In many, many ways, my kids are spoiled rotten. They lead the kind of childhood that I hope they are proud of when they are old and tired like their mama. But, to me, there is a difference between being spoiled by experience and circumstance and being spoiled because the grown ups in your life can’t seem to say no to you.
I speak from experience here. For years, I was the kind of mum who bought treats and toys and gifts ‘just because’, far more often than I should have. I think there were three main reasons for this:
1. I was a working mum of three little kids and I was super-tired
2. I was also super-guilty because I was a working mum and I was super-tired
3. And I was super-conscientious about offering my kids ‘the best start in life’
These three factors combined to create the perfect conditions for Mumpushoveritis to take hold. Mumpushoveritis is an insidious disease that permeates a mother’s brain, rendering her clueless to the consequences of her parenting actions. Those with the condition suffer from having to listen to constant demands, regular tantrums and aggressive kids.
Despite suffering from the pain of this condition for years, it took me a long time to figure out that the symptoms were actually caused by my own behaviour.
Instead, I figured that my kids’ demanding ways were par for the course: they were toddlers/ preschoolers / young kids. Being demanding and tantrumy is what kids that age do, right?
Kids aren’t naturally ‘spoiled’
Well, yes and no. Most kids between the ages of two and five years old find it very difficult to contain their emotions, share their things or be cool when they don’t get what they want. That’s very much part of life. However, I soon learned that kids who don’t always get every demand met, are kids who learn to wait, share and appreciate.
By the time I worked that out, I’d been slogging through Mumpushoveritis for years: Max was five, Arabella was four and Lottie was two. My older kids had a reward chart system that gave them a small toy a week. I regularly baked them ‘special’ treats because they wanted them. I bought them the toys they longed for even though it wasn’t their birthday or Christmas. I relented when they wanted to watch another show on TV, even though they’d already watched a show on TV.
I said ‘maybe later’ when I really meant ‘no’.
In return, they screamed blue murder in shopping centres right across town because I wouldn’t buy them X or Y. They played up at home because they, rightly so, had learned that if you muck up for long enough, you’ll get what you want after all.
In my kids’ world, no did not mean no, it meant try harder.
One day, out of the blue, as if the haze of Mumpushoveritis fever had suddenly lifted, I realised that the reason I felt like I spent all my downtime picking things up and reorganising them, was because there were so many toys and STUFF all over the house.
Not their fault for playing with every toy they own for two minutes tops. My fault for buying all that junk in the first place.
My fault for not having firm rules about picking up after yourself.
I realised I was sick of repeating myself over and over. The word ‘no’ had lost all meaning in my home and the kids were running the show.
The overwhelm felt unbearable.
How I unspoiled my kids
“These kids are spoiled rotten,” I said to my husband. “They’re ungrateful, demanding and completely out of control.”
“If they’re spoiled, then we need to stop spoiling them,” he answered simply.
That was years ago and these days, despite the privileged life my three are living, I can hand-on-heart say that we have successfully unspoiled the kids. They are (usually) kind, generous, giving people who accept that no means no. I like to think these lovely little humans were truly made the day when, on my hands and knees, picking up LEGO and countless stuffed toys, I suddenly realised I didn’t like my kids.
Here’s what we changed and we continue to work on:
1. We don’t buy random things. If the kids want something desperately, they have to either save up their own money (we give them chores to do to earn it or they use birthday money), or put it on their birthday or Christmas lists. Or do the cute face to their Aunty Zia… but we are powerless to impose rules on Aunty Zia, so we let that one go to the keeper.
2. No means no. This was one of the hardest things to change. Saying, “maybe” or “later” means you get to avoid confrontation right now. Changing a “no” to a “yes” means you get to see that excitement and gratitude on your kids’ faces. But it’s no good, any of it. What I learned to do is to PAUSE, CONSIDER and then RESPOND when I was quite sure of my “yes” or “no” answer. It actually takes a while to break the habit of just saying “no” and then changing your mind later. Eventually, though, the kids learned that if Mum said “no”, she meant it and no amount of begging, pleading or whinging would change my mind.
If I’m feeling generous, my ‘no’ is a ‘not yet’.
3. Ignore unreasonable behaviour. I never gave in to tantrums – even in the middle of my worst years of Mumpushoveritis. My kid would melt down and I would stand patiently beside him or her, waiting it out. I didn’t respond in any other way. I’m not a fan of the ‘hug your child’s tantrum away’ approach, nor do I advocate walking away. I simply stood there, stoically, waiting for the storm to pass. If behaviour isn’t rewarded, I found that it quickly goes away.
4. I put strict boundaries on screen time. These exist in our household to this day, modified over the years as the kids get older and screens rightly become a bigger part of their lives. I call the rules we have in place around screens #screenfreedom. We don’t always stick to the rules – life gets in the way and our home is not run like the army – but having basic rules means the kids have boundaries and, in my experience, having boundaries contains negative behaviour nicely. Screen time has also been attached to ‘reward time’ since the kids were small: if they don’t meet certain criteria, they are not rewarded with screens.
5. We agree rules together. Our random family meetings mean the kids feel like they get a say up front. If they don’t like a rule, they can bring it up at our next meeting (or call a meeting themselves to discuss it). If a kid wants to change a rule, they need to put forward a strong case for changing it plus offer an alternative solution. We done this since the kids were little.
6. I build anticipation. This one sends my middle daughter over the edge because she hates not knowing, but the rest of the family love the suspense of building towards an occasion. I think it teaches kids that waiting for something can be just as delicious as receiving something. Unless you are Arabella, in which case it is agony.
7. I ignore peer pressure. And no, I’m not talking about peer pressure on my kids (although that’s tough to deal with, of course). I’m talking about peer-pressure of my own. No matter how old I get, I still don’t want to miss out and I still compare myself to others. It’s hard to ignore it when my kids’ friends have the latest cool stuff. It’s hard to ignore it when my friends ask me if I think my kids are ‘missing out’. It’s really, really f*cking hard. But that’s the challenge and these days I take some kind of perverse pleasure in being a little bit different. It’s easier when I keep key values top of mind: kind to the environment; simple living; experiences not things.
A good life is not a life filled with things. It is a life filled with others.
8. I show them the joy in giving. I love to give to others, always have. At this time of year, when the gift buying is in full swing, I take the kids with me so we can ooh and ahh over who might like what. We talk about what we love about the recipient and strive to find the perfect gift. I know the kids are just as excited to see our family open the gifts they helped select, as they are looking forward to receiving their own gifts.
9. I model being a helper. I think it’s really important to show my kids that giving our time to others is the greatest gift of all. So whether I’m at school in the tuck shop or classroom, or helping out at a charity day, or bagging up excess STUFF for charity when I fall off the wagon, I bring my kids along for the ride. The people they meet doing all of these activities are the ones who truly show them a good life is not a life filled with things. It is a life filled with others.
Do you find it hard not to spoil your kids?