I really dislike the term “spoiled child,” as if a little one has gone rancid and foul-smelling, or worse, is ruined for good and must be tossed out. But I can’t think of anything much better: Over-indulged? (Sounds as if she is swelling, glutted with attention.) Self-centered? (Sounds too much like she has no awareness or concern for others, which just isn’t true.) Egocentric? (Well, what child isn’t?)
But, I am aware that my constant being “on-call,” like a doctor who can be paged day or night, has created an expectation for me to be constantly on call. My daughter expects, nay demands, instant and incessant attention. For the past four years, I was complicit. I agreed with the relatively new adage, “you can’t spoil a baby with attention.” In fact, I believed this to be true of a toddler and a preschooler as well. Stuff, perhaps, but love? Can one ever have too much love? I wanted to be there for her, attune and responsive, but now that I see Sophia as a more capable, independent human being, I want her to be a more capable, independent human being.
And she wants me to play with her. Every. Waking. Moment.
At dinner if Kevin and I have a brief exchange, Sophia asks, “How come no one is talking to me?”
And from the second I wake up in the morning, Sophia, who is perfectly capable of reading a book by herself, thrusts What Do People Do All Day? into my face and insists that I read four—no five—stories.
Then, the day is peppered with demands, “Mommy be a witch.” “Mommy, you have to color with me.” “Mommy, read me just one more…just one more!”
I want her to adopt an attitude of gratitude. Where is her thankfulness? Her appreciation?
And where is my moment to myself?
Perhaps Sophie’s need to be constantly entertained is not unique to only children, but it is certainly fueled by Sophie’s only status. There is no one to split her time with, her toys with. So, even though we don’t actually give her much stuff, what she does have is all hers. And time? What’s mine is also all hers.
I have only first started to feel some resentment, annoyance, and perhaps fear around Sophie’s requests. Resentment that she’s encroaching on my territory, edging out my life with hers. Annoyance at the relentlessness of her demands, and the what-have-you-done-for-me-in-last-minute attitude. And fear that it will only get worse.
But, as with all behaviors one wishes to change, awareness is key. I am conscious of my irritation. Spoiled children are only spoiled by complicit parents. There has to be a spoiler and a desire to spoil. I want to stop. Starting now.
So I am initiating a campaign to bring about change, foster greater independence. I call it, Go Play by Yourself. I set her up with scissors, glue and old magazines and let her go to town. I stick her in the living room with a pile of books while I’m cooking and insist that she read by herself. I put her in her bedroom for rest hour and shut the door. I can play with her only after. After I get the laundry done. After I finish sending this email for work. After I clean up the bathroom.
To my surprise, Sophie has been responding not with anger, nor resistance, nor even simple complicity, but excitement and even a little pride. When I set out to wash the floor this weekend, I gave her a few copies of South Jersey Magazine, a glue stick, her scissors and some construction paper. A half-hour later she emerged with cards for each of her friends. She had made collages of images she thought they would like. True, some had images of women bouncing in bikinis on beaches or real estate photos of mansions on the market, but they were sweet. Thoughtful. Gracious.
“Mommy, can you help me write some words to my friends?” Now it was “after.” I was ready. Present and relaxed.
“Sure kid. What do you want to say?”
“Margo, sweetheart, you are so lovely.” I write down her words.
“Madeline Crazyhead. I love you.” I write this down too.
And as I do, I think to myself, perhaps my fears are unfounded. Maybe she is yet unspoiled. There is no faulting her for wanting what she wants; there is only shaping it into a new form. Helping her find satisfaction in other ways. And gratitude at four is not expressed as “thank you.” It comes in small unexpected acts of love.