Is My Child Spoiled Or Just Acting Their Age?

When the holidays turn your little one into a monster, remember: Gratitude is a learned skill that takes time.
“All behavior, including bad behavior, is communication," an expert says.
Cavan Images via Getty Images
“All behavior, including bad behavior, is communication," an expert says.

The holidays can be a magical time, but they don’t always bring out the, ahem, best in young kids. There are meltdowns, and tantrums, and moments when the lack of gratitude on display is breathtaking. Kids seem to succumb to a month-long case of what my 4-year-old’s Berenstain Bears’ book diplomatically calls “the gimmes.”

And it’s not just this time of year.

Roughly 60% of parents think their kids are more spoiled than they were at the same age, according to a Parenting and Today Moms survey.

But how true is that, really? When it comes to brattiness vs. developmentally appropriate behavior, here’s what you need to know.

Young kids can learn to say “thank you,” but they don’t really get it.

“Gratitude and empathy emerge slowly as childhood progresses,” said Steven Meyers, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University and a Chicago-based clinical psychologist.

Perspective-taking — or the act of understanding a situation from another’s point of view — simply isn’t a skill young kids have. So they can’t really grasp the idea that if someone gave them a gift, it took thought and generosity.

“Perspective-taking is a learned skill, well into the elementary school years and beyond,” Meyers said. When they’re young, “they’re simply not at the point where their cognitive development allows them to understand what the experience is like for another person.”

There hasn’t been a lot of research on when kids really become capable of grasping the concept of gratitude, but a 2013 study found that that the earliest time kids even begin to understand it is age 5.

That doesn’t mean, though, you should just give in on manners. You absolutely can teach a young kid to say “thank you,” Meyers says, but just know that it’ll be pretty surface-level.

“Bad behavior” can be a way kids signal they’re off their routine.

“All behavior, including bad behavior, is communication. And when kids are acting in a way that is inappropriate, it is because they don’t have the skills needed for the situation, or the environment they’re in is challenging them,” said Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior.”

That is an especially salient point around the holidays, when many families are traveling or certainly outside their routines. There’s no school. Kids may be getting presents. Maybe they’re eating more treats than they typically do. In other words, your kid might be acting like a total brat, but it’s entirely possible she is just sleep-deprived and out of her mind on sugar.

“Make sure they’re fed, they’re rested, and they’re not overstimulated,” Lewis said. That may not always be possible, but just do the best you can and maybe consider leaving the situation for a short stretch to give everyone a chance to reset.

Young children can’t really grasp the idea that if someone gave them a gift, it took thought and generosity. That comes as they get older.
Ariel Skelley via Getty Images
Young children can’t really grasp the idea that if someone gave them a gift, it took thought and generosity. That comes as they get older.

There ARE steps you can take to start to teach young kids genuine gratitude.

Just because your kid isn’t developmentally in a place to grasp the concept of gratitude yet doesn’t mean you just throw in the towel.

“Like reading, it is a skill you can help your child cultivate over the years,” said Meyers.

He offers the following loose benchmarks to have in mind: At 4-6 years, kids can absolutely learn the habit of saying “thank you,” while at 5-8 years, they could be starting to grasp the idea that gift-giving is an act of generosity. Only at age 8, 9, 10 (and up!) will kids develop true perspective-taking, which is when they’ll really be able to demonstrate genuine gratitude.

As they develop those skills and that sense of understanding, parents can be deliberate in their attempts to accelerate the learning process. Meyers says it can be particularly powerful to use moments when your child gives you a gift — say, a drawing — to teach them about gratitude.

“What a parent can do, when they receive a gift from a child, is highlight what the child’s perspective was when he or she was making the gift,” Meyers said. Try saying things like: “Thank you so much for giving me this drawing. I can see how much time you can put into it. I see the effort you put into making these colors and shapes. I can tell you were really excited to give it to me. I can see how happy you are that the gift made me happy.”

As Meyers describes it, you’re basically becoming a bridge for the child to understand other people’s intentions and efforts when they give a gift.

Lewis likes the exercise of going around the table every night as a family and thanking each other for something they did that day. You can start young, but it’s also a good one for when kids get a bit older.

“It can help build the positive qualities in kids that you want to see,” Lewis said.

The bottom line? Don’t expect too much, and understand it’s a learning process.

Yes, it is your job as a parent to set expectations for your child’s behavior, to be consistent, and to intervene when they’re behaving in a way that is not in line with your family’s values. But experts say that moms and dads can sometimes be too quick to think every moment of seeming brattiness or lack of gratitude is a sign of failure.

“A lot of us see our kids acting out or melting down and we think, ‘Oh boy. I’ve failed as a parent,’ or ‘my child’s a failure,’ and we start panicking,” Lewis said. “We go into a spiral of judgment and blame. But bad behavior is a part of growing up.”

Remember, things that come easily to adults (like not freaking out when you get a gift you didn’t want) don’t necessarily come easily to kids, echoes Meyers, and that’s OK.

“Expect less,” he chuckled. “And teach more.”