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Spoiled Rotten? Spoiled Ripe!

Scott Noelle

Nothing belies our culture’s negative attitudes towards children like the derogatory language we use to describe them: “terrible twos,” “little tyrant,” and of course, “spoiled.”

The word spoiled — attributed to anyone, especially a child, who gets whatever he or she wants — is a metaphor that evokes images of rotting food. Don’t ask me how this usage came about. I guess the point is that when a person is “spoiled rotten” he is deemed unfit for anything but the garbage can.

But what’s so bad about getting what you want? Isn’t getting it the whole point of wanting it? Here’s where one of our culture’s most destructive beliefs is exposed: the belief in scarcity, or the idea that there is never enough in the world to fulfill our desires, so we should desire less.

This belief is mostly unfounded, but not entirely. For example, if you want to cut down a hundred trees a day, the forest will eventually deny you that indulgence. But there is nothing overindulgent about wanting to experience love, pleasure, fun, comfort and joy. Yet we often call children (and ourselves) “spoiled” when these needs and desires are fully and unconditionally satisfied.

What’s Going On Here?

In a word: story.

The scarcity principle is one of the central stories that informs our culture and frames our perceptions. This story is told to us over and over in a thousand subtle and unsubtle ways, from sayings like “you can’t always get what you want” and “money doesn’t grow on trees” to fairy tales like Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk to the endless drone of TV commercials urging us to buy now, “while supplies last.” The underlying message in so many of our stories is that there’s never enough to go around, but if you’re more virtuous — smarter, stronger, more beautiful, harder working, etc. — you might just get what you want... usually at someone else’s expense.

The belief in scarcity is central to the competition mindset. We are taught to interpret every experience as a win or a loss — to believe that even games played purely for pleasure are more fun when winning is contingent on defeating opponents.

But when a baby comes into the world, she expects to win by default. That is, she expects her needs to be met, and she doesn’t expect to have to compete for them. This — the child’s first nature — runs so counter to our “second nature” enculturated belief in scarcity, that we doubt our instinct to give them all the nurturing they need and the loving attention they desire.

Mother Nature is overridden by the voice of Father Culture, which warns us that we are in danger of “spoiling” our children if we dare to give them what they want. It implores us to give less. We are told it’s our job as parents to help children get used to the idea of going without.

The baseline fear is that if we give our children what they want, they will always want more. However, this theory is rarely tested because we seldom keep giving until they are satisfied. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy because they don’t get enough opportunities to learn what “enough” feels like.

Rotting or Ripening: An Experiment

So if you ever feel like your child wants to be “spoiled,” I recommend you do a little experiment. Consciously drop all ideas of scarcity and spoilability, and fulfill the request joyfully with 100% willingness and no arbitrary limitations. Indulge in the pleasure of giving until your child feels satisfied and stops of his own accord. Be curious about how much he can take. Let the discovery of your child’s capacity to receive teach you about your own capacity to receive. Perhaps you’ll learn to let more goodness into your experience.

If you begin to exceed your own limits, then of course you should stop. Only give what you can give with integrity, from a sense of abundance. Remember that Love — the greatest gift you can ever give — is something you can never really run out of, even when other limits are reached. Love doesn’t come from you, it flows through you. So when you give love you are also receiving it.

Say YES to giving love even when you can’t or shouldn’t say yes to other things, and stay focused on that abundance.

Let me know what you discover!

Scott Noelle is a father, a parenting coach, and the author of The Daily Groove: How to Enjoy Parenting... Unconditionally! Scott and his partner, Beth Noelle, have been married for over 30 years, and they have two adult children. ( Updated: 2022 )
© 2005 Scott Noelle.