Spoiling Kids Is Fun for Us — But Is It Making Them Happier?
There’s this pervasive sentiment underlying so many parenting choices: if I give my kid what he wants right now, he’ll be happy, and because I indulged him, he’ll love me more. It’s a seemingly endless feedback loop of indulgences, childhood happiness, and parental connection and bonding.
We’re here to explain why this loop is more like a runaway train to disasterland.
First, let’s unpack this idea of indulgence, and why some parents are drawn to this parenting style. The underlying assumption is that kids are exactly like adults, and that they prize autonomy over being told what to do. Oh, and of course, the assumption that kids have an instinctive sense of what’s good for them, a cognitive ability to delay gratification, or the maturity to weigh conseqences.
In reality, of course, children have very little of that capacity. Their brains are not yet fully formed, and they haven’t necessarily learned to weight short term desires against long term results. They haven’t yet internalized lessons about compassion and empathy, and they don’t understand enough about how the world works to comprehend context and cause-and-effect. As a result, they are fickle, and sometimes totally irrational. Internalizing this concept is key to realizing that kids don’t perceive and understand the world the exact same way that adults do.
Which leads us to the second issue with this approach: a misconception that garnering a child’s short term approval will make them “happier.” In the short term, sure, your kid might stop screaming if you hand over a giant box of chocolates in lieu of dinner, or let him watch movies until midnight every night, or buy him every toy he asks for the day he wants it. But immediate gratification is not the same thing as long-term fulfillment. At a macro level, studies have shown again and again that people garner more fulfillment and satisfaction from things they either had to work for, or that they wait for. But even in a more immediate sense, sacrificing on appropriate boundaries such as bedtimes or healthy food is not a recipe for children’s happiness. A late night movie may lead to sleep-deprived hysteria the next day. Leniency in expectations of how kids treat others (letting them evade repercussions for rude behavior, for example) isn’t teaching them skill sets they need to have successful and healthy social relationships. And rising childhood obesity rates – with their associated physical and mental health impact – are not the “happy” result of too much junk food indulgence.
Contrary to the adult interpretation that autonomy and freedom of choice is paramount , children actually thrive with appropriate structure and boundaries. Bedtimes exist for a reason: because kids need a lot of sleep to support their growing brains and bodies. Healthy eating is touted by every single health expert in the world as a necessary part of keeping our minds and bodies functioning at optimum capacity. In fact, showing children love and a devotion to their long-term well-being frequently involves a certain amount of curbing their baser impulses.
And finally, let’s bust the myth that children will love an indulgent parent more than one who insists on some boundaries. Children love caretakers who are engaged, who are present in difficult moments, who provide unconditional love and acceptance, and who guide them through life with patience and compassion. Those are the things that really count. Whether you gave up that extra cookie, or bought that shiny new toy, or ran a “no rules” household aren’t going to make a lick of difference.