It’s Okay to Spoil Your Kids; There’s Just One Catch

in Financial Planning by

In discussions of raising children to being good citizens, there seems to be two sides of the coin: parents who are minimalists, don’t buy their children lots of toys, and don’t want them to be entitled. Then, there are parents who don’t mind giving in to their children’s every whim, whether they want a certain toy, cell phone, or even car.

Of course, there is a middle ground but in my discussions with parents over the last year of being a parent myself, I’ve found that very few people are willing to cut back when it comes to spending on their children.

Of course, the main question is: is spoiling such a bad thing? Also, how will it affect our children long-term?

Differing Opinions in Recent Research

Recent research shows that spoiling children can be detrimental to their overall wellbeing. All Elizabeth Kolbert reported to The New Yorker, “Contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff… They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority.” This “unprecedented authority” that Kolbert describes could be the reason so many young adults lack discipline and end up living with their parents as adults.

Conversely, Alfie Kohn in his book The Myth of the Spoiled Child asserts that children today aren’t entitled or spoiled at all. It’s simply just a result of older generations labeling younger generations with these terms. He believes that despite the bad press “spoiled” children get these days, “today’s youth are more tolerant than their parents and admirably committed to making the world a better place.” So perhaps “spoiling” is just a perception because children have so much more access to opportunities, technology, and the global world than any other generation on the planet today.

What is Spoiling?

Like most parenting questions, this one is bound to get a variety of answers. What might be spoiling to one parent might seem perfectly normal to another. To me, the phrase “spoiling kids” means spending more on your children than the average person in your income bracket. As the chart below shows, people with lower incomes tend to spend 25% of their take home pay on their children whereas people in the highest income brackets spend 12% of their income on their children yearly. Thus, to spoil your children would mean to spend more than these average percentages, more than is typically required to feed, clothe, and educate them.

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I am fine with spending more than my peers on my children but what I am not okay with is giving my children an excessive amount of material items, especially when they ask for it. In my family growing up, we rarely received gifts outside of Christmas and our birthdays. My mom kept a large bag of Beanie Babies in her closet (yes it was the 90’s) and she used to give us one when we got an especially good grade or she heard something positive about us from a teacher, other parent, or friend. As children, my siblings and I certainly had everything we needed, but I knew better than to ask for extras. The answer would have been no.

Contrast that with a friend of mine who had a mother who spoiled her mercilessly. If my friend asked for something, she got it. If her mom said no at first, she would transform into a whiny child, and say “Pleeeeeasseee?” Her mom gave in. Every. Single. Time. My friend knew her parents were wealthy and thought she was entitled to a piece of their income. This continued until she was an adult, and it was a very harsh reality when her parents told her she was now on her own when she graduated from college. In her case, spoiling wasn’t effective because she wasn’t prepared for a future of taking care of herself.

Attaching Meaning to Spoiling

The big difference between my attitude and the attitude of the friend’s parents I mentioned above is that each time we “spoil” our children or give them a little something outside the norm, my husband and I plan to explain why we’re able to do these things. This is the catch I mentioned above. We refuse to just give something to them without them knowing why we’re able to. Hard work and the rewards of hard work are going to be a part of our normal family discussions.

Perhaps having this frame of mind will help avoid some of the problems seen with college aged kids today. A recent study in the American Sociological Review found that “the students least likely to excel are those who essentially receive blank checks for college expenses.” Many of these parents in the study who offered extensive financial help did not have lengthy discussions on expectations, which is likely the biggest part of this problem.


The Limits of Spoiling

Interestingly enough, there are many wealthy families in the US who don’t plan on writing blank checks to their kids at all. These include well-known billionaires like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates who have pledged to give their wealth to charity instead of to their children. Although they will give their children something and Warren Buffet donates money to each of his children’s charities, they’ve decided against leaving their billions to their offspring. They’ve raised their children to do chores, work hard, and eventually earn their fortunes for themselves. I fully support this and admire these families for encouraging their children to work tirelessly to achieve success just as their parents have.

A Quest for Independent Children

Ultimately it comes down to personal preference of the parents when it comes to spoiling. I don’t mind giving my children a little something extra provided they understand why it’s possible and what they have to do to ensure they continue to earn such rewards.

Above anything, my husband and I want our children to be independent and self-starters. Each time we take them to do something they enjoy, we’re going to say things like, “Your Dad and I worked extra hours this year to be able to take this vacation. Vacations are expensive, but because we spent a lot of extra time working, we’re not only able to take time off to see a new place, but we’re able to take the two of you with us.”

It might not seem like children take in these messages but with enough repetition over and over again, slowly an image will form that in order to get the “extras” in life, you have to put in the work ahead of time. Furthermore, as parents we are extending these extras to them, our children, not because we have to but because we want to.

As an aside, I do realize not everyone can afford extras and we’re not necessarily there ourselves, but when we do have the means and our careers do reach a point when extras are possible, it will make us feel good to pass on those rewards to our children provided they are well behaved and work hard enough themselves in school to be rewarded with these opportunities.

Readers, do you believe in spoiling your children or giving them little extras? What does spoiling mean to you?

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Catherine Alford

Catherine Alford is an award winning personal finance writer who contributes to several online publications including The Huffington Post, top personal finance blogs, and her own site, She received a B.A. from The College of William and Mary and an M.A. from Virginia Tech. When she is not reading and writing, she is taking care of her young twins. Follow her on twitter @BudgetBlonde.


  1. Robin - The Thrifty Peach

    We opt to not spoil our daughter so much with gifts because everyone around us takes care of that with continuous presents, whether it is her birthday or not. Instead, we spoil her with worthy experiences- memories of doing fun things with her family that she will have long after the plastic toys are gone.

  2. O

    I feel that my wife and I are sometimes apposing forces when it comes to spoiling our children. I’m of the mind that gifts should be given on birthdays and Christmas and even then only one or two gifts. There are also rare occasions that gifts should be given to achieve a need. I would prefer instead to allow my kids a small allowance and agree with them that if they want something they can save for it or even go so far as to say “you put in half and I’ll put in half”. My wife on the other hand is quick to see and buy it… I’m usually on the loosing side of this battle.

  3. Mrs. Maroon

    Similar to Robin, we choose to limit the material goods, particularly toys that enter our home. Our children are still very young, but at three years old, our son has already started saying that we need to just go to the store to get some more. In contrast to the packaged toys, we prefer the simple toys that require imagination and creativity. Blocks, buildings sets, puzzles, cars, shovels, etc. instead of phones, laptops, and other toys marketed as ‘learning materials’. I am confident that I can teach my children their numbers and letters any day of the week. What I hope they gain from ‘playing with toys’ is a sense of independence and resourcefulness that they can create whatever their heart can imagine. That innovation is much harder to instill, yet the benefits are so much greater in the long run.


    Send me follow up comments about this topic

  5. Yvette

    Poor families and those trying to live a frugal lifestyle excluded, I think any child who is lucky enough not to grow up in poverty is entitled to a little spending money so they can pursue their interests and hobbies, that’s what makes life fun and worth living. Children are people, not pets, and I get annoyed when I see parents who don’t think twice about buying their expensive wine and “upgrading” their stuff whenever something new comes out, but they can’t spare a dime on something their kids might like. My husband and I have one kid, and we split our leisure money evenly three ways, because we’re a family. Children contribute a lot to the family system and improve everyone’s lives, with their compassion, laughter, tolerance, heck even when they’re being difficult they help us to grow for the better. Our kid is perfectly respectful and gracious about recieving gifts, I have no concerns about it. I think disrespect and lack of gratitude is caused by imbalances and brokenness in the parent/child relationship, not how many items the child owns.


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