. Keep staying calm till the storm passes. Keep calm the next day and then the next, till your child understands that a “no” is a “no” and not a maybe, not a no-until-you-behave. Just no. Over time, the message your child gets is, “Mum/dad took time to think about it and then said no.”

  • Spend time with them

Last evening, at dinner, I had the worst shock of my parent life. I don’t remember how the conversation started but, suddenly, my son was, in a non-accusatory tone, saying, “Oh you come back from work and sit on the couch, message your friends, tweet, Instagram.” My immediate reaction was panic because I am guilty of it very often but not always. I was going to jump to my defence and say, “No, that’s not true. I do this, this and this.” But I held my tongue because there was truth in it. And by denying what he had observed, I was making him out to be a liar and someone who was ‘not on my side.’ I dealt with that conversation later but resolved to spend a lot more phone-free time with them. This is non-negotiable, dads and mums. Spending time with them doesn’t mean we sit in the same room with them when they’re hanging around and distractedly answer their questions. It means actually spending time so that they feel noticed and seen and heard. Fill their time with experiences and your presence. This helps the unspoiling process.

  • Teach them to give away things

I have a rule at home. Periodically, I give away things. My clothes, their clothes, their toys, things that I don’t use in the house anymore. I don’t do it as often or as organised as I need to, but I still do. First, I used to give things away when the kids weren’t around because I didn’t want conflict on what was given away. But later, when they asked me where something was and I had given it away, it would be a huge tantrum. Almost like a betrayal. So I started involving them in the process. And guess what I discovered. That both my kids were reluctant to give away stuff EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE TOO BIG FOR IT/DIDN’T USE IT/DIDN’T NEED IT! This was a shock to me. Even when I explained that some underprivileged child would benefit from this, my daughter refused to accept that and back down. This is a sure sign of selfishness, of possessiveness. So now, I give away things more often and involve them and let them choose what they want to give away. Initially, it was all the broken things they chose, but I would put them in the ‘throw away’ pile and insist that they put useable, good things in the ‘give’ pile. It’s still a work in progress.

  • But before that, give away your own stuff

You may not agree with me but I know for a fact that you don’t need all the things you have. All those bags, Swiss Army knives, shoes, all that make, stationery: you don’t need all of that. Stuff like books and saris, I suppose are acceptable, because you can probably hand them down and it’s nice to have heirloom clothes. But the rest of it is just you filling your own emptiness with things. There, I said it. Give stuff away and let your kids see you give it away. Good condition stuff given away for no reason other than that you have too much. Lead by example. Simple. 

  • Take up a challenge: no shopping for 6 months (or a year if you feel brave!)

This has worked for many of my friends. And I am hoping to make next year my year to take up this challenge. No shopping unless it’s a birthday. That’s it. No more rules here. Don’t buy a thing for yourself and your kids unless it’s a ‘need’ and not a ‘want’. Try this and tell me how it works. Because the minute a child knows her broken toy will be replaced with another, you’re doomed. See how all of you grow with this.

  • Ground rules

You’ve probably done this earlier on, but when life gets in the way, we forget. Reset your ground rules. Going to the supermarket? Tell your kids beforehand that you’re going to get very specific things. They are not to ask for anything more. And if they do, they will be denied (tip: they will ask. It’s a test. If you say yes, you’ve failed). Kids not wishing adults, guests or people in general. Make sure you don’t do the next thing that needs to be done (unless it’s catching the school bus) till your kids say, “Good morning, Anita Aunty,” or “Thank you, Anil Uncle.” Your rules are sacred. So is respect for what you say. This is hard, but with consistency, kids buckle down and do it.

  • Finally, consequences

If your child wants something, encourage her to save for it. “When you have so much money, then you can get the new book you want (yes, even books; they are not a ‘need’ – your no shopping rule should extend to things that are educational too). Use the same method to get things done in the house. “When you have finished folding your blanket, then you can go down to play.” This teaches kids that unless they contribute to the house, they cannot have what they want. This really, really grounds them. I’ve tried it with mine and it works.

Parent life is hard. But it helps to go to sleep with a clear conscience that tells you that you’ve done your best with your kid in order that she may go out into the world a good adult. Good luck!

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