What is the difference between nurturing and coddling?

Have you ever heard someone tell a new mother that if she keeps picking up her child when he is crying she is going to spoil him?  Is it true?

Mother Holding Child











Is it possible that nurturing a child can go too far to the point that it becomes coddling?  At what point can nurturing become coddling?

To understand these questions, we must first understand what it is that children need.  Do kids need nurture?  Of course they do!  Do they need lots of it? Absolutely!

According to the Theraplay® Institute, nurture is the “Soothing, calming, caregiving activities that make the world feel safe, warm and secure, and reassure the child that the adult will provide comfort and security. They calm the agitated child, (and) help him relax… They build the inner representation that the child is lovable and valued.”

Coddling, on the other hand, has synonyms such as, pampering, indulging, babying, overprotecting, and spoiling. Coddling is when a parent protects the child from an age appropriate task and sends the message – you are weak and can’t handle difficult things.  Coddling is more about meeting the parent’s needs than it is about meeting the child’s needs.  Coddling can also be related to a parent giving in to a child because the parent fears the fit that the child will throw if the parent doesn’t give in.

Going back to the question at the beginning – if a mother picks up her child when he is crying is the mother coddling the child?  The answer is, usually not.  When a child is emotionally upset and is seeking closeness to the caregiver, and the caregiver provides soothing and comforting, the child feels reassured that their caregiver is able to help him with difficult emotions.  The more the child believes that there is someone there for him when he is struggling emotionally, the less the child’s body will feel overwhelmed with those emotions.  And as a result, the capacity for the child to handle difficult emotions will become greater.

So, comforting a child who is crying is not coddling the child.  Rather, it is building greater capacity for the child to believe that emotions come and go and he will get through them and be okay.

Therefore, if nurturing is about soothing and comforting the child and being there for him, at what point can nurturing become coddling?  The truth is nurturing never becomes coddling because the intention of nurturing is to help children develop.  Nurturing is about meeting the child’s basic physical and emotional needs in a way that encourages the child to want to be capable.  Coddling is more about taking opportunities to be capable away from kids so that they don’t grow and develop confidence in their abilities, especially when disappointment or problems arise.

Simply put, nurturing a child makes him capable while coddling a child makes him incapable.  So next time you see a new mother go to pick up and sooth her child, smile, and know that that child is learning that he is loved and that that child will have a better chance of being emotionally stable in life.


Shiloh Lundahl, LCSW, is a child and family therapist in Gilbert and Mesa, Arizona.  He is the founder of Parent Arizona and Counseling Services and is part of the Arizona Family Therapy Group.

He workswith couples on establishing safety and security within their relationship and helps couples understand and supporteach other more.  He also teaches  parenting classes using the Love and Logic curriculumclasses for parents ofchildren with ADHDstep-parenting classes, and advanced trainings for foster and adoptive parents.  He also provides in-home therapy in Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Chandler, and Tempe, Arizona.