5 Ways to Unspoil Your Child Now

Saving up.As another provocative article roars through the American parenting community -- this time, Spoiled Rotten: Why Are American Kids So Spoiled? -- people are once again asking, what have we done wrong? Or is this issue to parents what "fat is the enemy" was to dieters -- a scare that was eventually discounted?

While I can't claim to know the answer -- the oldest of my four children is only ten -- feedback is leaking out from colleges and psychotherapists who tell us that young adults are helpless, disrespectful, and kind-of lost, having never been responsible for engineering their own happiness.

While that portrait may have described me as a 20-something, my parenting has swerved in another direction. Not as a result of any moral high ground, but in response to a tight budget, a larger family, and a longing for a simpler time. I expect my kids to help me clean bathrooms, take care of younger siblings, and entertain themselves without many toys and very little screen time -- and they do.

Yet I get how this lifestyle does not necessarily come naturally, especially in our fast-paced, child-centered society. Here are a few elements that are helping us keep ourselves and our kids grounded:

1. Have a reason not to buy things even though you can "afford" it

Toys, clothes, even electronics, just get cheaper and cheaper. But just because trinkets don't break the bank doesn't mean that we -- or our kids -- should have them. Vow to a less cluttered life by giving yourself a reason to save the money, instead of spending it. Commit to goals about retirement, college, emergency funds: and let the new structure make your (non) purchasing decisions for you.

2. Learn about the benefits of free play

Overscheduling kids is expensive, and it's unclear whether all those after-school activities and organized sports are even good for kids. Undo some of the obligations, cut the screen time, and let kids get bored so they can come up with their own games -- on the playground, in the backyard, on playdates.

If you're not convinced that kids need free time in nature more than they need that advanced computer class, check out the resources at The Children and Nature Network.

3. Imagine your kid at someone else's house

In the past I might have been OK if my child screamed for a snack without saying please, spewed crumbs everywhere, and then ran off to play. But then I imagined what that same scene would look like at the house of someone else, like my boss or the President. I'm raising my children for success, so why shouldn't I teach them good manners?

It may be easier to raise a child, but it's my job to raise a citizen.

4. Adopt of a system of family chores

When I only had two kids, it wasn't that big of a deal to be the only one cleaning, cooking, and doing the laundry. With a third child, however, I did need the help. And a funny thing happened: in the process of teaching my kids how to work, I realized they needed it too. As Meagan Francis, mother of five and author of The Happiest Mom, puts it, "Every human being wants to feel necessary."

An easy way to organize chores is to assign jobs according to days of the week. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for example, my daughter Sofia straightens up the living room before school, sets the table, and sweeps after dinner, while her sister Virginia straightens up their shared bedroom, plays with her siblings before dinner, and waters the garden. Then they switch jobs on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

5. Give allowance to teach money management and reduce begging

Once my kids were old enough to understand that it was possible to possess all those shiny, new things in stores, peaceful shopping was over. Now that they each get an allowance, 50% of which must be saved for a long-term goal and 10% must be given to charity, they are forced to think very carefully about where they want to spend that remaining 40%.

Allowance gives children power to buy things on their own, yet forces them to discern between wants and needs, and teaches them the discipline they'll need to be successful in so many areas of life.

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