A Different Take on Spoiling

The other day a reporter asked me to respond to a few questions about spoiling, and what it means for our kids.  With the holidays coming up, this seems like a pretty timely subject.  Here’s how I answered the reporter’s questions about what spoiling is, and just as importantly, what it’s not.



Let’s start with what spoiling is not:  Spoiling is NOT about how much love and time and attention you give your kids.  You can’t spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself.  In the same way, you can’t spoil a baby by holding her too much or responding to her needs each time she expresses them.



The dictionary definition is “to ruin or do harm to the character or attitude by overindulgence or excessive praise.”  Spoiling can of course happen when we give our kids too much stuff or spend too much money or say yes all the time.   But it’s more than that.  It’s also about giving them the sense that the world and people around them will serve their whims.

Again, it’s impossible to spoil children with too much nurturing or love or attention or time.  Nurturing your relationship with your child or giving them a sense that they are entitled to your love and affection (or holding them when they’re little) is exactly what we should be doing.  In other words, we let them know that they can count on getting their NEEDS met.

Spoiling, on the other hand, occurs when parents (or other caregivers) create their child’s world in such a way that the child feels Continue Reading »

Proactive Parenting: Getting Ahead of the Discipline Curve

Published in Parenting | 1 Comment »

When your kids misbehave, your immediate reaction may be to offer consequences with both guns blazing.

You hit your sister? That’s a time out. 

You broke the book shelf while climbing to reach the matches?  You just lost your playdate this afternoon.

 Your kids act, and you react.

If you’ve heard me speak, or if you’ve read other pieces I’ve written about discipline, you know I’m a big believer in setting and enforcing boundaries.  At times, giving consequences may be the best response in order to teach lessons about appropriate behavior and observing boundaries.

But here I want to make the case for stepping in before things escalate, before you have to start thinking about consequences.  I’m talking about proactive parenting, as opposed to reactive parenting.

When we parent proactively, we watch for times when we can tell that misbehavior and/or a meltdown are in our kid’s near future, and we step in and try to guide them around that potential landmine.  Sometimes you can even Continue Reading »

Upstairs and Downstairs Tantrums

Summary Bullets:

  • A child’s tantrum may originate in the upstairs brain, meaning the child is in control and is using the moment to intentionally achieve a desired end.  In moments like these, parents should respond with love, but set clear boundaries and avoid rewarding manipulative behavior.
  • If, however, the tantrum originates in the more primal downstairs brain, and the child is truly out of control, then the parents’ response should be less about setting boundaries, and more about nurturing the child and guiding him back into a state of calm and control.

If you’ve heard me speak before, you may have heard me talk about the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain.  Or maybe you’re read about the concepts here, where I help you teach the basic information to your kids.

Right now I want to apply that information in a way that can help us deal with one of the most unpleasant parenting issues we all face:  the dreaded tantrum.


The Downstairs Brain and the Upstairs Brain

The basic idea is that we can think about our brain as a house, with a downstairs and an upstairs.  The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose.  Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they’re responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like fight and flight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear).

Your upstairs brain, on the other hand, handles much more sophisticated thinking.  It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts—particularly the ones directly behind your forehead, including what’s called the middle prefrontal cortex.  In other words, it is literally the higher (and thus upstairs) part of your brain.  This is where more complex mental processing takes place, like thinking, imagining, and planning.  Whereas the downstairs brain is primitive, the upstairs brain is Continue Reading »

When a Parenting Expert Loses It: How NOT to Discipline a Preschooler

Here are some things parents say to me about their discipline frustrations:

–I feel like I just put my daughter in time out all the time and don’t know what else to do when she’s misbehaving.

–I don’t feel like I have an overall theory of discipline.  It’s more that I just do whatever comes out at the time.  Sometimes my reaction or instinct is really good, and other times I’m being just as immature or reactive as my toddler.  I just feel like I need to give more thought to it and have a plan.

–I feel disempowered.  I think I’ve been told a list of things that I should NOT do –spank, yell, etc. – but I don’t know what I CAN do, other than just take a toy away.  So I find myself making empty or meaningless threats (“Do that again and you’re going to be in BIG trouble!”) and then I’m just so frustrated.  I don’t know what to do in the moment.

Do these parents’ comments resonate with you?  I can certainly identify.  I remember how clueless I felt as a new parent, and even though the stories often end up being funny in retrospect, I’m embarrassed at how I responded at times when my kids acted out.


The Parenting Expert Gets Taken Down by Her Own Reactive Brain

One day my three-year-old got mad and hit me.  I guided him to his time-out spot at the bottom of our stairway, sat next to him, and smiled.  I lovingly (and naively) said, “Hands are for helping and loving, not for hurting.”

While I was uttering this truism, he hit me again.

So I tried the empathy approach:  “Ouch!  That hurts mommy.  You don’t want to hurt me, do you?”

At which point he hit me again.

I then tried the firm approach: “Hitting is not OK.  Don’t hit any more.  If you’re mad you need to use your words.”

Yup, you guessed it.  He hit me again.

I was lost.  I felt I needed to up the ante.  In my most powerful voice I said, “Now you’re in time out at the top of the stairs.”

I marched him up to the top of our stairs.  He was probably thinking, “Cool!  We’ve never done this before. . . I wonder what will happen next if I keep hitting her?”

At the top of the stairs, I bent over at the waist, my pointer finger wagging, and said, “NO MORE HITTING!”

He didn’t hit me again. Continue Reading »

Does Your Discipline Ever Move From Consistent to Rigid?

Published in Parenting | 1 Comment »

There’s no question about it:  consistency is crucial when it comes to raising and disciplining our children.  Many parents I see in my office realize that they need to work on being more consistent – with bedtimes, limiting junk food, or just in general – when they interact with their kids.  But there are others who have placed such a high priority on consistency that it’s moved into a rigidity that’s not good for their kids, themselves, or their relationship.

Let’s begin by getting clear on the difference between the two terms.  Consistency means working from a reliable and coherent philosophy so that our kids know what we expect of them, and what they should expect from us.  Rigidity, on the other hand, means maintaining an unswerving devotion to rules we’ve set up, sometimes without having even thought them through.  As parents, we want to be consistent, but not rigid.

Kids definitely need consistency from their parents.  They need to know what the rules are, and how we will respond if they break (or even bend) those rules.  Your reliability teaches them about cause and effect, and about what to expect in their world.  More than that, it helps them feel safe; they know they can count on you to be constant and steady, even when their internal or external worlds are chaotic.  In this way, we provide them with safe containment when they’re exploding because they want an extra scoop of ice cream.

So how do we maintain consistency without crossing over to rigidity?  Well, let’s start by acknowledging that there are some non-negotiables.  For instance, under no circumstances can you Continue Reading »

Do You Discipline on Auto-Pilot? (revised)

Published in Parenting | 3 Comments »

Auto-pilot may be a great tool when you’re flying a plane.  Just flip the switch, sit back and relax, and let the computer take you where it’s been pre-programmed to go.  Pretty great.

But I’ve found that auto-pilot is not so great when I’m disciplining my children.  It can fly me straight into whatever dark and stormy cloudbank is looming, meaning my kids and I are all in for a bumpy ride.  So instead, I’m always working on DECIDING how I want to interact with my kids when I discipline them.

For example, let’s talk about consequences.  For most parents, when we need to discipline our kids, the first question we ask ourselves is, “What consequence should I give?”  That’s our auto-pilot.  But through my years of parenting, I’ve begun to significantly re-think my use of consequences.

My four-year-old, for instance, hit me the other day.  He was angry because I told him I needed to finish an email before I could play legos with him, and he came up and slapped me on the back.  (I’m always surprised that a person that small can inflict so much pain.)

My immediate, auto-pilot reaction was to want to grab him, probably harder than I needed to, and Continue Reading »

Ask Tina: How can I get my daughter to do what I ask the first time I ask her?

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Q:  Tina, do you have any suggestions for getting my daughter to do what I ask the first time or to help me not have to repeat myself over and over?

A:  The best suggestion I have for not having to repeat yourself so much is to stop what you’re doing and focus on the situation.  I usually find that the reason I’m repeating myself is because I’m preoccupied with other things and not following through immediately when one of my sons doesn’t do what I’ve asked right away.  By the time I notice that he hasn’t done what I asked, I get even more frustrated because now it’s been so long since I first told him what to do.

Of course you wish your daughter would just do what you say, but one way to at least cut down on the nagging and frustration is to stop what you’re doing, Continue Reading »

Ask Tina: Should I Give My Daughter Time-Outs?

In this video, Tina responds to a question about time-outs.

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Sick of Time-Outs?

Published in Parenting | 6 Comments »

[Update:  I’ve spelled out some of my main reasons for not being a fan of time-outs here.]


There are far worse discipline tactics than time-outs, but I think that there are some alternatives that can be better in certain situations.  Few children actually use their time-out time to reflect or calm down; in fact, it can even cause them to get more upset, depending on the child.  I prefer some other approaches that require my kids to get more practice using the problem-solving, empathetic, choice-making part of their brains:

  • A “re-do.”  One way I do this is by saying “Stop, please.  Now go out of the room and Continue Reading »

Do You Discipline on Auto-Pilot?

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When your child needs to be disciplined, how do you decide what to do?  Do you decide, or are you just going with what you always do?  Are you disciplining on auto-pilot?  Most of the time, when we need to discipline, the first question we ask ourselves is “What consequence should I give?”  Instead, I’d like to encourage you to begin asking three different questions:

1.     Why did my child act this way?  If we look deeper at what’s going on behind the behavior, we can often understand that Continue Reading »

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