Psychologist David Coleman on spoiled children: 'I think over-indulgence is an easy trap for parents to fall into'

Children need plenty of love and attention, but it's all too easy to overindulge them. Psychologist David Coleman explains where to draw the line

Prince George cheekily feeds his pet dog Lupo ice-cream. Photo: Matt Porteous / PA

David Coleman

So, Prince William thinks that Prince George may be "far too spoilt", according to news reports, because of the numbers of gifts he received for his third birthday. I could imagine Prince William said this as a throwaway remark. Many of us will, at some stage, have declared that our own children have been spoilt, either by our over-generous extended family or by us, ourselves.

I have no idea whether Prince William was joking, serious or concerned about Prince George, but it did make me think about the concept of "spoiling" our children. I thought about what we do that might be considered spoiling and how can we know if we have spoiled our children.

I'm reminded too of how previous generations often trotted out the phrase "spare the rod and spoil the child". If we were to follow that maxim, then just not punishing our children severely would constitute spoiling them. That certainly doesn't fit for me.

We think little of throwing out the phrase "spoilt child". Typically we use it when we see an older child throwing a tantrum in response to being denied something, or making continuous whinging demands for things. But is every child who throws a tantrum, or whinges, spoilt? Hardly.

Do we spoil our children by giving them lots of love and attention? Again, I don't think we do. In fact, I'm very clear that you can't give an infant or small baby too much love and attention.

Small babies need us to respond to their cries, since crying is their only means of letting us know that they need something. Also, our reliable response to them, picking them up, or comforting them, allows them to trust in us and is central to the development of healthy, secure attachment.

King in waiting: Prince George celebrated his third birthday last week, prompting his father Prince William to comment how ‘spoilt’ he’d been Photo: TPX Images of the Day

But, as children get older, they may not need the same level of intervention from us. They don't need us to be instantly available and to respond to their every whim. It is good and healthy for them to work some things out for themselves.

It is good and healthy for them not to get everything they want, learning to cope with disappointment and frustration. It is good and healthy for them to be bored at times, allowing them to express and harness their creativity.

If we do too much for them, we may actually increase their levels of helplessness, since they may come to believe that they can't do things, simply because they have never tried (or needed to try).

So, if we do over-indulge them then they may come to expect that indulgence. This, I think, is what we mean when we say children have been spoilt - we mean that they have been over-indulged, perhaps cosseted and over-protected.

I think over-indulgence is quite a natural and easy trap for parents to fall into. In fact, when you add in high doses of parental guilt at, perhaps, having to work full-time, it is easy to see why parents may over-compensate by trying to do too much, or give too much to their children.

If you regularly see several of the following signs, it may be an indication that your child has been over-indulged.

* Frequent temper-tantrums both at home and in public (once they have outgrown the toddler years)

* Always appearing dissatisfied, instantly wanting whatever they see someone else with

* Demanding constant attention, for example, insisting you accompany them as a playmate all the time

* Zoning you out and deliberately ignoring you when you set limits, or make requests

* Having to beg your child to help or to acquiesce to your request

* Only agreeing to help in return for payment or reward

* Deliberately embarrassing you in public to get attention or to get their own way

Naturally, none of these indicators, on their own, is indicative that your child has been over-indulged, but several of them, in combination and in the context of how you know you have treated your child, may well let you know that you have been too nice, too generous or too protective.

The key to parenting is balance. So, do bear in mind that I have been talking about over-indulgence. Some indulgence, some treats and some extra attention is fine for your children.

They do deserve some random kindnesses, and some occasional extravagances. But, be wary of extravagance becoming the norm. If it does, you could be creating a problem for yourself and your child down the road.

If all the indicators from your child's behaviour suggests that you are in the habit of being over-generous and over-indulgent, then do think about reining it back. Set clear expectations for your child about what you want them to do and what you will do for them.

Try to be consistent, then, in holding firm to your expectations and your new limits. Be warm and understanding about the fact that, in the early days of "family austerity", they may find it hard to accept the new limits, hoping that things will return to the "old" ways when you acceded to their demands and their whims.

Remember, that any change you try to make in children's behaviour may lead to the old behaviour getting worse before it gets better, and so you have to hold the line with the new plan, even if it all seems a bit rocky at the outset.

However, returning your child's expectations to more affordable, or more reasonable limits will pay dividends in the long run.