Spoil Your Grandchildren, In a Good Way

Right Kind of Indulgence Can Be Harmless And Even Positive

grandmother spoiling her granddaughter
Treating a grandchild as special isn't quite the same thing as spoiling. Photo © JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

No one likes spoiled children, but many grandparents proudly brag about spoiling their grandchildren. What's going on here? Is it a game of gotcha between parents and grandparents? A difference of opinion about what constitutes spoiling?

Usually grandparents who say they spoil are referring to innocent little treats, gifts and privileges. They seldom encourage bad behavior in their grandchildren, because no one wants bratty grandchildren.

The Good Side of Spoiling 

I'm one of those grandparents who believes that a little spoiling can be a good thing. My daughter still remembers the time her aunt bought her a giant ice cream cone. She couldn't have possibly eaten it all and, in fact, she doesn't remember how much she was able to eat or how it tasted. But she still remembers, decades later, that someone loved her enough to buy her a oversized, totally impractical treat. 

It's a different story if family members routinely feed children sugary treats. Obviously, my daughter wouldn't remember the ice cream cone if it had been just one of many. And with current concerns about child obesity, grandparents should be extra vigilant about what they feed the grandchildren. But for most children, an occasional treat isn't harmful.

Other expressions of love that are a bit over the top can be powerfully affirming, but they shouldn't occur so often that they become routine.

No grandparent, however, has the right to spoil. Most parents will let the grandparents get away with some indulgences, but parents are within their rights if they want to restrict gifts and privileges. 

What Constitutes a Spoiled Child?

We all know children who receive lots of attention and scads of material items who are well-behaved, while others are so bratty that they are hard to be around.

No grandparent really wants grandchildren who fall into the second category. It's been my experience that when parents and grandparents have good values and frequently verbalize and demonstrate those values, children can be indulged without being spoiled. It's also true that some children are inherently more difficult to manage than others. In the absence of serious developmental or behavioral difficulties, children should not:  

  • Use tantrums to get their way. Tantrums are a developmental stage rather than a manipulative device for toddlers and for some children with developmental issues, but tantrums should be very rare indeed if a child is school-age and is neurotypical.
  • Expect to be in control. Strong-willed children want to be in control, but will learn fairly quickly that their control is limited, unless they are routinely spoiled by being given their way. 
  • Be routinely non-compliant. We don't want children to be little people-pleasers, but well-balanced children learn to derive pleasure from meeting and exceeding expectations. It's a sign of trouble if a child doesn't seem to care about the opinions of others or if a child enjoys embarrassing a parent or grandparent with rude behavior.
  • Expect immediate gratification of wishes. A child who is unwilling to wait or work for a  desired object is on the wrong track, and parents or grandparents who give in just make it worse.  

Where Grandparents Go Wrong

Grandparents go wrong when they give too many gifts, or they deliberately give gifts that they know the parents do not want the children to have. 

Grandparents also go wrong when they routinely sabotage the parents' strategies for raising good children. They should not interfere or even offer an opinion when a parent disciplines a child unless the discipline is clearly abusive or inappropriate. If grandchildren are in their care, they should be prepared, with the parents' permission, to use appropriate discipline.

Grandparents go seriously wrong if they ignore or circumvent the parents' rules for their children or in any way encourage the children to be disobedient.

'Nuff said. 

More Good Kinds of Spoiling

Grandparents can indulge their grandchildren without any negative effects if they follow these suggestions.

  • Plan ahead for time with the grandchildren. You don't have to have an agenda, but put some thought into what to do with them. Activities don't have to be elaborate. Children love simple activities like going for a walk or playing cards.
  • Turn off the television and don't let your other devices distract you. It's okay to share movies, electronic games and the like sometimes, but don't fritter away your precious time with grandchildren. 
  • Put experiences ahead of gifts. That doesn't mean that you have to fund theme-park visits, although experience gifts can be a nice change from hard goods. Look for free or low-cost experiences that will be fun or enlarge their horizons. Zoos and museums come to mind. 
  • Don't be afraid to say no. You don't have to buy a certain item even if a grandchild requests it, and you don't have to say yes to every other request. Trust me. Your grandchildren will still love you.