Spoiler Alert

People tell me I spoil our dog. Hardly spoiling, I tell myself as I put off work to drive to a park where he can splash in the lake and then run in the woods, free and happy, grinning as he trots back to me with leaves and burrs clinging to his curls.

We hurry home, because I need to interview a man who was raped for five days when he was fourteen and took the abuse silently because his father had beaten him for years before that.

After the interview, I pull Willie, all sixty pounds of him, on my lap to pick out the burrs, focusing hard on the task, drowning the voice echoing in my head. I smooth his silky curls, kiss the top of his head, and fetch the promised treat.

While I type the interview notes, the radio is on. Someone has been brutally murdered. The phone’s ring drowns the details—a friend, deeply lonely, needs someone to talk to. Willie waits patiently through the phone call, then looks up, eyes bright.

“Okay, okay, we’ll play ball,” I laugh, tossing the ball down the hall, its oak floorboards ruined by toenail scratches. He skids to a stop, grabs the ball, spins and scrabbles for purchase, tears back. My friend’s sadness drains me; his needs do not. After a dozen relays, he flops down next to me, and I idly scratch behind his ears. My mind is clear again, my spirits lifted.

I spoil the dog—to console myself.

The world’s cruelty cannot be allowed to take over. It has to be diluted, buffered—the way dealers cut heroin with powdered milk—or it will stop our hearts. When at least those in our immediate surroundings, the beings we love most, can be treated with tenderness—when we can honor their needs and fulfill a few of their wishes—life feels hopeful again.

Dogs are easy recipients, eager and grateful. Their wants are simple, and they make them obvious. They know nothing of rape and murder, or the pandemic, or the mortgage. They stay cheerful.

To “spoil” is to go rancid, thanks to long neglect or a careless lack of refrigeration. Or to reveal a surprise too soon or somehow ruin an experience. What would truly spoil a dog is if you broke his spirit, crushed his hopes, destroyed his enthusiasm. A ruined dog would no longer race to greet, beg to play, roll over to have his belly rubbed. But I have yet to see tender attention make a dog passive, bad-tempered, or even greedy. Their species is far better than we are at knowing when they have had enough (play, food, petting) and walking away to take a nap.

It is possible, of course, to spoil a dog in the conventional way, by avoiding clear, consistent rules. Years ago, a hesitant, needy, neurotic woman moved next to us, accompanied by two rubbery little schnauzers who used to hurl themselves at the fence and bite anyone who made an overture. They had realized that she was useless and it was all up to them—guarding, defending, testing boundaries, seizing opportunities. They were not cheerful dogs; her permissiveness was the opposite of attending to their needs.

Are we hypervigilant about “spoiling,” I wonder suddenly, because we are jealous? Those who have brusquely informed me that I am spoiling the dog have in every instance been people who grew up hard and never had their needs and wishes indulged. We humans do have a tendency to assume that whatever rite of passage brought us this far must be endured by everyone. A generalized toughness streaks through our culture. If you google “what does it mean to spoil a person,” you will be told: “to be kinder or more generous to someone than you should; to be overly kind.” Kinder or more generous than you should? It seems we have internalized a quota system in which good acts must be finite, capped at a certain level. How is it even possible to be overly kind, when kindness is only a response to the connection, the kinship, we have with others?

The ever-thoughtful editor of Brainpickings, Maria Popova, defines a kind life as one “lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others.” Living in this way scares us, she says. We are afraid we will be overwhelmed by our sympathies, rendered unfit for Darwinian survival. And so “kindness—that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself—has become a sign of weakness.”

We could not have gotten it more wrong. Spoiled humans have not received an excess of kindness. Spoiled humans have been rewarded for bad behavior. They have learned to push buttons, scream, and rage, and they have gotten what they thought they wanted—either because it is easier to capitulate or because they scare us, overpower us, exhaust us.

The pattern holds whether you are in kindergarten or a corporate board room. It would hold for a dog, too, if you tried to stop their barking or biting by stuffing their mouth full of treats. But indulging bad behavior is hardly the same as heeding natural needs and wants. How did we come to equate two sharply different practices?

Back when parents were taught (by their own parents, by religion, by society) to avoid indulging their children, nobody defined indulgence too carefully. It looked, on the surface, like attention. So attention was rationed. Those kids grew up determined to heap upon their own children all the loving, bolstering attention and indulgence they never received. But some of them forgot to remain adults, providing structure and consistency as well. That led to a “spoiling” that seemed to come from an abundance of attention.

I grew up an only child, so it was automatically assumed that I must be spoiled. A priori, categorically. Presumably this was because an only child’s parents can, at least theoretically, afford to buy the child more stuff. In this country, stuff has a million meanings: love, happiness, freedom, worth. …

But another possibility: Maybe only children are assumed to be spoiled because they can receive what every kid wants: their parents’ full attention.

We are all insatiable. But the attention, reassurance, and tenderness we crave need not come at the expense of firm rules. I can still remember my mom wondering aloud why any parent would let a child be ill-behaved, because that would end up hurting the child’s chances for happiness by making her unlovable. I was too little to fully grasp what she was on about—maybe a bratty neighbor kid had made her cringe, or maybe she was sending a subliminal message to me. In any event, I was never allowed to be demanding, insolent, greedy, or obnoxious.

Neither is our dog. He knows full well what is expected of him—and part of his job is to let me spoil him, grant a little extra joy, and soothe myself in the process. If I am still capable of tending to another creature’s needs, I have not been scoured dry by the world’s cruelty. There is still hope for us, no matter how bruised or vulnerable we might feel. There is hope because there is kindness—and an excess of it has never harmed anyone.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.