Babies and young children often serve as the greatest sources of joy in our adult lives.
Maybe that's why we are all guilty at times of going against our better judgment – spending beyond our means or giving in to tearful requests even when we suspect it may not be the right thing to do.
This conflict leads many parents to worry whether they are "spoiling" their child. In common terms, a "spoiled" child is one who is used to getting whatever she wants – and prone to throw temper tantrums when she doesn't.
Some parents believe that children should get what they want most of the time. Other parents believe that indulging children too often is bad for them. They believe that spoiled children become spoiled adults who lack independence and are ill-equipped to overcome life's pitfalls and setbacks.
Let's be clear. There is a stark difference between spoiling your child and meeting his or her needs. All children need significant amounts of love and one-on-one time with parents and caring adults to feel nurtured and protected. This sense of security is especially vital during the first three years of life, when children are acquiring skills that will serve them throughout childhood and adulthood.
But is it possible to give a child too much attention, or too many material things? It's an important question, yet there is surprisingly little research on the subject. Most parents would probably agree that because a child's needs and wants change drastically during the first few years of life, spoiling means different things at different stages of development.
Parents of infants often wonder how they should respond to their baby's crying. Research shows that you cannot spoil your baby by attending to his cries. On the contrary, responsive parenting leads to less crying by the end of the first year as well as better behavior during the toddler period. There are long-term benefits as well, including better academic and social outcomes.
As your baby grows into a toddler, new concerns arise about how to deal with his increasing sense of independence. We often call this period the "terrible twos," but a toddler's desire to assert himself is a natural and necessary part of healthy development.
Make sure that you set consistent rules and limits, but keep in mind that conflicts are one way that children at this stage learn about self-control, compromise and cooperation. This learning can be disrupted if parents are determined to win every battle or if they give in to a child's every whim.
As children approach school age, many parents begin to wonder how to handle their child's frequent requests for new toys, gadgets or clothes. Although purchasing such items can be a quick way to bring a smile to your child's face – or to silence incessant whining – there is no evidence to suggest that designer clothes and high-priced toys will make a child feel better, smarter or more loved.
Our society glorifies outward appearances and often equates human value with economic status. It's possible that excessive spending by parents might send children the same message. According to The Urban Child Institute, non-monetary investments by parents will yield greater returns in the long run.
One thing is certain: When it comes to affection, patience and time, there's no such thing as giving too much or going overboard. Intangible gifts such as these do not depreciate as the years go by. In fact, their benefits continue to produce healthy outcomes throughout childhood and into adulthood.
Sure, it is human nature for parents to want their children to have it all. But without balance and moderation, the commitment to do whatever it takes to give their child the world can leave many scrambling to make ends meet or striving for perfection in all of the wrong areas.
If the true purpose of our giving and generosity is to ensure our young children are healthy, well-adjusted and ready for the world, then nurturing them with the gifts of boundless love and attentive care is the most effective way to accomplish this goal.
(The New Tri-State Defender has partnered with The Urban Child Institute to make sure every child has the best chance for optimal brain development during the critical first three years of each child's life. This is one in a series of stories and columns.)