A few nights ago, after cleaning up from the play date I had organized for my 2½-year-old, changing his diaper, and refilling his water, I was about to start cooking him dinner before giving him a bath when the subject of Thanksgiving came up. He didn’t know what it was, so I tried to explain it to him. But somewhere between It’s a special day when we all think about how grateful we are for what we have and So, basically, it’s all about giving thanks, my son took off to terrorize our dog, and I was left stirring pasta that, five minutes later, I had to remind my son to thank me for.
My husband and I are incredibly lucky to be able to give our son what he needs and often what he wants, and we are raising him in a wonderful town in which many families do the same. Yet he’s growing up in a bubble, and that terrifies me. If he never truly struggles for things—important things—and he doesn’t spend much time with people who do, will he ever realize he’s got it so good? And will he ever want to do anything to make the world better? I know—rich/white/entitled people problems. This is the upper-middle-class parent’s existential enigma: How can we lovingly provide for our kids without turning them into spoiled brats? How can I teach my child to be thankful?
It isn’t a frivolous question. Research suggests that kids who are overindulged by their caregivers are more likely than other kids to grow into adults who are obsessed with fame, wealth, and attractiveness, who are less skilled, and who aren’t very conscientious or thoughtful. “They could basically give two hoots about contributing to the community, working for a better society, or helping others without anything in return,” explains David Bredehoft, a professor of psychology emeritus at Concordia University in Minnesota, who has spent more than a decade studying overindulgence and is the co-author of the upcoming How Much Is Too Much? with researchers Connie Dawson and Jean Illsley Clarke. Ungrateful kids are unhappier and less academically successful than their more thankful peers, and, unsurprisingly, they have fewer friends, too. (Bredehoft is careful to point out that his research is correlational, so we can’t say for sure that overindulgence or ungratefulness cause these attributes. They may be linked to them for other reasons.)
But before you start freaking out that your daughter is going to end up like the Real Housewives of New York City, let me mention a few caveats. To some degree, every kid is ungrateful, at least toward her parents, and that’s natural. “Often, parents are the least appreciated in a child’s world,” says Ross Thompson, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Davis. That’s a somewhat perplexing fact, but in many ways, Thompson says, it makes sense. Gratitude is based on expectations: You’re more likely to feel grateful toward a store employee who goes out of his way to show you where to find the gravy than you are for the checkout clerk who rings you up, just doing his job. Likewise, “children and adults in our society both live with the expectation that adults should and will take care of children, and that children, especially when they are young, can confidently expect that care,” Thompson says. In other words, your kid isn’t going to be supremely grateful for the 4,392 times you have sung “The Wheels on the Bus,” picked her up from soccer practice, and made her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because that’s just what parents in our culture do. Get over yourself.
And sometimes, bratty behavior is simply a sign of normal development. That’s particularly true of toddlers and young preschoolers, who can’t regulate their emotions as well as older kids do. “When they get their mind fixed on getting a particular toy, or indulging in a treat just before dinner, their lack of cognitive flexibility can make it hard for them to think they can ever possibly be happy if they don’t get it,” Thompson says. “It’s easy for a parent to see that [child] as overindulged, maybe even entitled, but it’s really reflecting a self-regulation problem.” (For more on the fun behaviors caused by a lack of self-regulation, see my temper tantrums column.) All this isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t try to instill gratitude in toddlers or that you should always give preschoolers what they want; it just means that tantrums and selfish demands aren’t a sign that your young child is turning into a holy terror.
By the time kids are 4½ or so, though, they should have a pretty well developed capacity for self-regulation. You should be hearing less I need it NOW! and more Thank you, Mom. Kids should also be able to, though not always be happy to, take no for an answer. In general, if you see your kid constantly yearning for more, that’s a sign of a gratitude problem—she’s clearly not very appreciative of what she already has, says Jeffrey Froh, a psychologist at Hofstra University and the author of the forthcoming book Making Grateful Kids. Another potential red flag, Thompson says, is if your kid has real trouble balancing her own needs and wants with those of others—for instance, if she demands that you cater to her all the time at the cost of her siblings’ or your needs.
Before I get into how you can unspoil your kid, it’s important to understand how kids become spoiled and ungrateful in the first place, because often the problem starts with the parent. (Happy Thanksgiving!) Also, there’s more than one way to “overindulge” your child in potentially harmful ways. Certainly, giving your kids too many things—toys, new clothes, or trips to the circus—is a form of overindulgence. But Bredehoft says that the dangers of overindulgence also extend to actions that overnurture or overcoddle kids—i.e., if you do things for your children that they should be doing for themselves. If you’re still tying Jack’s shoes when all of his friends are tying their own shoes, you’re overindulging him—in effect holding him back by not letting him develop age-appropriate skills and self-confidence. When we intervene in this way, it doesn’t exactly make our kids ungrateful, but it can make them demanding and whiny because “they feel incapable,” says Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of the forthcoming How Toddlers Thrive.
You can also overindulge your kids by raising them in an unstructured environment, Bredehoft says, which means that you either don’t set enough rules or that you don’t enforce the rules you have. If little Lily isn’t allowed to stand on chairs, but she does it all the time and your typical response is to bribe her to stop with extra dessert, then you’re overindulging her because she’s not suffering negative consequences for breaking your rule—instead, she’s getting cookies. This kind of indulgence can turn kids into entitled brats fast, because after all, they’re always the ones in charge.
There’s a final way that parents may overindulge their kids, says Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck: They make their kids feel entitled by how they speak of them. “When kids think, ‘I’m great, I’m special, things are coming to me because of my wonderfulness and specialness,’ there’s no gratitude there,” she says. “So the parents who are always telling their kids how brilliant they are and how much better than other kids they are, who go and fight with coaches and teachers who give them any criticism, they’re telling their kids, ‘you have everything coming to you by virtue of who you are.’ ” I certainly wouldn’t feel grateful for having an awesome life if I were told over and over again that I deserved nothing less—and I also wouldn’t be very interested in helping others, because hey, they probably deserve their misfortune.