Does Love Spoil Children?


Our children grew up around their Great-Grandma Thacker. She loved our dear children as much as we did. But she worried: “You love your children so much—I wonder if you’re going to spoil them.” It seemed right to love them, but she worried.

One evening Nancy was gone to a Relief Society meeting. I was responsible to maintain domestic order with our three children while she was gone. After dinner I was so focused on washing the dishes that I failed to notice the danger sign that no mother would have missed: the children were quiet. After I finished washing the dishes, I ambled to the family room to find that little Andy had discovered the finger-paints. He had applied them with gusto to our new carpet. The effect was breathtaking.

That is the key moment in our dealings with our children—when we are face to face with their acts that annoy us. I could explode. “Don’t you know better? What is wrong with you? Now go to your room.” I could laugh at it and call in the carpet cleaners the next day. Which is the right response?

Here is the key: The right response is the one that helps Andy to be wiser while preserving his sweetness and goodness.
Andy had not acted out of malice. I knew how to act in response to his carpet painting. “Wow! Andy! That is quite a work of art!”

“Thank you, Daddy.”

“We do have one problem. When we finger-paint on the floor, your drawing gets walked on and messed up. And we can’t hang it on the fridge or take it over to show Grandma.”

Andy looked concerned. “Oh.”

“What we need to do is to wash the paint out of the carpet and let you use the special paper in the box to make a new finger painting. I’ll get a bucket of water. Will you get a rag?” Andy helped me clean up the carpet. Incidentally, Andy is today a graphic designer and, with his wife, Natalie, has two dear sons who have their own art projects.

Will Andy be spoiled by our mild response? Does he need to be “taught a lesson”? Our job as parents is to educate more than punish. We should make our children wise more than sorry. I think God is serious when he says “Behold what the scripture says—man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also, and I will repay” (Mormon 8:20).

Children are spoiled by the failure to set limits. They are demoralized by the failure to show love. Limits—in a context of love—have a special teaching power.

When Emily wanted to go to her first school dance we were squeamish. (She was probably ready but we weren’t.) She has always been a good person and loves to be with people—but we didn’t want her to rush romance. We proposed that she invite friends to the house for a pizza and video party. We want her to have fun and friends. But a parent must guide the process with adult wisdom.

Our job is to help our children get what they want—growth, fun, friends, experience at decision making—in a way that we feel good about. We are delighted to let a 3-year-old play ball—but we direct her toward the backyard rather than play near a busy street. We want our boy to enjoy his breakfast—so we let him decide how he wants his eggs cooked but we don’t give him the option of quarts of chocolate milk.

The art of parenting is using charm and invitation to draw children toward good behavior. The Lord calls it persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love (D&C 121:41). The Lord clearly is not worried about loving His children too much.

Even though the most significant cause of spoiling is parents making rules that they do not enforce, most of us make and later ignore innumerable rules: “I will not buy you a candy bar.” “You must be home by six.” “If you do not clean up your room, you will be grounded.”

Not all rules are created equal. Some are trivial expressions of preference. Some are valuable guides for order. Some are vital principles for well being.

So parents may not enforce some rules because they know they are dumb rules anyway (like making a young child sit still with nothing to do in a long meeting). Parents may not enforce rules because they do not want conflict with their children (“Just give him the candy bar so he will be quiet!”). Sometimes parents simply fail to monitor their children’s doings.

If parents want to avoid spoiling their children, they should be careful about the rules they make, but once made, should show that they are serious about the rules—while using charm, civility, and even strategy. Truly, parenting is an art form.

When Emily loses track of time while playing at Betsy’s house, I can walk over to Betsy’s house, observe their accomplishments, and keep her happy company on the return trip.

When Sara pleads for a candy bar at the grocery store, we can offer a piece of fruit, animal crackers, or some alternative that we feel good about.

I wish Great-Grandma were still alive so that she could see the effect on our children of all the love they have received. But then I guess she can see them. I’m sure she is proud of them.

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