How to Un-Spoil a Child

Let's talk about how to raise a child to be un-spoiled, and how to un-spoil a child who we accidentally let go down the wrong path a little too long. 

By Summer Rose, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist | Mar 04, 2016

You and I go to work, and after two weeks, we receive a paycheck. Then we work some more, and two weeks later we get paid again. But when a kid already has everything she wants and no accountability, it’s like she’s been paid before she’s done the work. If you got your paycheck first, would you still go to work? Would you be motivated to do your best? That’s the same with kids. We can’t “pay” them, and by that I mean give them privileges and rewards, until they’ve done the work – whatever responsibility they are accountable for in the family.

So let’s look at this two ways – first, how to raise a child to be un-spoiled, and second, how to un-spoil a child who we accidentally let go down the wrong path a little too long.

Very young children can learn to master small tasks in order to earn privileges. I like to use their age as a guide, so a two year old can do two tasks back-to-back, such as pick up his shoes, and put his backpack by the door. A six year old can handle up to six tasks, such as laying out his clothes for the morning, putting his backpack by the door, brushing his teeth, etc. All of a child’s tasks should be clearly identified as household expectations – it is expected that he will have his backpack by the door every night before he goes to bed. Only after he completes these expected tasks can he earn privileges such as time on the iPad, ice cream after dinner, or a trip to the Dollar Spot at Target (my favorite!). What you want him to really learn and internalize is this: When I work hard, I get certain advantages.

Of course, this is all great advice for people with have young kids who haven’t already accidentally made a few mistakes. But in the real world, we slip up. If one day you open your eyes and find that your 12-year-old has zero work ethic, here’s what you should do.

First, admit your mistake. This looks something like, “I made a mistake. I have led you to believe that even though you don’t have a job or bring in an income, that you are entitled to a life of luxury. Now I see the error of my ways. I am calling a time-out on our lifestyle. We need to circle up and regroup. We are going to change some things about the way our family operates.”

Expect major pushback. After all, if you were used to getting paid upfront, whether or not you did the work, you’d be pretty mad if you had to wait until the end of the two weeks for that paycheck. Your kid will not be happy. If she’s used to unlimited use of her cell phone, or video games, or computer time, and all of a sudden she has to earn it? Well, it will be an adjustment.

My advice is to hold strong. Kids will make you feel like you’re the worst parent in the world. But you know that you’re doing the right thing by raising your child to have a strong work ethic.

If your child is not used to earning her privileges, you should start small. She may be 13 years old, but maybe she can only manage two tasks in a row, because it’s new to her. So now after dinner, she is expected to clear the table and load the dishwasher before she is allowed to use her cell phone. Set clear expectations for her – if she does not complete those two tasks, she will not be able to use her phone. It’s really important to think through the rewards and consequences with older children. If you know that realistically, you can’t send her to school without a cell phone, because she has practice after school and will need to call you for a ride, then I encourage you to have a backup plan. You can buy a cheap phone that can only program three numbers into it, but doesn’t have access to any fancy features like the internet or apps. Your child might think she can get away with not doing the work, because there’s NO WAY you will take away her cell phone, but when you show her this plan, she will start to take you seriously.

Over time, you can show some grace with her work, once she has proven herself. If she doesn’t finish something because she is studying for a big test, you can let her know that you’ll let it slide for today. But in the beginning as you’re rolling out the new plan, you need to be incredibly consistent so she learns that you’re serious. Consistency is very important when forming new habits.

Even though you’re being consistent, that doesn’t mean you have to be cruel. You can empathize with her as she whines her way through her new chores. You can say, “I know – it’s not that fun to load the dishwasher.  I know you just want to get your phone back. But there’s an easy solution. All you have to do is finish loading this, and then you get your phone. I know it’s not fun, but it will be over soon.”

None of us want our kids to grow up to be spoiled and entitled. We all know the value of hard work and discipline, and we all want to instill that in our children. But sometimes we get off track. The good thing is, it’s not too late to fix it. Better to jump in while you can than to send young adults out into the world who have no concept of how to work for what they want in life. If you’re shaking things up during adolescence, you can expect a bumpy path as all of you adjust to this new life. But as everyone settles in to new expectations, you’ll find that things start to move much more smoothly. And you can rest easy knowing that you’re setting your kids up for long-term success!