5 Tips for Parents to Avoid the Damaging Effects of Overindulgence

How much is enough? It’s a question many parents find themselves asking while raising children. It’s also the title of the book I published in 2004 with fellow CEHD graduates Connie Dawson, Ph.D. and David Bredehoft, Ph.D. Throughout my career I have researched and written numerous books on parenting and self-esteem. My most recent focus has been the concept of overindulgence – and I’ve learned that giving your children too much can actually harm them. Parents from all walks of life share the goal of trying to do the best they can for their children. Despite a parent’s good intentions, however, showering them with abundance often becomes more than children need or can handle.

What is Overindulgence?

The Overindulgence Project began in 1996 with the mission of studying the relationship between childhood overindulgence and subsequent adult problems and parenting practices. In short, overindulgence can be defined as giving too much of anything to a child so that it slows their learning and developmental tasks. Different than spoiling, overindulgence is much more complex.

Additional ways of describing overindulgence include giving children things or experiences that are not appropriate for their age or their interests and talents; giving things to children to meet the adult’s needs, not the child’s needs; and doing or having so much of something that it does active harm to, or at least stagnates, a person and deprives them of achieving his or her full potential.

Overindulgence is actually a form of child neglect. It hinders children from carrying out developmental tasks and from learning the necessary life lessons and skills needed to thrive as adults. As overindulged children become adults, their basic skills, confidence and self-esteem levels, as well as morals and emotions, can suffer damaging effects.

Three Types of Overindulgence

Connie, David and I have completed 10 studies focusing on the concept and impact of overindulgence, which are highlighted in our books How Much is Enough? and How Much is Too Much? (to be published in January 2014). Our research shows that bestowing children with material items is just one element of the problem. We’ve broken overindulgence into three common parenting issues.

  1. Giving too much: Too much of anything—too many toys, too many camps, too many activities. Not only can rushing from one activity to another be stressful, but children have no downtime to fill themselves without the help of pre-set entertainment.
  2. Over-nurturing: When parents do too much for their children. Often these are tasks that children should be doing for themselves. Over-nurturing prevents kids from becoming competent in everything from ordinary household chores to developing coping skills and interpersonal skills.
  3. Soft structure: When parents provide little discipline and few boundaries. Or, perhaps there are rules in place, but they are not enforced. This includes not requiring children to contribute to family life by doing household tasks. Some parents, particularly dual-working couples or single parents, may do the chores themselves because it’s faster than trying to teach their children to handle the work. Others want to save the kids’ time for “important” projects like sports and lessons. The result, however, is that some children aren’t taught such basic life skills as washing clothes or balancing a checkbook.

Over-nurturing and soft structure in particular can lead to children becoming helpless and ill-prepared later in life. Children who’ve been raised in a soft structure, for example, struggle with real world, adult jobs because many have never participated in household tasks, which often teach how to do a job and do it well.

Our research also examined the life goals of people who were overindulged as children. The more they were overindulged, the more they identified with having life goals of wealth, fame and image. They also shared a disinterest in bettering society, making the world a better place or helping people live better lives unless they were offered something in return. Among other issues, these adults often struggle to find success in the workplace because they don’t believe they have to work hard and carry through. They also tend to blame others if something goes wrong.

5 Tips for Parents

Not overindulging children isn’t “tough love.” It is parenting in an effective, loving manner that teaches children to be productive citizens and puts them on the path to a successful life. Here are 5 tips to help parents recognize overindulging behavior and what to do instead.

  1. Use the Test of Four. A “yes” response to any of these four questions is a signal that overindulgence may be occurring.
    • Does it get in the way of the child learning a developmental task? If age two or older, does it reinforce the belief that the child is the center of the world?
    • Does it use a disproportionate amount of family resources (money, time, energy, focus) to meet the child’s wants—not her needs?
    • Whose needs does this meet? Is it more for the parent than for the child?
    • Does it deplete or in some way harm others, property, the environment or the community?
  2. Distinguish between needs and wants. Attempt to give children everything they need, but not everything they want (even if you can afford it).
  3. Seek out child development information. Learn about child development through parent education classes, workshops and/or books. It’s important to know what children need to be struggling with at what particular age—and to let them struggle.
  4. Create rules. In addition to creating structure through rules, it’s important to also follow through with appropriate consequences if those rules are broken. Take the time to teach chores and household tasks, including all self-care tasks.
  5. Build a united front. If you and those that are helping you raise your children disagree on something parenting-related, try using the “it takes two adult care-takers to say yes and one to say no” rule-of-thumb. When parents disagree but respect their differing opinions, it teaches kids that, although people don’t always agree on everything, they can still get along.

It’s important to remember that overindulgence does not mean you’re a bad parent. Often, overindulgence comes from good intentions and wanting your child to be happy. Parenting is difficult at times, but raising likable, self-sufficient and respectful children is a great reward.

Jean Illsley Clarke

About the Author

Jean Illsley Clarke

  • Adjunct faculty member
  • Recipient of honorary UMN Doctor of Laws degree
  • College of Education and Human Development

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4 thoughts on “5 Tips for Parents to Avoid the Damaging Effects of Overindulgence”

  1. Sara Foster says:

    Thanks, Jean! This is great information and I am happy to have these tips to help me avoid overindulging my son. I especially like this sentence, “It’s important to know what children need to be struggling with at what particular age—and to let them struggle.” As parents, I think we need to remember that our goal is for our children to grow up and be well-adjusted adults — not to simply avoid tantrums when they are children. Thanks again!

  2. As always best from the best !! Really enjoyed reading the article and also learned newer understanding as a facilitator !!! Thank you Jean :)

    1. CEHD says:

      Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading! Click here to subscribe to the Vision 2020 Blog for weekly updates.

  3. isParenting says:

    Nice post Jean, love the way you write this article, all such bright and easy to understand. many thanks for sharing …

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