Marion, age 4, was helping her mom shop. When they approached the checkout counter, Marion saw a small toy she wanted. When her mom said she couldn’t have it, Marion started screaming and crying. Marion’s mom felt intensely humiliated by her daughter’s fit and bought her daughter the toy.
Bill grew up in a poor family. As a child, he didn’t have many toys and couldn’t participate in after-school activities. When he had children, he made sure that they had every toy they wanted and did every activity they wanted.
In these circumstances, as in others, parents wonder “Am I spoiling my child, or am I doing the right thing?” Unfortunately, this isn’t always an easy question to answer. The guidelines for quality parenting have many gray areas, even though we wish they were black and white.
Of course, Grandpa Paul feels simply fine spoiling his grandkids. Grandparents, except for those raising their grandchildren, get a free pass — but even so, moderation makes sense. Grandparents have all the joy without the responsibility that parents shoulder. Moms and Dads are responsible for making decisions day in and day out that help their kids become responsible adults.
Giving into a child’s temper tantrum at the supermarket can seem like a matter of survival in the moment. I remember my daughter having such an episode as a young child. It seemed like every eye in the store focused on me. Some shoppers shook their heads in pity and disgust. I felt truly miserable.
In those situations, most parents want to shrink into the ground and disappear. They give in to their child just to end the nightmare. When they do fold, they know they’re reinforcing unruly behavior. If they resist that impulse, they risk embarrassment and public humiliation. These are truly the tough decisions of parenthood.
It’s also common for parents to want their children to avoid the negative experiences that they themselves endured. Parents from neglected backgrounds shower their children with attention. Adults from poor families want to give their children everything they didn’t have. Single parents want to make up for the perceived limitations of their ex-spouse.
Here are some tips on how to cope with these dilemmas:
Don’t give into temper tantrums. Make it your parental policy to never give in to your kid when they pitch a fit. That’s easier said than done but consider the big picture. Do you want to teach your children that rude behavior is the best way to get what they want? This can result in a grown-up who can’t have good relationships with others because she always needs to get her way.
Learning how to cope with frustration and disappointment doesn’t disappear when you become an adult. It starts in early childhood and persists through our entire life.
Whenever you give in, you’ll pay for it down the road. The next temper tantrum will be longer and louder. Better to scoop up your child and walk out of the store, leaving your shopping cart filled with food in the aisle and your self-esteem intact.
You can’t make up for your past. Raising your children differently won’t erase your past. Your pain from childhood won’t disappear by buying your kids every toy they want. This kind of indulgence gives kids a bad message— acquiring stuff solves life’s problems. Also, children won’t appreciate what they have. We want our kids to grow into adults that are thankful for what they do have.
The goal is to be sensible and consider the big picture.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.