First Person

Less is more

Psychologist Richard Bromfield, 58, who teaches at Harvard Medical School, is the author of a new book, "How to Unspoil Your Child."

Richard Bromfield (Globe photo / Jonathan Wiggs)
By Nancy Heiser
September 19, 2010

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You use the verb “unspoil.” I’ve never heard that word. It’s really not a word. Parents tend to be embarrassed that their kids could be spoiled, like fruit, which cannot be unspoiled. It’s a way to describe a process of reversing that. Children are ever growing to be better.

Are there a lot of spoiled children in America? A recent survey says that over 94 percent of parents feel their own kids are spoiled. And if you ask this generation’s grandparents, I think a lot of them would agree. I prefer the word “overindulged.” Out of love and good intentions, more is being done and given to children than is in their best interest.

Aren’t parents hard-wired to indulge their kids? It’s enjoyable for parents to give, to nurture, to watch their kids be happy. But it can be overdone.

Your chapter titles are no-nonsense and to the point: “Refuse to Deal,” “Buy Less,” and so forth, like an action list for parents. Intentional? Yes. Parents have high ideals on how they’d like their child to grow. So even while they’re indulging, inside they’re wishing they were setting limits. And they are busy. I wanted to write something they could use from Page 1.

Did parents a generation or two ago not indulge their children as much? Today if a child is interested in a sport, we buy them professional equipment at age 8. I think that’s very different than what previous generations did. This generation of parents is much more concerned that their kids are having a maximal, growth-promoting experience. Previous generations left their kids to themselves and trusted that they’d manage their own experiences and get what they needed out of them. Today we analyze every interaction with teachers and playmates.

What’s one simple strategy to unspoil a child? Give and do less. Only by sometimes not getting does a child learn gratitude. Only by waiting does a child learn patience.

Did you avoid spoiling your now-grown children? I struggled with the wish to give to them all the time. I could have used my book when I was a young parent.

  • September 19, 2010 cover
  • Sept. 19 Magazine cover