Afraid of Spoiling Your Kids? There’s an Antidote

If you’re afraid of raising spoiled kids, you’re not alone. Ron Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiledfound that when parents were asked to name the worst single word someone could use to describe their child, more answered with “spoiled” than “mean”, “cruel”, “racist” and “violent”. He explains that spoiled children tend to have four things in common:

  1. Few chores or responsibilities
  2. Few rules that govern their behaviour or schedules
  3. Parents and others that lavish them with time or assistance
  4. Lots of material possessions

If this sounds familiar, don’t panic. The Opposite of Spoiled advises that the first thing to do is to talk openly with your children about money with a view to educating them; money talk is still strangely taboo in our society. It’s great to raise financially literate children (who know about credit, mortgages, compound interest, etc.), but it’s even better to help children make the connections between money and values, as these two things are inextricably intertwined.

The book is also relentlessly practical, with a view to help parents shape their children’s experiences towards desirable characteristics, like patience, generosity, empathy, curiosity, and perseverance. Lieber offers “a detailed blueprint for the most successful ways to handle the basics: the tooth fairy, allowance, chores, charity, saving, birthdays, holidays, cell phones, checking accounts, clothing, cars, part-time jobs, and college”.

Among the guideposts I found most memorable was the encouragement to give your children work and/or chores. Children seek real responsibilities and take pride in work well done when given the chance. Stanford psychologist William Damon says that many urban and suburban (note, not rural) children aren’t assigned much work with the resulting message “We expect little of you, and you’re living mostly for yourself”. The values of work extend into paid work, of course.

What about the extras? Phones for calling and texting are considered a necessity for communication by most parents, but Lieber argues that data isn’t. If children want data, they should be in a position to pay the monthly fees (in advance, for the year). If they want the latest phone, they can work to pay the price difference for the basic phone.  There were intriguing solutions to the matter of cars for older kids. Even with hand-me-down cars that have already been paid off, kids are often insulated from the costs of maintenance, gas, insurance, and registration, which does not prepared them well for the realities of car ownership down the line. One family made their second car available to their kids but on a Zipcar model – the kids had to pay monthly dues toward insurance and then pay-as-you-go fees. Predictably the kids don’t like paying for hourly fees while a car sits idle in a parking lot anymore than their parents do.

There is lots of insightful advice, much of which isn’t new, but when posited in the context of solid research and compelling anecdotes, is more likely to stick when we’re confronted with the bent towards entitlement in our own kids. It’s hardly counter-intuitive to suggest that children who pay for some university expenses tend to value the experience more and think twice before skipping class, but when contrasted with stories of farm kids whose work contributes consistently to their communities, or the girl who clawed her way to better education by collecting bottles and cans with her family, it tends to stick.

Much of the book focuses on dealing with the social pressures of comparison and fitting in in affluent communities (or simply families that have discretionary spending available). When deciding when to hand over the iPad or designer running shoes or even a car, we’re firmly planted in first world problems. The sections on charitable giving, and including our kids in the ways families give back, are therefore not to be missed. One affluent family, confronted with their child’s distress over the world disparities, decided to sell their $2 million home and live in one half the size. It’s an extreme example, of course (Lieber says the family’s book The Power of Half was the most inspiring read during the years of his research), but does given an inkling of just how transformative it can be to include our children in the conversation about money and values.

Have you read The Opposite of Spoiled?  What did you think?

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