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The Secret Word to Avoid Spoiling Your Kids

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For Women & Co. By Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D.

How does spoiling happen?
Experts agree that children become spoiled and feel entitled when they are overindulged by their parents. And let's face it -- who isn't guilty of using the lure of potential purchases to try to change their kids' behavior every now and then, typically with disappointing results? In fact, many times when a parent promises to buy something their child wants "if you behave," or "if you do your homework," this may really mean they're feeling all options have been exhausted, leading to: When all else fails, pull out the credit card and head for the mall or do some online shopping.

Based on her research, psychologist Madeline Levine, Ph.D., suggests that shopping done to soothe emotions and address frustration can give kids a false sense of security and control over their lives. A new purchase can create a momentary good feeling, but it is actually not a sustainable way to reduce stress. As soon as the thrill of the purchase wears off, the troublesome feelings of insecurity or inadequacy resurface, only to be replaced by yearnings for other purchases to keep them at bay.

Parents of all income levels funding this unfulfilling cycle of consumerism are confused. On the one hand, it makes sense at some level that parents would unconditionally share their good fortune with their children, especially in affluent households. What good does it do to have money if it isn't used to bring pleasure and delight, especially for one's children? On the other hand, many parents find that they never seem to be able to give their children enough. Their kids keep asking for and getting more and more, and yet their behavior becomes more and more challenging, and in many cases, outright bratty, with an increase in sullen demands.

So what to do?
I suggest that the simplest way to eliminate spoiling is through the use of one word: budget. When it is consistently explained that budgeting requires planning and saving, you'll be able to respond to requests calmly: "We did not budget for the new toy you would like, so we need to talk about it and plan ahead for it." This kind of conversation helps children of all ages deal with disappointment, learn to defer gratification, and most importantly, it decreases the chances of children developing attitudes of feeling entitled.

Trips to the toy store can be easy and straightforward: "Remember, we budgeted to buy your friend a birthday present, and that is all we're buying at the store." Saying no to a child about immediate purchases is no longer a battleground when buying decisions are handled around budgets. Even young children will begin to ask, "Can we budget for a new toy for me?" A child asking this question is a far cry from the unpleasant scenes that all too often take place around purchases when children are used to getting whatever they want, whenever they want it. And, as children get older, they can be taught about the two main types of budgets: the family budget (e.g., "We're saving for a trip to Disney World") and the personal budget (e.g., "You need to work, save, and contribute 50 percent toward your class trip to Washington D.C.")

Many parents need to talk about budgets and budgeting out of financial necessity -- and all parents should find ways to talk with their children about budgeting out of developmental and emotional necessity, even if money is an abundant resource for them. Case in point: I recently witnessed a teenage boy badgering his dad to buy a new car for him. (The dad had some recent, phenomenal luck selling some stock and was newly wealthy.) The son said, "Why can't I have a new car? We're rich now." The father replied, "No, we're not rich. Your mother and I are rich. If you want to be rich, you'll have to work for it."

Women & Co., a service of Citi, is the go-to personal finance source for women. By providing financial content, commentary and community, Women & Co.'s mission is to get women thinking and talking about personal finance. Founded in 2000, Women & Co. is one of the longest running personal finance websites dedicated to helping women strengthen their financial futures.