Parenting Guru Ann Pleshette Murphy On How To Unspoil Your Child - The Grace Tales

Parenting Guru Ann Pleshette Murphy On How To Unspoil Your Child

In our new monthly series we will ask a host of experts how to do all the things we’ve ever wanted to know. The first is how to unspoil your child...

I wouldn’t say my youngest resembles Veruca Salt so much as Kim Kardashian when it comes to attention-grabbing.

She has been known to grip my face in her chubby little hands and physically turn it towards hers, eyes locked onto mine, while I listen. To. Every. Thing. She. Has. To. Say.

Each morning I am greeted by an indignant summons: “Mummy! MUUMMYYY!” from her bed. While each night she calls: “Soothe me. SOOOOTHE me,” (I was told baby massage helps children fall asleep but what happens when you want to stop the nightly spa treatments? That, they failed to reveal!)

And to be honest I am confused. Is this her nature? Or my nurture?

I firmly believe children deserve the same respect as adults, and yet is my permissive parenting producing a generation with all of the rights and none of the responsibilities?

I will never be an authoritarian parent – but I do want to have authority.

At a loss, I referred to therapist, author and parenting guru for more than 20 years (make sure you read her book The Seven Stages of Motherhood: Making the Most of Your Life as a Mum  and The Secret of Play: How to Raise Smart, Healthy, Caring Kids from Birth to Age 12), Ann Pleshette Murphy. Here are her brilliant answers.

Image: Helene Sandberg | Go to

Avoid The Happiness Trap

“Spoiled brat behaviour often results from well-meaning parents wanting to spare children disappointment, frustration, or anger. But you don’t do children any favours when you deprive them of the experience of muscling through tough times. When we swoop in to eliminate anger, stress and sadness, we send the message that mommy or daddy has to do it for you because you can’t do it yourself. We deprive children of the reward of delaying gratification, of managing difficult emotions, which children need to experience. I will never forget when my one-year-old daughter, who is now 32 years old, got herself stuck under a chair and I started to go and rescue her. I was with a friend who is a psychologist and she said: ‘Don’t do that – she will figure it out. Talk her through it’. So I said: ‘Maddie honey, you’re fine, just bend your head’. I will never forget the look on her face when she got out. That ‘I did it!’ grin really stayed with me.”

The Fundamental Of Chores

“Even at a very young age, children should be made to feel wanted and needed with chores and a role within the family. These should be expected rather than rewarded, it should be seen as a privilege. They can set the table, make their bed and put their toys away as part of the routine of the family. It gives them a sense of purpose and self-confidence. When we think about a spoiled brat, we often picture whiny, helpless children, who are catered to constantly. But even very young children are highly capable, and they love being given “jobs” at home. In fact, if you start young, they are far less likely to balk at being asked to help out.”

Routines Not Discussions

“There are certain things in the family that we just do, they are not open for discussion or negotiation. When we come into the house, we put our things away in a designated place. So if your child throws his jacket on floor, don’t launch into a big lecture on how much the jacket cost, how hard mommy worked to get it, how spoilt he’s acting. Just say calmly, ‘Coat, hook’. That kind of calm, clear, no-discussion approach can be applied to almost any behaviour. Also, kids thrive on routine, and the more you can make chores, homework, bedtime part of the fabric of every day, the less likely you are to spend time on exhausting debates.”

Set The Boundaries And Work As A Team

“A majority of my clients come to me for help because one parent is the good cop and one is the bad cop. It leads to resentment, mixed messages and ending up at odds as a couple.

Start by discussing with your spouse what are the two or three behaviours you most want to put an end to and then get everyone on board – nannies (if you employ carers), grandparents, your child’s teacher (especially if the behaviour is school-related).

If part of what you are trying to do is eliminate whining and disrespectful backtalk then having clear boundaries and consequences is essential.

I’m a big believer in the power of rewards versus time on the “naughty step” or in the “naughty corner.” For younger children, if you are trying to target a certain behaviour or get them to do something, link their cooperation to a reward. ‘Let’s do toothbrushing before books so we can read an extra story’.

If your child always screams for a treat at the supermarket, make it clear before you go in that you are not buying anything. And if they make it through without begging for a treat, be sure to say: ‘I’m so proud that you listened to mommy, and did not ask for anything that was not on our list. When we go home we are going to play a game you choose’. Then reward your child with one-on-one time with you.”

Don't Reward With Things

“What children really crave is your undivided attention – that is the ultimate reward. But, for some children, having a chart of expectations with stars and rewards is very effective. Another good incentive is a team jar at mealtime, when everyone says something positive that somebody did that day and puts a marble or piece of pasta in the jar. ‘When I called you to dinner you came so I’m going to put a piece of pasta in the jar’. And it’s important that parents are included too. ‘Dad made such a delicious pasta sauce tonight!’ When the jar is full, do something as a family as a reward – go to see a movie or have a day out, it doesn’t have to be Disney World but it needs to be pretty special as it will take a month to fill it. And don’t take pasta out if someone does something wrong.”

Establish Consequences

“Send out really clear messages that certain behaviours are unacceptable. A lot of parents try time out but there are alternatives. A woman in one of my mommy groups with three little girls didn’t like the naughty step so she has the ‘Peace Box’, a small, covered box that has a scented lavender sachet and a stress ball and a little wind-up music box that the child can turn to as a way of calming down. Another client has a ‘Quiet Tent’ with a light and cushions where the child can go to collect himself.

Taking something away works a lot better when children are older. Taking my daughter’s Barbie dolls away was really effective when she was six or seven but it has to be something that causes a certain amount of pain (so-to-speak), so that they feel they have lost something.

It could even be something as simple as only reading two books at bedtime. Explain why, and even if they have a fit the message is clear – and communicated with calm compassion: ‘I know you really meant to come when I called you, but you didn’t. And so the consequence is that you lose 30 minutes of screen time tonight. Next time, I’m sure you’ll do better’.”

Delay Gratification

“It’s important to recognise that certain children are born less able to delay their impulses. If you have a child who is easily frustrated, waiting before you jump in with what he or she needs helps to build those muscles. Do it in simple ways, for example when they ask for juice, say ok and pour the juice. But then say, “Oh! Wait three seconds: one, two, three,’ before handing them the drink. And then make them wait a little longer each time. And when you hand them the juice say: ‘Thank you so much! That was really good waiting!’. Remember you’re teaching them an important skill – you’re not punishing them.

Anticipate Their Needs

“Toddlers find it especially hard to control their impulses when they want your attention. If you can anticipate that you will be occupied – with a phone call or a conversation – have distractions to hand. I used to have a box of ‘telephone toys’ that the children could only play with when I was on the phone. Another client gives her child the timer on her phone or watch and explains that when the timer goes off she will end the conversation. But it is also something you just have to repeat: ‘No interrupting, I’m talking now.’”

Recognise The Power Struggle

“A friend had created a nightmare at mealtimes with her son where if he ate a bite of his meal he’d get dessert. She came to me at a loss and I told her to say to him: ‘Whatever you want’. So that night it was something he liked for dinner and he ate a bit and said: ‘Now do I get dessert?’ The mom said: ‘Whatever you want, Mickey’. He repeatedly asked: ‘But do I get dessert?’ The answer was always: ‘Whatever you want, we don’t care’. He sat back down and ate his entire meal. He was asserting his power as a way of defining who he was. When that was taken away, he lost interest. It is important to give your child some control over their world especially at a time when they have very little.”

And Finally, Develop Their Emotional Vocabulary

“This is particularly important in boys. We tend to talk about our feelings more with girls – the only emotion boys are really allowed to feel is anger but if they are upset or sad, or ashamed, we send a message to ‘man-up’. With any child, it is important to start with the empathic: ‘I can see you are really angry but I’m sorry you can’t have x and I know that is hard but you are big boy/girl now and I know you can handle it.’ You recognise what the feeling is, you name it, and underscore that we all have those feelings sometimes and it’s ok.  It also helps to name your own feelings too. If you get frustrated or angry say: ‘I am really angry or that hurts me when you do that’.”

To book a consultation with Ann, visit or email her on