As a quasi-only child, I got to experience the best of both worlds growing up. With three siblings, all at least 10 years older than me, I was able to have my brothers take me trick-or-treating in elementary school, and had the house to myself for all of high school. For the most part though, my childhood followed the experience of the only child: My parents doted on me during holidays, I had my own (big) room, and I rarely had to negotiate the TV channel.
Thinking back I can’t remember a single time I was called spoiled.
The gendering is inherent even in the language we use to refer to only children. Girls are referred to affectionately as “princesses,” by their parents, but pejoratively by strangers. I can’t think of a time I heard a boy called a “prince” in either fashion. There’s a vicious connotation of the word princess, implying a kind of selfish laziness or sense of entitlement. But when we use the word “prince,” we usually follow it up with “charming.” To be a prince is gallant, desirable, and handsome. To be a princess is prissy, shallow, and useless: Critically, it’s spoiled, and in a way that we don’t deem a prince to be.
As a quasi-only boy, I was able to play the role of the quiet kid, a bit of a nerd and a bit of a loner. My quietness could be interpreted as deep and serious reflection, and my loudness was me sharing my insights and thoughts with the world. I don’t mean to make it look like I had everything handed to me on a silver platter as a kid, but my situation was much more advantageous because of my gender.
Not being allowed to flee from the adults at a dinner party to play video games was unthinkable to me. It was a given that when I got bored of the conversation between my parents and their friends, I could get up, take my plate to the kitchen, and go off to my room. The freedom to do what I wanted, where I wanted, and when I wanted, never really came into question.
By all accounts I was a spoiled child, but my experience was always framed differently. “You have such a big house,” people would tell me. “Your Christmas presents are so cool,” or “Your parents are so relaxed.”
These reactions were always framed in positive terms. It was cool that I had laid-back parents, and that didn’t make me spoiled. My ability to grow up with siblings early on and then experience independence later in adolescence wasn’t just enjoyable personally, it was supported and unquestioned by my friends and peers.
I can’t comment on anyone else’s life but my own. But what I can say is that we have a culture that implicitly — and often explicitly — assuwmes boys and men always earn their success, whereas girls and women must have it gifted to them. We tell girls they should be thankful for their lack of agency; that they can simply marry a rich man and enjoy the fruits of success without working for them.
I wasn’t a bad kid growing up, but I was certainly nowhere near a model citizen. Nor was I particularly thankful for the incredible economic and social privilege my upbringing offered me. When we use the word “spoiled” to describe young children, we attach selfish motivations like greed and laziness to the behaviors of 8-year-olds. Little kids are very rarely inherently malicious, no matter how much we try to paint and gender them that way.
Let’s just let kids be kids. Why punish a girl for something you would praise a boy, especially when a child has no control over that thing in the first place?
Reach writer Alex Bruell at email@example.com. Twitter: @BruellAlex