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Richard Bromfield, Ph.D.

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Unspoiling Your Child

Posted: 02/12/11 12:03 PM ET

A vast majority of parents -- 94 percent, according to a recent survey -- judge their children to be spoiled. Other surveys show that almost as many parents see today's consumerism as a significant deterrent to their best attempts to raise children with good values and strong character. The top percent of the wealthiest Americans believe their children know neither the value of a dollar nor the value of work, beliefs that many parents with much less agree with. If what the parents think doesn't catch your attention, consider what teens themselves admit: 31 percent owe more more than $230, with 14 percent owing over $1000, at least half of who wonder whether they'll ever pay off the debt.

Please know for sure, I do not blame parents for their predicament. Parents are, and have ever been, products of the world and society in which they live. Consider what today's parents (and their children) face -- the corporate influence, billions of dollars of advertising, endless choice, and a banking technology that has taught children that money doesn't grow on trees, it comes flying out of ATMs. My parents and their parents, the grandparents, would have fared no less indulgently, I suspect, than do those raising children in these times. But just because parents are not responsible for the world out there doesn't mean that they don't have the powers to counter and withstand the forces that pressure them to overindulge their children.

And yet, while parents report deep concern, my experience tells me that a majority of these same parents feel unable or unwilling to do anything about the overindulgence that colors, if not rules, their homes and their families. What accounts for this startling disconnect, and what can it mean?

Unspoiling can seem too beyond us. Few, if any, parents of young children set out with a dream to overindulge their children. I think that most parents want just the opposite, to raise children well-prepared to handle the hardship and trials of life. Overindulgence happens in a creeping process day by day, parenting moment by moment. By the time we notice it, our indulgent ways can feel too large, too entrenched, too life as it is.

Unspoiling can seem too hard or impractical. After ending my hour in an online parenting chat on unspoiling, I read an entry by a parent who wrote there was no way to stop using bribery as a parenting tool. How else, that parent wrote something like, will I get my kids to do what I want? Other parents have told me that their indulging ways enable them to get otherwise uncooperative children to get with the program through their busy and hectic days. Unfortunately, bribery and the like only fuel and maintain the problem.

Unspoiling can seem like the tip of the iceberg. Parents have said that they prefer to look the other way, because to force the issue -- that is, confront their children by indulging no longer -- will expose bigger problems. My experience with families challenges this belief. Reversing indulgent parenting can go quickly, rather easily, and turn a downward spiral upward, leading to unexpected and happier changes throughout a home.

Parents may fear that unspoiling will frustrate, anger or undercut their children's love for them. Paradoxically, nothing in family life could be further from the truth. Children want strong parenting, clear expectations, firm limits, and so on. Children do not hate parents for being good parents. They may spew and spout when they do not get their way, especially if they have been trained to believe that they are entitled to get what they want when they want it. When parents start taking steps to stop their indulging, they often discover children who are more contented and relaxed.

Other parents, I find, are tired, perhaps from working or parenting. Single parents are particularly prone to fatigue given that they do it all single-handedly, often with little or no support, emotionally or otherwise. These parents judge that they don't have the time to change their parenting. I can assure them, however, that the relatively little time they put into unspoiling will handsomely pay off and dramatically cut down the drain and stress that indulged children can impose on parents and a family.

To think, no less to have someone else say, that one's children are spoiled can sting, enough to turn away from the matter. But then, as parents do we worry more about how the truth makes us feel criticized, or do we take steps to ready our children for a future world that can be tough and unforgiving? Who, after all, is going to overindulge our children when they are no longer with us, when they are all grown and on their own?

Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., is a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and author of "How to Unspoil Your Child Fast: A Speedy Guide" and "Playing for Real: Exploring the World of Child Therapy and the Inner Worlds of Children."