Can You Really Un-spoil Your Child?

Yes, there are ways to turn things around – without losing your temper. Here, the experts share strategies you can use in common bratty situations.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Yes, there are ways to turn things around – without losing your temper. Here, the experts share strategies you can use in common bratty situations.

Your kid can’t walk past the store without whining for another new toy. When you try to take the iPad away, he throws a fit. And, oh dear, did you just hear him mutter the “F” word?! 

You thought those days of toddler tantrums were over, only to find yourself dealing with bigger, badder behaviour. What happened along the way? 

Most behavioural patterns are shaped in the first seven years of a child’s life, explains Alfred Tan, chief executive officer of the Singapore Children’s Society. 

“If your child is behaving badly, it could be due to gaps or shortcomings during this period of growing up,” he says. As much as you loathe to hear this, the experts say the spoiling process probably started with you, the parent. Isn’t it so much easier to accede to your little tyrant’s demands than to play tug of war after a long day at work? 

But constantly giving in to his “give me’s” has a price. Research has shown that it sets a child up for dysfunctional patterns for life. 

In the Overindulge Research Study Project involving 10 studies spanning 17 years from 1996 to 2013, US-based psychologist David Bredehoft and his research partners found that overindulged children later missed out on emotional and life skills important for being a happy and capable adult. 

The studies also found that adults who were overindulged in childhood were more likely to find partners who overindulge their kids, in turn, forming a vicious cycle. 

Dr Foo Koong Hean, senior lecturer psychology from James Cook University, Singapore, and author of Negotiation Parenting, shares that the sooner parents nip problematic behaviour in the bud, the fewer issues will be present as the child grows. 

Alfred says parents can start “intentional coaching” – cultivating the right values and setting boundaries – from the time the child is around two years old. In fact, you can start this even earlier. New research shows that even babies have an innate ability to understand what is going on even before they can talk, shares Dr Foo. 

“Most parents think they should wait until the child goes to primary school (to cultivate the right values). What they don’t realise is that by then, the kid would be exposed to unpredictable behaviour of other children. He may pick up bad behaviour if he is not clear about what’s right and wrong,” says Alfred. 

Moreover, it is harder to turn the tide when children reach the teenage years, especially if the parent-child bond is not there, he adds. 

But what if the damage is already done? Thankfully, Dr Foo reassures parents that it is possible to reverse bad habits with consistence, patience and some strategies. 

“Research has shown that the brain is malleable. It is never too late to teach a child to make changes in his behavior and way of thinking,” he says. 

So, how can you fix your spoilt kid? Here, the experts share strategies you can use in common bratty situations.

“Research has shown that the brain is malleable. It is never too late to teach a child to make changes in his behaviour and way of thinking.” 

My Reading Room

You refuse to buy your kid another new toy. He throws a fit in the store. 

FIX IT NOW You have to be clear if this is a “want” or a “need”, says Dr Cynthia Lim, senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education Programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. 

A “need”, such as hunger or sleep, should be taken care of immediately. But in this case, the toy is a “want” – although, of course he can’t tell the difference. You have to stand firm and let him know that his behaviour will not get him anything. 

If he gets away with this, he knows he can use this tactic to get whatever he wants whenever he enters a store with you, as this is an “intentional” tantrum. 

When your kid is having a temper tantrum, the first thing to do is to remain calm yourself. Do not engage him physically, such as violently restraining or dragging him away, Dr Foo says. 

Tell him firmly that he has to stop his public tirade. If that doesn’t work, use this next strategy to try to remove your kid from the place. “Once you ascertain his environment is safe, tell your child that you will be waiting for him outside the store. Then proceed to walk away,” suggests Dr Foo.

Chances are, he’ll quieten down quickly. Most temper tantrums do not usually last long because children are easily distracted, unless there are underlying behavioural disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism, explains Dr Foo. 

Once he is calmer, reinforce reason immediately – explain why it is unacceptable to behave in this manner. 

PREVENT IT In an era of instant gratification, it is easy for a young kid to become self-centred when he gets everything fast and too easily, says Alfred. To counter this, Priscilla Ong started giving her four-year-old a weekly allowance of $2 so that she could save up for new toys. 

“Every time my kid wants something new, I’ll tell her to use her own money. The strategy taught her delayed gratification and saved me an earful of whining,” shares the 31-yearold, stay-at-home mum. 

Another tactic is to establish firm boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, Dr Lim adds. 

Calmly tell him: “I can see you like this toy very much, but I don’t like the way you are shouting and crying now. If you don’t stop this, you will not get your toy and it looks like I will also need to take away (a privilege) since you are not able to behave and handle yourself well.” 

You have to follow through with what you say to show you mean business. Your kid should see that there is a consequence to his misbehaviour. 

On the other hand, respectful communication, delayed gratification, self- control would be rewarded. He has to learn this lesson; if not, you will see him throwing a fit on a regular basis to get what he wants. 

Don’t forget to reward him for good behaviour, though. “Once in a blue moon, surprise him with a reward he didn’t ask for,” suggests Dr Foo. 

“This type of ’variable ratio’ reward system may actually make the child keep up with his good behaviour for a longer period of time.” 

He whines nonstop when you take his iPad away. 

FIX IT NOW Politely remind him of the rules you set earlier before his screen time, Alfred says. “If a nice chit-chat doesn’t work and the child keeps breaching the rules, you might have to enforce some form of discipline, such as withholding iPad use for a short period of time.” 

Dr Foo says to give your young one advance notice before taking away the gadget. “Kids feel played out or cheated when you make them stop a fun activity immediately.” 

Set a timer so the alarm will sound three minutes before the iPad has to be put away, Dr Lim suggests. 

Stand your ground even if these strategies don’t work. A survey by the Center for a New American Dream, a non-profit organisation that emphasises non-material values, found that children usually ask for something an average of nine times before parents cave in. 

So, you’ll have to outlast his Royal Whininess by being firm. 

PREVENT IT Your kid must understand that iPad access is a privilege, not an entitlement, Dr Lim says. 

Negotiate in advance the access and boundaries to use. For example, he may play with the device half an hour a day after completing his homework or chores. The tablet should be locked away, out of his access at other times.  

Do watch that he uses it in the living room instead of locking himself up in his bedroom. 

It’s important that you supervise what he’s doing with it, in case he goes to inappropriate websites or plays online games with characters who are bad role models. 

Also, ensure ample lighting in the environment and that the distance between the device and his eyes is appropriate – you don’t want his eyesight to deteriorate. Place the iPad on a table to maintain good body posture, as well. 

Since this is a privilege, it can be used as a motivator for good behaviour, Dr Lim adds. For example, by helping Mummy with a chore or putting in extra effort when practising piano, he can “earn” more minutes of playtime. 

That said, remember to unplug from your own devices while enforcing house rules. 

“It might be tempting to throw your kid an iPad at mealtimes so you can tune out, too. But you should set a good example because children model what adults do,” Alfred reminds.

Follow through with what you say to show your kid that there is a consequence to his misbehaviour. 

My Reading Room

“I hate you, Mummy!” Your big kid uses hurtful words and foul language when he doesn’t get his way. 

FIX IT NOW The main thing is to not overreact to his potty mouth. Refrain from saying: “I’m your mother! How dare you say that to me!” because most children, especially older ones, don’t do well with top-down instructions, Alfred explains. 

“If the child has used a vulgar word, calmly tell him that you wouldn’t use that word if he knew what it meant.

Take the time to explain it and, afterwards, ask him if he would still use the word now that he understands its meaning,” he says. 

A timeout might also work if both of you cannot come to a compromise. “It gives the child some time and space to digest the information and his intense emotions. 

Tell him you’ll talk about the issue, perhaps, an hour later,” suggests Alfred. 

PREVENT IT Dr Foo advises parents to take their children’s views into consideration using logic and reason. Having regular family meetings is a good way to do this. 

This is the time where everyone sits down to propose rules and set limits, and come to a reasonable compromise. 

He says: “For instance, you might say ‘no screen time by 7pm’, but your child’s favourite programme may end only at 7.30pm. Listen to what he has to say and allow room for some negotiation.” 

Now is also the time to review your parenting style. Have you been using the “F” word liberally? Perhaps you’ve said hurtful things to your spouse, too, during heated arguments. 

“In addition, these words may not come as a surprise if your relationship with your child isn’t good to begin with,” says Alfred. 

If you’ve been an absent parent, his ‘I hate you’s’ may actually mean ‘When I need you, you are not there. So who are you to interrupt my life now?’”, he adds. 

The bottomline: Work on having a close and loving relationship. 

“If your child feels that you love him, most behavioural issues can be easily resolved. 

But when there is no strong parent-child bond, even the most scientific parenting approach won’t work well,” says Alfred.  

“Upstairs brain” or “downstairs brain” tantrum? 

“UPSTAIRS BRAIN” TANTRUM is one in which the child makes a conscious choice to act up,” according to Dawn Lim, curriculum advisor at Star Learners childcare group. 

Such tantrums call for firm boundaries, outlining appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. 

For example, when your kid is rude, calmly reply him: “I don’t like the way you are speaking to me. If you continue saying such hurtful words, I will need to cancel your play date.” 

Then, follow through with the consequences. 

By clearly defining healthy boundaries, he learns the consequences of inappropriate behaviour, and to control his impulses and practise respectful communication, Dawn adds. 

“DOWNSTAIRS BRAIN” TANTRUM is one where your kid is so upset that he is incapable of logic and reason. 

In such cases, first calm him in a nurturing manner, such as speaking in a soothing voice or using a firm and loving touch. 

Hold him close and talk to him calmly as you take him away. 

Once logic and reason return, talk to him about appropriate and inappropriate behavior, as well as the consequences. His brain will be more receptive to learning at that time, Dawn explains.