When I was growing up, the worst thing you could be was ‘spoilt’. My parents would point at other children and say, wrinkling their upper lips with disgust. ‘And he’s another spoilt brat.’ Being spoilt was a dreadful sin and not one of your own causing but one visited upon you. You got spoilt by your parents and you couldn’t do a thing about it. If you were spoilt, you could hardly get unspoilt.

So what does being spoilt actually mean? According to Webster’s dictionary, the term spoil originally meant to pillage or plunder, as in despoiling another man’s goods, but later it also acquired the meaning ‘to corrupt or render worthless’. So spoiling a child is to damage or corrupt their character, nature or attitude by overindulgence or excessive praise.

The notion of spoiling a child comes from the ancient saying, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. In Piers Plowman (1377), William Langland warned, ‘Who-so spareth the sprynge (switch), spilleth his children.’ The same thought occurs in Proverbs and is first listed in John Coverdale’s 1535 translation: ‘He that spareth the rodde, hateth his sonne’, and in an even earlier text, Aelfric’s Homilies, circa 1000: “Se ye sparas his gyred (belt), he hatas his cild.” The notion of rod, here doesn’t just mean physical chastisement, it means laws, rules, boundaries. And hatas in old Norse has connotations of lack of care, causing trouble, insult or suffering.

So if parents love their children too much, try to please them with treats and presents, regard them as if they were special, over-excite them and worst of all, give in to their tantrums, then they are spoiling them from becoming useful members of society. And in rearing a monster who will continue to make excessive demands on them, they are using the rod, they have spared, on their own backs.

It’s all about boundaries. Childhood is a long process of socialisation, acquired through an appropriate combination of encouragement, stimulation and prohibition. Children have to learn the painful lesson that they can’t always get what they want immediately. Anything of any value has to be worked for and there are always others to consider. Growing up with siblings and friends helps children understand essential social concepts of empathy, sharing and collaboration.

‘No’ is the most important word a child can hear. It sets the limits. This is acceptable, that isn’t. It’s only later with maturity that they come to understand the ambivalence of context and acquire the skills to re-negotiate boundaries. But in the beginning they have to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Society cannot function unless people have respect for ethics and laws.

As a child, I avoided children who would sulk or get cross if they didn’t get their own way, the ones who grabbed the best, those who told tales, never owned up and consistently blamed somebody else. Such kids were a bit of a pain. Our little gang learned early on not to trust them. They created tension and spoiled our curiosity. It is sad that many of them were only children and several from single parent families. They were special kids, little princes or princesses, but they were starved of friendship and our wariness, I’m sure, just helped to consolidate their isolation. I never questioned then whether I might have been a bit spoilt too. Children learn projection very early on.

It may be tolerable to be spoilt as long as you have doting parents. There are compensations for friendship, material possessions, travel, opportunities to learn and develop skills and talent. The trouble can really set in when such children grow up. Poorly equipped to manage in society, they remain self-centred, impulsive, competitive, demanding, uncompromising, but behind that, fragile, lonely and lacking meaning in life. They constantly seek out thrills and excitement and they find it impossible to delay gratification. They want it all and they want it now, and if they don’t get it, there is always the risk they will fly into a destructive rage.

Spoilt, narcissistic people find it difficult to have trusting relationships with other people. Their relationship with their parents was based on manipulation and exploitation and that pattern is continued into adulthood. People have to be there to satisfy their demands. Empathy is difficult; they are too preoccupied with their own needs to understand anybody else. They cannot love or be loved. They may be lucky enough to be admired or even adored. They may even indulge their romantic fantasies, but they are rarely loved. Their relationships tend to be based on mutual exploitation for narcissistic gain.

Anxious to please their indulgent parents in order to gain rewards and with opportunities lacking for others, some spoilt children are fortunate enough to grow up with all the outward talent and confidence to be successful. Many footballers, musicians, actors, celebrities are the product of overindulgent and admiring parents. The acclaim they achieve from their talents feeds their narcissistic entitlement. Nevertheless, despite being surrounded by all the material and social benefits of success, life can still seem empty of meaning. They have to keep performing in order to gain the ephemeral accolades to maintain emotional buoyancy. Remove those and they may sink into an alcoholic and drug-fueled oblivion .

It all sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? Stereotypes always do, but personalities are multifaceted and their outward expressions evanescent. ‘Spoilt’ carries features of narcissism, hysteria and borderline personality, but such labels are there to illuminate, never to define. ‘Spoilt’ is a continuum. There are indeed some people who were spoilt rotten as kids and live with the struggle of existential loneliness for the rest of their lives. But there are many more, whose parents loved them a bit too much and were not quite as consistent with the boundaries as they might have been, but nevertheless did a good enough job. As adults, these may struggle to give in to their impulses and, when stressed, can regress to childhood and behave petulantly with little consideration for others, but for the most part they survive well enough in society. And there are others, who grew up in poverty and deprivation, but who achieve positions of great power and celebrity that are ultimately corrupting. We only have to think of Robert Mugabe or Josef Stalin, although both were the sole surviving members of single parent families and were brought up under the strong influence of the church. Perhaps it was their early deprivation that induced a steely determination to have it all.

We were all little tyrants before we encountered the terrible twos and the hard lessons of prohibition and we all of us carry a yearning to return to that fantasy of perfect freedom and acceptance. Why else would people fall in love? .

Although ‘spoilt’ can now seem somewhat outmoded, it is probably more common than it has ever been. The number of single parent families has risen consistently since the nineteen sixties. Children are over indulged more than ever before. Parents exhausted by the divided loyalties of a job, a home and their own social life, tend to give in to their children’s demands as the line of least resistance. Child truancy, antisocial behaviour among teenagers, knife crime, divorce have all gone up. The current epidemic of obesity and the rise in drug addiction, binge drinking and antisocial behaviour are all indicators of a society without brakes on its behaviour. Anybody, even those with a minimum of talent can become an instant celebrity. You’re worth it! Just do it! The worrying thing is that it’s not just ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. If, as seems likely, a majority of our children are overindulged and poorly corrected, it’s our society that will be spoiled.