Can Children be Spoiled? (Pedcast)

In this episode, Dr. Smolen discusses the question; Can children be spoiled? Past generations of children can help us answer this question as listeners will soon see. Kick back and listen to Dr. Smolen bring you a little science and his view on this important parenting subject.

Note: This pedcast was first posted in November 2011.

Musical intro

Can you spoil a child? The age old question.  Parents have debated this question so I thought it might be fun to take on this question today in light of what we know about child development.

Defining Spoiling

First let’s define what we mean by spoiling. My definition is the following; “Creating childhood dependence and or needs that are unnecessary.”  Repeat!  Let’s ponder that question a little further but looking at some of the evidence old and new. I’m not a psychologist but I have done some study of the subject, I have successfully raised two children, and spent my entire adult life with children. I think that gets me some credibility with regards to the subject at hand. Let’s consider a newborn baby, totally dependent on his or her parents, right? Through the child’s early experiences they hopefully learn to trust primary caretaker (mother) and form a strong attachment..what psychologists call a “secure attachment”.  Once they have developed this trust and feel secure with their caretakers, they are free to start exploring and learning.  Infancy and toddler life should be full of exploration, learning, movement, tastes, smells, language, problem solving.   As every child begins to inevitably bump up against limit they begin to demonstrate frustration and anger along with some defiance.  But eventually they become comfortable with the rules and develop their our own uniqueness- what Freud called our “ego formation”.   By this time the child has also developed reasoning skills, language, and is much more able to deal with frustration.

Science Drive of Secure Attachment

Without the security of a loving relationship with Mom or whomever, the rest of the child’s psychological development is in jeopardy of being abnormal. Without that secure attachment, fear and anxiety begin to replace trust and peacefulness.  The journey toward effective learning has been hijacked by negative emotions. With that paradigm in mind lets look back in time to a different era.  There was a time in the not too distant past, when many children were raised in orphanages. they got good basic care but they didn’t get a lot of holding and close immediate attention to their emotional needs, and experts began to notice that as these children got older, they often displayed a great deal of difficulty making healthy adult relationships and tended to have psychological problems…something they called “hospitalism“.   And it turns out that the most vulnerable time a child was susceptible to developing “hospitalism” was the first 3 months of life. Why, because – this is the time when a child develops the secure attachment. The first 3 months are critical to a child’s personality development.  Without this basic trust, we can become lost. Trust is the basis of all human relationships that are meaningful. Without it, healthy relationships are impossible.  As I like to say, “If you can’t trust your mother, who can you trust?”


During the first 3 months of life infants are totally dependent for all needs…this is when their needs should be met without hesitation.

  • If they need to be held…hold them
  • If they need to be rocked…rock them
  • If they need frequent feeding…feed them
  • If they need to be it without hesitation


Remember our definition of spoiling..unnecessary dependence.  With very young infants, you will not create dependence because they are unable of anything but dependence!!


When Does Spoiling Begin?

As your child ages however, parents need to make age appropriate expectations of their children such as;

Most 6 months old can be independent all night

Most 1 year olds learn to drink from a cup

Most 2 year olds can use words to express themselves and help with dressing and feeding

Most 3 year olds can follow many rules of the house and be successful using the potty

And on and on it goes


Age Appropriate Expectations

Using my definition of spoiling “Childhood dependence and or needs that are unnecessary”.. I believe that older infants and children can become spoiled if their parents don’t make age appropriate expectations of them or if they overindulge their wants.  Just look around and you can see the results of this everywhere in our culture… 4 year olds in diapers, the average teen drinking 2 or more sugary beverages/day, the big one, 50% of 19 year olds living with their parents  BUT…I don’t believe that infants under 3 months of age can be over attended to. I don’t believe there is such a thing as an over indulged infant under 3 months of age because the foundation for a psychologically healthy adult is formed in those critical first few months.  So, the answer to the big question of can a child be spoiled is… a definite maybe because it depends on their age.


If you enjoy learning about child health and well-being with pedcasts, consider taking a moment to rate Portable Practical Pediatrics where you get your podcasts. Until next time.


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