Are American Kids Spoiled? What’s Your Verdict?

Can you spoil kids, like fruit? [photo: Everystock]

Spoiled kids. It’s a big topic — and often a misunderstood one. What do we actually mean by spoiling?

 1. Are we saying an unspoiled kid is like a perfect ripe peach, and a spoiled kid is a piece of fruit in which rot has set in? Like, there’s nothing you can do?

2. Is spoiling what my grandmother might have said would happen if you picked up your newborn too often?

3. Is spoiling what happens when parents spend a lot of money on their kids?

4. Are spoiled kids the same as indulged, over-protected, entitled kids?


Me, I’m going to go with #4. For #1, well, kids who are spoiled aren’t “ruined”. As for #2, the research has long ago debunked grandma; no child is “spoiled” by a surfeit of physical affection. Number 3 is slightly tricky, because it often overlaps with #4. You can overindulge by spending a lot of money. You can also spend money without spoiling, if you spend wisely and give your children a sense of the value of what you’re spending, so that he doesn’t grow up thinking he deserves all that and a bag of chips.

I bring up spoiling because it’s been all over the place in recent weeks. First, this story got a lot of play: a study that purported to pinpoint which American cities contained the most spoiled children — which was based on how much money is spent on the kids. That feels like faulty research to me, even given that I’m no scientist or statistician. But to my ear, what that sounds like is that if you’re a wealthy family in New York City who spends $40,000 annually on a private elementary school (not a made up figure, by the way), your kids are ipso facto more spoiled than, say, my kids who go to a well-rated suburban public school. But what if I had a spare $80,000 to spend on school for my two boys — would that make them spoiled? See what I said above: it’s all in the attitude. The infographic in that story, from Business Insider, helpfully points out that New York City (surprise! That’s where the most spoiled kids reside!) is home to the famed toy store FAO Schwarz. I wonder if the creators of the infographic realize that most of the shoppers at FAO are tourists?

The next to pop up was an article entitled Spoiled Rotten in The New Yorker, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Some of my regular readers were kind enough to point out that she mentions my book Mean Moms Rule, if only in passing, in her piece exploring how and why American kids may be more spoiled than any kids in any other point in history or spot on the globe. Now, this definition of spoiling, the impression one gets from the article, that spoiled kids are raised by parents who do everything for them, long past the time they should? This I can get behind.

Kolbert opens the piece with an observation by an anthropologist working with an Amazonian tribe called the Matsigenka; apparently, a six-year-old girl there made herself busy and useful helping the researchers by, among other self-directed tasks, finding and boiling crustaceans to eat (and I’m betting she didn’t even whine!). Meanwhile, an eight-year-old Californian girl, who was observed as part of a study conducted here in the States, sat at her kitchen table wondering how she was expected to eat the food placed in front of her without a fork (apparently she was either unaware of the presence of forks in the nearby silverware drawer, or unsure of her own ability to fetch one for herself. Or, for that matter, for anyone else. In any case, of course, her dad brought one to for her).

So of course by comparison the Matsigenka child is miles ahead of the average American six-year-old, who hasn’t yet been required to (or trusted to, another problem) make her own PB&J sandwich.

After this piece came out, and after I pondered sending Elizabeth Kolbert a bouquet of flowers for mentioning my book (in The New Yorker! My heart is still beating a bit fast), I started thinking about the end result of the kind of “spoiling” that is represented by those American kids shouting for forks. Is the end result of sitting around waiting for your parents to do and create and fix and smooth everything for you, a young adulthood where you still expect those things? Or are unable to do some fairly basic things for yourself?

I think so. I’ve seen it, and I suspect you have, too. So how happy was I to get to go on TV last week, on a New York City news/talk program called “Live from the Couch,” to talk about whether American parents are turning out the most spoiled kids.

And I think I will send Kolbert those flowers, just for karma’s sake. And maybe include a note, because in her piece she describes an attempt she made in her own house to get her children (older than 6 or 8, by the way) to do some chores. But it took just one overturned garbage can and dropped sack of groceries later before she gave up.

Which, of course, is a major part of the spoiling problem, right there.

What’s your definition?