Parenting without Spoiling

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

AP doesn't spoil childrenNeighbor: “Oh, your children are always so wonderful to be around! I can tell that you take parenting seriously.”

Parent: “Thank you! I think they’re wonderful, too, but of course I’m a little biased, so it’s nice to hear compliments from others. Thanks again!”

Neighbor: “I just don’t know what’s wrong with the world today. What don’t more parents be parents? Back in my day, parents didn’t put up with what they put up with now. We weren’t afraid to discipline our children. I’m so glad there’s someone in this younger generation who spanks their children.”

Parent: “Oh, but I don’t spank.”

Neighbor, surprised: “Oh, oh, of course not. Too controversial. Well, those timeouts must certainly be working then. I wouldn’t have thought it, you know, since the paddle worked so well for my children. I guess the point is that you’re punishing your children when they need it.”

Parent, calmly: “I don’t use timeouts, either. In fact, I don’t use any sort of punishment.”

Neighbor, obviously disapproving: “Well! You’re going to ruin your children! They’re going to grow up to be spoiled brats like all the other kids in this neighborhood!”

Parent, firmly but also calm and empathic of Neighbor’s view: “I may not punish, but I choose to use gentle discipline. I focus on teaching my children calmly and lovingly. I find this is best for my family, and as you had said, my children’s behavior show that it’s just as effective – if not more so – than other discipline forms that focus on punishments.”

Neighbor, defensively and indignantly: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What you’re doing is not discipline. You’re spoiling your children. You’re an irresponsible, selfish parent, and you’re going to pay for it as your children grow older and walk all over you and turn into drug users and criminals. If you really loved your children, you’d spank them or at least use timeouts.”

Oh, how quickly, this real conversation turned sour once the neighbor learned of the parent’s childrearing approach and began to apply her judgments on the situation. How ironic that the neighbor began by praising the children’s behavior but couldn’t accept the parenting style responsible for it.

What is this fear of spoiling? Much of it is probably rooted in religious doctrines as well as in past generations’ cultural norms, but there is definitely a pervasive fear that if parents choose certain parenting approaches that don’t align with the popular childrearing techniques, that they’re going to spoil their children – and apparently bring the whole of society to a ruin.

Lately, it seems Attachment Parenting (AP) has been wrongly accused of producing spoiled children. Most of the time, the author is sadly misinformed as to what exactly AP is. AP is often confused with permissive, overindulgent, or child-centered parenting, which quite simply is not true. Others who claim AP is a wrong way to parent are those who are so convicted of their non-AP practices, such as crying it out and punishments, that they won’t allow themselves to even consider the research-backed facts surrounding AP.

Be wary, parents, of sources that claim that AP spoils children. Ask them for their research and resources. Listen to your own instincts. Talk with parents, and allow yourself to nurture the parenting style you’ve gravitated towards. Become informed, and make informed decisions. You have the awesome privilege of parenting your child however you want, and don’t be afraid to love your children, even to do what others would consider “spoiling” your children.

What Does It Mean to Spoil Your Child?

According to, “to spoil” means: to do harm to the character, nature, or attitude of by over-solicitude, overindulgence, or excessive praise. Synonyms include: pamper, indulge, coddle, and baby.

According to an article from the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital, “Spoiled Children: Prevention” by B.D. Schmitt, MD, a spoiled child is undisciplined, manipulative, and unpleasant to be around. Here are his so-called warning signs, which he says are usually evident by the time the child is two to three years old:

  • Doesn’t follow rules or cooperate with suggestions
  • Doesn’t respond to “no,” “stop,” or other commands
  • Protests everything
  • Doesn’t know the difference between his needs and wants
  • Insists on having his own way
  • Makes unfair or excessive demands on others
  • Doesn’t respect other people’s rights
  • Tries to control people
  • Becomes frustrated easily
  • Frequently whines or tantrums
  • Constantly complains about being bored.

Whoa, now wait, just a moment! Did you catch that part about these behaviors showing up by the time a child is two or three years old? How many toddlers do you know that do these behaviors at times? I know two, and they’re in my house.

So, does that mean that my children are spoiled? All of these bullet-points are part of normal child development for this age, as they try to assert more independence but are not yet able to do all that they want to do and then must struggle to regulate their strong emotions of frustration, anger, and disappointment.

According to the article, your child may be in danger of being spoiled if he exhibits these behaviors seemingly all the time. Instead of thinking a child is spoiled though, and then thinking of ways to “break” these behaviors, Attachment Parenting challenges us to look at not the behaviors but the reason behind the behaviors. The next time your child displays these behaviors, ask yourself, what do these actions point to? When they show up in our or others’ children, what is the cause?

I recently spoke with Laurie Couture, a mental health counselor who founded, who echoed what so many others have observed in their professional lives working with families, including Attachment Parenting International Co-founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker: That children who have these signs of being spoiled, what they really need, is someone to give them love and time and attention.

If a child appears to be spoiled, it’s not a product of being loved too much. A child cannot be spoiled by love and attention.

“Many societal challenges can interfere with a parent’s ability to develop a responsive relationship with his or her baby,” write Nicholson and Parker in their book, Attached at the Heart, for sale here. “For example, parents may believe myths about spoiling baby, or they may follow advice (often unsolicited) from well-meaning family, friends, and medical professionals, the media, and self-proclaimed ‘parenting experts.’ More often than not, this advice conflicts with the science of normal child development.”

See API’s review of the API Co-founders’ book, Attached at the Heart, here.

And from Couture’s book, Instead of Medicating and Punishing: “You cannot ‘spoil’ your child when you meet his or her needs. Children become ‘spoiled,’ or materialistic, when the secure parent-child attachment cycle is broken and material objects are used as substitutes for basic needs.”

Couture describes how spoiled children crave objects and other pleasures as a way to temporarily ease the discomfort of an insecure attachment with their parents. No matter how much you give to a spoiled child, it’s never enough. Why? Because what parents of spoiled children are giving is not what they really need – their time, attention, empathy, nurturing, compassion, and love.

“These characteristics of ‘spoiled,’ materialistic children are usually symptoms of chronic, unmet needs from a disrupted and insecure parent-child attachment. All humans, included the many ‘spoiled,’ materialistic adults in our culture, will attempt to fill the holes left by their unmet needs in any way they can,” Couture continues. “Buying objects; gorging on junk food; using substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; and craving unhealthy relationships to meet early needs are all people’s heart-breaking attempts to fill the void of a disrupted, insecure parent-child attachment.”

How Can Parents Heal Their Spoiled Children?

Although mainstream “parenting experts” like to focus on stopping the behaviors by giving less attention and punishing more, by focusing on the actions and not on the cause, they’re actually perpetuating the problem. Always, if you have a problem, go to the cause instead of only focusing on the effects. The problem cannot be stopped until its root is resolved. So, we know that spoiled children — no matter how unpleasant their behaviors are — are the result of children not receiving the nurturing time and positive attention they need.

To reverse the acting-out and other spoiled behaviors in their children, parents must focus on their attachment relationship with the child. This means going back to the Eight Principles of Parenting, as applicable and developmentally appropriate for their child, especially focusing on the Principle of Responding with Sensitivity. Parents also have to often find ways to heal from their own childhood wounds by first recognizing that they’re there and then consciously choosing to re-write their own behaviors, especially those in response to stress and conflict, in order to adopt a nonviolent, empathetic lifestyle.

To get parents started, here are basic guidelines provided by Couture:

  • Lots and lots of physical affection
  • Stop all forms of punishments, including spanking, yelling, threats, and withdrawing love and attention
  • Stop all forms of neglect, or ignoring of physical and emotional needs
  • Empathize at every chance
  • “Re-parent” earlier developmental needs, no matter what age the child is now
  • Eye gaze with your child as you frequently cuddle and hold your child
  • Caress your child’s face, arms, and hands
  • Turn off the TV, video games, and computer
  • Play with your child one-on-one
  • Allow lots of physical activity and join in with your child
  • Get into one of your child’s interests
  • Give each of your children at least 30 minutes of one-on-one time and your full attention each day
  • Allow you child to develop, progress, and grow at his own pace
  • Nurture and love your child as she is, and treasure her unique qualities
  • Listen to your child and learn about his passions, concerns, views, interests, and dreams
  • Prevent conflicts before they start
  • Avoid situations that upset your child
  • Model, guide, and discuss what you want all families members to display in their behavior
  • Be a strong, safe, firm, and gentle authority
  • When your child breaks a rule, discuss the reasons why and decode the unmet needs
  • Listen to and validate your child’s feelings
  • Ask for restitution instead of using punishment
  • Heal the causes of your child’s behaviors
  • Get help for yourself if you are angry, aloof, depressed, sarcastic, irritable, or anxious
  • Allow your child to direct his own play and learning interests without structure
  • Help heal physical, sexual, or emotional trauma by using professional therapy and treatments instead of using psychiatric drugs
  • Find an ethical attachment therapist and specialists for your children and family
  • Take responsibility for your mistakes and make restitution to your child.

Finally, here is a wise piece of advice from Connection Parenting by Pam Leo, something that all parents can keep in mind throughout their daily activities: “The level of cooperation parents get from their children is usually equal to the level of connection children feel with their parents.”

Discuss this topic with other API members and parents. Get advice for your parenting challenges, and share your tips with others on the API Forum.

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