Whereas bribing is best addressed by ripping the band-aid off and going cold turkey, spoiling can be whittled down slowly so it isn’t such a shock to everyone involved, especially since there is no clear and definitive boundary like there is with bribes.

  1. Start by taking a week to accurately assess your level of permissiveness. Carry a pocket notebook around with you and tally up all the requests you grant (whether big or small) versus the times you tell children no. At the end of the week, analyze this data to look for areas you can improve.

It helps if you can go over this log with a friend or your spouse to get their input, comparing your own responses to how +they+ feel you should have responded to such a request. If you and your spouse live together, they can even make their own logbook for the week, so that you can cross-compare notes and get a better idea about the problem areas that stand out in their mind. Now focus on turning a couple of these “yes” responses into no’s for the next week, and then a couple more the week after that, and so on, until you’ve reached a more balanced ratio. It needn’t be 50/50, but it should be similar to other caregivers.

2. It helps to start with a talk to put kids on notice so they can mentally wrangle with the idea. Explain that you’ve gotten into the habit of spoiling them a bit too much, and that you’re going to start cutting back and being more of a balanced parent. Tell them that they shouldn’t take things personally, and it’s not because you love them any differently. Your kids are bound to argue against this assessment, trying to convince you that you don’t spoil them and nothing needs to change. Rather than getting into a debate on where the line for spoliation lies, explain to them some of the conflicts it creates: financial issues, conflict between parents, concern about their character development, and so on. Explain that you want them to learn how to handle disappointment, since life is full of it. They may not like everything you say, but kids are always more cooperative when you’re honest and open with them about the reasoning behind your actions.

3. When it comes to possessions, introduce the ‘get one, give one’ system. If kids want something new, such as a stuffed animal or toy, tell them that if you get it they’d have to give up a similar item they already have, giving it to another child (either directly or via charity). You don’t need to be rigid on this rule or enforce it in every case, and it doesn’t entirely address the spoiling problem, since you’re still clearing a path for kids to get what they want. But it’s a good way to get kids to think more about these choices on their own, cutting back on some of the half-hearted desires they may have.

4. Another simple tactic that works well for material possessions is to acknowledge the child’s desires while postponing gratification. For instance, if a child sees something they like in the store, tell them that you don’t plan on buying toys today, but stop to take a moment to acknowledge their interests. Get down to their level and look at it with them. Acknowledge its appeal and ask them what they like most about it. Keep a paper and pen handy and write down, “Michael really likes the red toy car.” You can often appease children simply by validating their desires without actually getting them the item in question. More times than not, they’re going to move on and forget all about it. Those things they don’t forget about are more likely to be truly meaningful to them.

5. Instead of material rewards given in the form of privileges and possessions, look to enrich your kids through experiences, affection, and psychological rewards. When you get right down to it, experiences and emotions are more meaningful anyway, so if you can replace some of the material rewards you offer children with immaterial ones, you’ll be in much better shape.

There are many ways to do this. Instead of taking kids out to eat, have a family cooking night where you and the kids all prepare something you like together. Or arrange a backyard barbeque and invite some of their friends over.

In lieu of gifts and possessions, arrange for experiences you can enjoy together, preferably ones that aren’t tied to a large monetary expenditure (i.e., camping, a backyard obstacle course, bike rides, a trip to the mountains, picnics, pillow fights, building a fort, making something out of a large box or creating something with salvaged items, and so forth).

When you’re at the store and a child points out something they like, wrap your arm around them and give them a kiss on the cheek while swaying back and forth as they show you what they found, before gently telling them, “Not today, but we’ll think about it for the future.” Instead of buying them something, create a hand-made gift. If you feel guilty because you don’t see them as often as you’d like, send cards and text messages. Instead of having a new shiny item to greet them, come with open arms and enthusiasm, excited about all the fun you’re going to have together.

Two hours spent building a fort with your kid in the living room, or conquering some mountain with your teen, will be more memorable and meaningful than any video game ever could be. When your kids grow older, these are the experiences they’ll remember, not the things you bought them.

6. Focus on comforting children, not fixing their issues. Imagine the following scenario: You’ve told your kids you can only see 1 movie with them this week, and the other they’ll have to see with their dad. Each child wants to see a different movie. So you flip a coin. The loser is upset. She really wanted to see this movie with you, and starts crying.

Your heart sinks, and your first instinct will be to try to fix it. But “fixing things” means finding a way to try and erase the child’s disappointment, which = spoiling them. So instead of fixing things, focus on offering comfort and affection instead. Pull your child close, give them a hug, and empathize with what they are feeling. Cry with them if you need to. Offer perspectives to help them cope, such as talking about how seeing it with their dad will give the two of you something to talk about the next time they come.

If you follow this formula of comforting rather than fixing, it makes disappointing your kids a whole lot easier to handle, and models a healthy response of seeking comfort for disappointment rather than trying to avoid this disappointment altogether. You can still be there for your child to help them through life’s hardships, you’re just not trying to be Mr. Fix It and erase these disappointments.