“Spoiled” Isn’t Actually A Thing You Can Be
At a time when I’m reading about how a campaign manager for one of America’s two major political candidates told his now ex-wife he didn’t want his daughters going to school with Jewish kids because they’re “whiny brats,” I am perhaps extra sensitized to the use of the word “spoiled.” So I felt some vicarious indignation when I encountered this Twitter thread begun by the Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong, wherein she admits that, although she has the funds to buy a new rug, and she would really like and appreciate one, she’s self-conscious about proceeding with the purchase.
But then, I’ve always had a strongly, viscerally negative reaction to the word “spoiled.” I hated it when my parents implied, or flat-out said, my brothers and I were, because I loved my parents and wanted them to be proud of me. I hated it when my grandparents did the same, because my grandparents were sensible, hardworking people whose good opinion mattered. Most of all, I hated having to wonder, myself, whether it was true.
To me, especially as a child, “spoiled” meant ruined beyond redemption. That’s what the word meant when applied to fruits or vegetables, right? To clothing that has been stained with something indelible, or to a subway ride interrupted by a bug-carrying “performance artist” pretending to be mentally ill? When applied to people, I figured, the word meant awful, demanding, bossy, rude: Veruca Salt, as opposed to my own literary role models, Sara Crewe, who, even when starving, shares her meager portion with someone less fortunate than she, and Beth March, who’s so considerate she basically dies rather than impose on her family.
Does it go without saying that anyone who worries as much as I did about being spoiled by definition couldn’t be spoiled? No, nothing goes without saying on the Internet. Let me be explicit, then. I was anxious to please, and also generally anxious. I worried a lot about character, how it was built and whether, as an upper-middle-class suburbanite, I could possibly have enough of it. At ten, I was already lending my money to other family members and not minding, or at least not vocally, when they didn’t pay me back. I was not spoiled; but I lived in fear of being called spoiled.
What I only realized later is that calling someone “spoiled” is a tactic of desperation. It’s a weapon parents and authority figures resort to when they fear they’ve messed up in an irreversible way by over-indulging their children. Like most weapons, it’s good for helping people feel powerful for a moment and not much else.
Calling children “spoiled” is a way for grown-ups to deal with their own shame by seeming to shame someone else — a way for them, when they’re feeling helpless, to try to reclaim some sense of control. But, as control through cruelty often is, and as name-calling often is, it’s ineffective in the long run. It doesn’t help anyone be better. Nor does it give much incentive to the maligned person to try.
Besides, honestly, how many “spoiled” children have you ever met? How many do you know, rather than know about from reality TV and trend pieces about affluenza? Sure, some kids are greedy and grasping: you can’t spell kid without id. Lots of adults are materialistic and entitled too, and we have less of an excuse. The difference between most grown-ups and most kids is that the grown-ups have had many more years in which to figure out how to put a civilized veneer over our venality.
Most of us, whatever our age, are trying to strike a reasonable balance between what we want and what we can have. We are not, however, “spoiled,” because spoiled isn’t actually a thing that a person can be. We are not yesterday’s fish or last week’s bananas. We’re complicated, messy individuals with needs and wants, some of which we have to deny ourselves, and emotional reactions, some of which can be outsized. Learning how to deny ourselves without triggering tantrums, and when, is a lifelong process. Judgy and cruel words like “spoiled,” which burrow into our brains and give us complexes about buying rugs, or, um, gym clothes, that last for decades, don’t help.