Spoiling Kids Vs. Treating Them—How to Know the Difference


We love our kids more than anything in the world, it’s perfectly natural to want to give them all of the love, praise, and gifts we could possibly fathom. Doubling down on this, however, can have very real and unfortunate consequences. We want to give our kids the world, but we don’t want them to turn out ungrateful or self-centered.

There’s a fine line between giving our kids all of the love they deserve and spoiling them, but how can you know whether you’re on one side of this line or the other? Let’s take a look at knowing the difference between spoiling your kid and treating them.

Watch Your Sorry’s

It’s very important to teach our kids the importance of saying sorry, and a big part of that is owning up and apologizing for your own mistakes. That being said, sorry’s can be overdone, and if you aren’t careful with your sorry’s, you might be teaching your kid that they deserved and are owed everything.

What do we mean by overdoing sorry’s? Simply put, sorry is a word we throw around innocently for a lot of things that aren’t our faults. Sorry, traffic was awful. Sorry, I already have plans. Sorry, I don’t feel comfortable with that. In our everyday lives, we say sorry, but it’s generally understood that we’re expressing regret more-so than apologizing—we don’t owe anybody the ability to magically avoid traffic, we don’t owe anybody an open schedule, and we certainly don’t owe anybody comfort.

We understand that sorry isn’t always an apology, but our kids might not. If you can’t buy them the toy that they want, a sorry can tell them that it’s your fault, and not that sometimes they simply aren’t going to get what they want. The same goes for unexpected changes of plans, cooking dinner that isn’t their favorite, or really anything that they don’t love but that they have to learn to live with. Empathizing and talking honestly with our kids is paramount, and doing so without always saying sorry helps us show them patience and tolerance.

Stand Your Ground

Generally speaking, we all have a set of ground rules we place at home. Also generally speaking, our kids are going to try to challenge some of these rules if not straight up ignore them. While letting things slide can be the easy or comfortable thing to do, and while being lenient every once in a while is a nice way to treat your kids, being able to stand your ground on these rules is an important part of teaching your kids, once again, that they can’t always get what they want.

How you respond to these challenges can come from your Parenting Style, and while there are plenty of healthy parenting styles that can be combinations of the ones we’ve described, it’s generally agreed that it’s important to stand your ground with rules while also explaining why these rules have to be respected. “Because I said so,” isn’t an explanation you’d take from anyone, and it isn’t an explanation you should expect to be received sincerely by your kid. Helping them understand why you place the rules that you do is a fundamental part in building a respectful, empathetic relationship with your kid, while helping them understand (and not just know) why we can’t always get what we want.

Handle Tantrums

Another tool that kids often learn to use to get whatever they want is tantrums, and a way that we parents enable this is by not knowing how to handle tantrums. We go more into this here, but we’ll hit the key points quickly.

First of all, avoid tantrum triggers whenever you can. If you know that your kid is going to throw a tantrum if you walk by the toy aisle, don’t go by the toy aisle. If you know that there are certain things that set your kid off, try to avoid these when possible. Tantrums aren’t pretty, and if you’re caught off guard, you might not handle them perfectly, either.

That being said, you can’t completely avoid tantrums forever, so how do you deal with them without teaching your kid that tantrums are an easy way to get what they want? First, don’t give them what they want. Next, try to ignore them as much as possible. Tantrums shouldn’t be used to get what they want, which includes your attention. When your kid finally calms down, communicate that tantrums aren’t how we should express our feelings, and explain how they should talk to you about what they’re feeling.

You can’t always just let a tantrum be, of course. If need be, take your kid to a more private place while they calm down. Once they do, talk to them and go right back to whatever you were doing before. Going home or doing something else can teach your kid that tantrums are an easy way to get out of a boring situation.

It can be easy to blur the line between treating your kid and giving them what they want during a tantrum, or right before one. Make sure that when you’re treating them, you aren’t implicitly trying to avoid bad behavior. If you are, now is probably not the time for a treat.

Measure the Gifts

We’d give our kids all of the gifts in the world if we could, but we shouldn’t. As tempting as it is, and as innocent as it seems, to give our kids gifts whenever they behave or achieve a big accomplishment, gifts aren’t always the way to go.

Part of not spoiling our kids is teaching them to enjoy the good in being good. Gifts as rewards are a great way to show our kids that they should do good things because it results in prizes, a lesson that can turn south really quickly. Instead, offer congratulations and words of encouragement and motivation. This will help your kid feel special about having acted well, which will be its own motivator for good behavior in the future.

That being said, you can still take your kid for ice cream when they win their tournament. Gifts and rewards aren’t all bad, either.

The line between treating and spoiling our kids can be thin sometimes but, as a general rule of thumb, the key comes in not using treats and gifts to avoid bad behavior and in taking everything in moderation.