Bitter rewards

Two-year-old Johnny faces a formidable pile of gifts under the Christmas tree. He eventually manages to tear the paper off a big yellow truck and gleefully starts to play.

The boy’s parents entice him back to the tree to open some of the other presents. He returns reluctantly and opens another and then another. The yellow truck sits in a corner for the rest of the day until it is piled into a large toy box where it sits buried at the bottom, out of reach.

Fast-forward three years: five-year-old Johnny has made short work of the heap under the Christmas tree and he’s scouting about for more. When his uncle and aunt arrive, he rushes to the door to demand his present. He is promptly rewarded with a brightly wrapped box. His parents feign mild embarrassment. “Children!” they say, and shrug their shoulders.

Under the circumstances, Johnny’s behaviour is arguably a predictable response to the material excess of his parents rather than a reflection of the true nature of children.

As many child experts and parents will tell you, overindulgence of a child — particularly if it happens in an unstructured way throughout the year — is more likely to produce ongoing demands from the child than squeals of delight and gratitude.

But if parents can afford it and are able to put up with the whining that may come with it, is there anything really wrong with spoiling your children?

From time to time, no; but persistent overindulgence can affect all areas of a child’s development, including his or her responses to authority, to self-discipline and the process of building self-esteem, experts say.

“Spoiling your children is to deprive them of valuable skills such as independence, respect for the value of money and understanding what hard work actually means,” says educational psychologist Naomi Holdt.

Importantly, how a child relates to acquiring material possessions is also closely linked to a child’s sense of self, partly built through the supported achievement of goals, which can then be rewarded materially, says Holdt. Without awareness around the link between good behaviour and reward, however, the giving and receiving of possessions can become a substitute for emotional nurturing on the part of the parent and internal happiness on the part of the child.

“Material possessions can become the primary source of happiness in a situation where children are not taught to see happiness as internally built,” says Holdt. Spoilt children may suffer socially, lack coping skills and a secure sense of self as a result of an excessive emphasis on possessions.
Professor Anthony Pillay, principal clinical psychologist at Fort Napier Hospital and the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in KwaZulu-Natal, says overindulgence of children is not necessarily linked to affluence, although he concedes that the past decade has brought a greater emphasis on material possessions into the lives of young people.

“Any parent, regardless of his or her socioeconomic status, can run into problems if his or her children fail to learn the principle of earning certain rewards,” he says. “The parenting principle — that reward is contingent upon the child’s behaviour — is the same whether you are talking about an affluent or poorer family.”

Pillay says children who develop a pattern of thinking that material possessions come very easily may develop expectations and a sense of entitlement unmatched by their later experience of the real world. “We know that structured approaches to child-rearing have far greater benefits, partly because they are more consonant with the way society works.”

Holdt says the discovery that the world doesn’t hand you things on a silver platter can prompt serious disillusionment in older children and young adults, raising the chances of depression, addictions and other social problems. Self-centred behaviour, a trait which may arise out of constantly having all desires met, may also cause rejection by peers, difficulties in romantic relationships or feelings of loneliness.

She believes that indulging a child materially goes “hand in hand” with what she sees as the reluctance of today’s parents to set and maintain boundaries for their children. For instance, working or divorced parents may be driven by guilt to spoil their children while some may try to make up for their own deprived childhoods.

Alluding to the work of Canadian child psychologist Maggie Mamen, author of The Pampered Child Syndrome, Holdt says: “Parents are so anxious not to appear to be the ‘baddies’, they simply don’t want to say ‘no’ any more.”

But trying to avoid conflict in the short term is likely to produce far bigger problems further down the line. “A parent’s role is to prepare a child for life and that’s not happening because there’s too much indulgence and a lack of boundaries and rules. All of this contributes towards making children insecure,” says Holdt.

The situation is compounded, she believes, by society having bestowed too much freedom upon children. Holdt says that, while children’s rights legislation has been an important development in terms of giving oppressed children a voice, it has also led to aspects of their lives “feeling out of control”.

In her own practice, for example, Holdt is increasingly dealing with situations in which children as young as four are placed at the top of the family hierarchy and effectively call the shots.

“There’s no security for a four-year-old who can manipulate adult figures,” she says.

“Children often do not have the emotional capacity to deal with what should be adult decisions and the anxiety of the choices they are forced to make can be too much for them.”

Today material excess is evident all around us and children and their parents are increasingly being encouraged by marketers and advertisers to become a part of that indulgence.

“You just have to look around at the birthday parties given for young children,” says Holdt. “The social pressure on those parents to provide, not only for their children but their children’s guests, is enormous. Parents should also be imposing boundaries upon themselves.”

Holdt says overindulgence amounts to a vicious circle with pernicious long-term effects. “If you look back at your own childhood, you will remember that it wasn’t the toys and the cheap gifts you received that stick in your memory. It’s the quality moments, the holidays, the family outings … those are the important things.”

Tips for parents:

  • Structure your giving. If a child is not spoiled throughout the year, then Christmas or birthdays can be special occasions. “It’s up to parents how much they want to give, but what’s important is that the child perceives both the meaning and value of the gifts,” says Holdt.
  • Start setting boundaries and rules at a young age and be consistent about applying them. Don’t give in to tantrums.
  • Teach children respect for adults.
  • Use a reward chart to motivate children. Rewards can range from a star or a tick to a R10 note, depending on the age of the child.
  • Introduce a household chore system to develop confidence, pride, respect and responsibility in children. Reward them where appropriate.
  • Introduce a pocket money system to teach your child money-wise life skills, patience and delayed gratification.
  • Help your children to set and achieve their goals.
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