Parenting seems like an impossible balancing act. On one hand, you don’t want to be harsh, overbearing, and cruel to your child. You want to show grace and mercy like God shows you.
But you also don’t want to spoil your child, turning them into a rotten person who feels entitled, yells to get their way, and needs to be pampered to be appeased.
So what does the Bible say about spoiling your child?
What’s the Bible’s Definition of Spoiling Your Child?
Spoiling is not about how much or little you give your child. Spoiling is not about how nice or mean you are. Spoiling is not about the parents actions in a vacuum.
Spoiling a child is about a parent’s effect on a child.
In one instance you can buy your child a gift and it can help their relationship with you and God. They can feel loved, respected, and valued. But if give that same exact gift and it causes your child to become entitled, ungrateful, demanding, or self-centered, then you have spoiled the child.
When food “spoils” it turns rotten and unhealthy. Therefore spoiling your child has less to do with what you do and more to do with what effect your actions are having on your child. In the Bible, parents are commended for giving good gifts to their children (Matthew 7:11) and for disciplining their children (Proverbs 13:24). It’s not about giving or withholding. Parenting well is about doing what’s best in each context for your child.
Therefore the Bible defines “spoiling your child” as parental actions that cause your son or daughter to become undisciplined, disrespectful, and generally imbalanced because of your excessive giving or lack of discipline.
Spoiling Your Child Is Accomplished in Two Packages
Spoiling your child comes in two basic packages: Giving too much charity and not giving enough discipline. Each of these actions has less to do with the actions of the parent and more to do with the context and intent behind the actions of parents.
Spoiling your child is not the same thing as being abundantly kind, merciful, gracious, and lavish. God is all of these things to his children. He forgives us again and again. He even spares us of consequences sometimes. He blesses us with lavish, undeserved gifts all the time. What God does perfectly, however, is give each of his children exactly what they need that most benefits their personal relationship with him.
To parent like God, we should always ask, “What will help my child’s relationship with God the most? Sometimes it will be an excessive gift. Other times it will be a firm, corrective action. Both are needed to express God’s love to our children.
If a gift will communicate his love, God gives it. If a gift will rob his child of a painful learning experience that will help her character, he will withhold the gift. If sparing a consequence will truly help her see his abundant grace towards her and thus cause her to change for the better, he will spare the consequence. But if sparing the consequence will corrupt her chance to learn from her mistakes and truly repent, God will bless his daughter with the consequence.
To parent our children like God fathers us, we will have to think less about what we give or don’t give and more about what our actions as parents will produce in our children.
Giving Grace and Spoiling Are Not the Same
I recently read a story about a young man who was rebellious towards his parents and disliked them very much. As his counselor probed his past, the young man told a story of when he was a boy and accidentally broke a window. He ran into the woods crying and stayed there until his mother found him. When his dad got home, he was whipped. The young man explained that he had been whipped before and he wasn’t mad because he knew it was done in love and he deserved it. But this time, he felt his parents totally misunderstood him and did not love him.
Now, I personally think whippings are just a bad idea. But the point of the story is this: rigid rules and consequences can be just as damaging as spoiling your child. This young man would not have been spoiled if his dad came home, looked at his son’s tearful eyes, and realized discipline was not needed in the instance because his son already understood his mistake. This would have been the right time to teach his son about the meaning of grace, which is giving a gift that is not deserved. But the dad was only focused on parental actions, not the impact of those actions.
As parents, sometimes we will need to give gifts our children don’t deserve to show them an example of God’s grace. And other times we will need to withhold a gift and enforce discipline so our children do not get spoiled.
Biblical parenting focuses on the outcome of actions, not just the actions themselves.
The Bible Says Spoiling Is Unhelpful to the Parent and the Child
Like most sin, spoiling is easier in the short-term but is harder in the long-term. All sin is taking the easy way out. But this always leads to more problems in the future. The easy way out never outweighs the problems it multiplies in the future:
Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death. (Proverbs 19:18)
The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother. (Proverbs 29:15)
Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart. (Proverbs 29:17)
Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol. (Proverbs 23:13-14)
What can be seen through the many Bible verses about spoiling your child is that it always negatively impacts the well being of both the parents and the children.
Giving an unhelpful gift or withholding discipline is fun in the moment, but eventually it always causes more headaches and heartbreak for both the parents and the children in the long-run.
Spoiling Your Child Is Really About Gratifying Yourself
In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves, he explains that in each of us, there is a desire to be needed. But the highest form of love seeks the good of the person whether you are the source of that good or not. He states:
But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching. Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous (unnecessary). The hour when we can say, “They need me no longer” should be our reward.
But the instinct, simply in its own nature (without God’s guiding grace), has no power to fulfill this law. [Our sinful] instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love – a love which desire the good of the object as such, from whatever source the good comes – must step in and help or tame the natural (sinful) instinct before it can make the abdication.
And of course it often does. But where it does not, the ravenous need to be needed will gratify itself either by keeping its object in need or be inventing for them imaginary needs. . . . It is not only mothers who can do this.”
Most parents truly love their children. But in all of us there is a need to be needed. Sometimes this manifests by parents enabling children out of the parents need, not the child’s need.
To parent well, to love like God, to avoid spoiling and being too harsh, we will need to use biblical, Spirit-led discernment, weighing not only what is the best parental action, but what actions will produce the most helpful outcome for our children.