How to avoid spoiling your toddler

Could doing your best for your child turn her into a nightmare? Here’s how to spot the danger signs and nip them in the bud

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Are you trying to give your child the best start in life, or are you simply spoiling her? According to recent research at Newcastle University, increasing numbers of children are being spoiled and overindulged because of pressure on parents to be ‘perfect’.

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Clinical psychologist Dr Maggie Mamen, author of The Pampered Child Syndrome , believes giving your child everything or doing everything for her deprives her of learning important messages that will stay with her for life.

“Parents who insist on being their child’s sole resource are unwittingly contributing to a sense of ‘learned helplessness’ in their children,” says Dr Mamen. She believes that by the time a child is 1, she needs to be able to separate healthily from her parents. This means she should sleep alone, be able to soothe herself, explore her environment, experience disappointment, learn to wait for things and begin to develop problem-solving strategies, building a foundation for later life.

How you can spot the danger signs

Some pampering is OK – after all, we all like to be pampered. The danger signs are if your child starts to demand what started out as a privilege – in other words, she begins to see it as her ‘right’. According to Dr Mamen, warning bells should ring if you start hearing yourself say, “I have to read her five stories before she goes to sleep,” or “I had to buy her sweets because she was making such a fuss,” or “I know I shouldn’t but…”Three of our mums are concerned that they’ve seen some danger signs – so we asked Dr Mamen to share her advice…

“Can bribery lead to bad behaviour?”

Pippa Munro, 34, from London, is mum to Alice, 17 months, and Maisie, 4.

“I’m at home with the children full-time and I love it, but I use bribery with Maisie to get things done. Sometimes I hear myself bribing her with sweets, even though I know I shouldn’t, because it works quickly and effectively. For example, when I’m getting Maisie ready for school and she’s taking too long I’ll say, ‘If you help mummy by getting ready quickly you can have some sweets out of the tin.’ It works because Maisie knows that if I say something then I’ll definitely follow through. She calls it a ‘mummy promise’.”

DR MAMEN SAYS: “The good thing about a 4 year old is that she is often just as easily pleased with a sticker on a calendar or a happy face drawn on the back of her hand as some sweets. Tokens like these don’t rot teeth, but still give a young child something tangible to show her you’ve noticed her cooperation. Try accompanying whatever token is given with a genuine, ‘Thanks, great job!’ or ‘Good girl!’ That way the token can be faded out, and your verbal praise takes on additional value. Problems could arise when Maisie starts to demand sweets before she’s willing to do anything, so it’s important to phase them out gradually.”

“Is it a mistake to charm them into behaving themselves?”

Wendy Robbins, 44, from London, is mum to Rebecca, 9, Louis, 6, and Yoni, 4.

“When I get back from working (which I do full-time) I want positive, happy times with the children. We all look forward to the 90 minutes we get together before bedtime but expectations are high on both sides so if things go wrong, such as one of them misbehaving, I often find myself appeasing them in order to create a happy atmosphere, rather than dealing with the bad behaviour. I’m not a naturally authoritative person, but I wonder if I could be storing up problems for the future by using what works for me in adult life – charm, humour and diplomacy.”

DR MAMEN SAYS:  “Attempts to keep children happy all the time are doomed. But there is a difference between ‘authoritative’ and ‘authoritarian’ parenting. Authoritarian parenting is cold and Victorian, whereas authoritative parents have expectations, set limits and parent with warmth and affection. But stick with charm, humour and diplomacy – parenting without these would be dire!”

“How much should I expect my children to help?”

Ginny Lewis, 44, from London, is mum to Maddie, 10, Ruby, 7 and twins Austin and Jared, 4, and works fours days a week as a nurse. 

“I don’t want the children to miss out just because I am working. The house can get quite messy as I feel that weekends are for being with the children, not cleaning the house. I know they should help, though, even the twins. But when I ask it feels like I’m nagging. It’s hard for me to get anything done as the children are constantly asking me to do things and wanting my attention. In the past, it’s sometimes taken as many as five attempts at loading the washing machine before it finally gets done. Other times, I put off preparing dinner and play a game with the kids instead – then everything gets delayed.”

DR MAMEN SAYS: “It’s really important that you don’t ‘give in’. This is the ultimate statement of a reactive parent. Putting life aside to be with the children is a fairly recent phenomenon that isn’t healthy. Let them learn to be part of the real world. There’s no rule that says children, even as young as four, can’t be involved in cleaning up.”

Your five-step guide to avoid pampering

1) Have a plan 

Think about what kind of child you’d like to raise and what kind of family atmosphere you want to create for her. By being proactive, you become the leader in the family. You are the boss – a young child doesn’t know how to run a family, and doesn’t need the stress and anxiety that this responsibility will give her.

2) Make promises, not threats 

You’re far more likely to follow through on a promise than on a threat. “When you have… then you may…” is a promise. “If you don’t… then you won’t…” is a threat. Promises are much more positive and will help you establish trust with your child.

3) Give your child a choice along with consequences 

This will help her learn not only to trust you, but also to trust her own judgement. For example, “You have a choice – you can turn the TV off now and it may go on again a bit later. Or I can turn it off, in which case it will stay off for the rest of the day.” This is a good way to encourage your child to ‘own’ her behaviour and not to blame you, the parent, for the outcome.

4) Associate words with action 

Until your child is at least 4 or 5, it’s no good simply giving her instructions. You need to get down to her level, make eye contact, and even hold her hand as you speak. You should also put your words together with actions. So if you’re asking her not to play with a certain toy, go over to your child and gently take the toy from her while speaking to her. That way she learns to connect the dots between your actions and words.

5) Act like you know what you’re doing (even when you don’t)

A child needs to have confidence in the ‘management team’. That’s you! Which means that even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you need to give the impression you do. Then, if need be, go and find the answer later!

Your child could turn out pampered if…

  • You’re highly driven working parents who have limited time with your children.
  • You’re parents who believe that saying ‘no’ to your child will hurt her self-esteem.
  • You’re parents who treat your child like she’s an adult.
  • You’re divorced or separated parents who devote all of your time to your child whenever you have access.
  • You’re parents who buy into adverts about being a good parent.
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Does any of this sound like you? Beware! It won’t always lead to pampered children – but it could if you don’t stay alert.

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