Are You Overindulging Your Child?

Girl holding glass of milk at home
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Have you ever wondered if you are overindulging your child? As parents, we want to be there to help our kids as much as we can and to give them the things we may not have had as children. We want to make sure that their needs are met and that we are providing them with the best possible circumstances to help them grow to be healthy and happy.

And yet, a growing body of research is indicating that when parents to do much--especially when they do things for kids that they should be learning to do for themselves--we may actually be causing harm.

The consequences of overindulging kids aren't pretty. Research shows that overindulgence leads to self-centeredness, greed, and unwillingness to be held accountable for actions, to name just a few of the unpleasant traits seen in children and adults who got too much, too often.

One reason why we may be seeing a rise in overindulgence of kids is that generally speaking, we are more affluent than previous generations. Parents who were raising young children 50 years ago, for example, didn't grow up with the resources parents of young children have today, says David Bredehoft, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Concordia University, St. Paul, MN. And parents who live in the U.S. and other developed nations are also much better off than those in poorer countries. "We are living in an age of affluence," says Dr. Bredehoft. "Even our poorest families are better off than, say, a family who lives in a hut in Africa."

What is Overindulgence?

Before we can assess whether or not we are overindulging our kids, it's helpful to know exactly what qualifies as overindulgence. In his book "How Much Is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children - From Toddlers to Teens - In An Age of Overindulgence," which was co-written with Jean Illsley Clarke, PhD and Connie Dawson, PhD, Dr. Bredehoft and his co-authors identify three types of overindulgence: giving kids too much (toys, activities, etc.); over nurturing (doing something for your child that she should be doing for herself); and soft structure (not having rules, not enforcing rules, or not requiring kids to do chores). Overindulgence can take the form of one or a combination of these types.

Some other interesting facts about overindulgence, according to the authors of How Much Is Too Much:

  • It's more common today than ever.
  • It comes from a good heart--a parent wanting to do the best for his or her child.
  • It can harm kids by setting them up to fail and can cause pain.
  • It's not just about too many toys or too many privileges--it can also be too much attention and too few boundaries.
  • It can happen at any income level--it isn't just something wealthy families do.
  • It can be identified and changed, and even adults who were overindulged can recover.

Important Questions to Ask Yourself

Dr. Bredehoft and his colleagues developed a tool, called the Test of Four, to help parents figure out whether or not they are being overindulgent with their child. These are the four questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does it get in the way of a child's developmental task? "For example, if a parent carries his 4-year-old child into preschool, that child will likely need more attention than her peers in her class," says Dr. Bredehoft.
  2. Does it use a disproportionate amount of family resources? When you give your child things, whether it's time, money, energy, or something else, are you giving your child significantly more than you have or can afford and doing so while saving less for other family needs?
  3. Whose needs are you meeting? Are you doing what you are doing for yourself or for your child?
  4. Does it deplete or harm others in some way?

How Overindulgence Can Harm Kids

Parents who can see their parenting behaviors identified in any of the above may want to take a hard look at what they can do to turn things around. Aside from the fact that living with an overindulged child can often be unpleasant, to say the least, the risks of overindulgence include kids having trouble with the following: learning to wait to get something they want (delayed gratification), not being the constant center of attention, taking care of themselves, taking responsibility, and knowing what is enough.

Overindulgence can also make kids ungrateful. If a child breaks or loses a toy or a belonging and the parents replace the items right away, that child misses out on the opportunity to work hard to replace it and to feel good about themselves for having achieved a goal, says Dr. Bredehoft.

Overindulged kids are less able to delay gratification, and that leads to materialism and ungratefulness.

In Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character by Jeffrey J. Froh and Giacomo Bono, researchers studied over 1,000 public high-school students between the ages of 14 and 19 and found that materialistic teens considered material possessions to be central to their happiness, had lower grades, were more envious of others, and were less satisfied with their lives. Teens who focused on gratitude and not on material things, on the other hand, had higher grades, were less envious of others, were more motivated to help others, and were happier.

Overindulgence can even influence kids' goals in life. According to Dr. Bredhehoft, his research has shown that overindulged children aspired most to achieve life goals like money, fame, and image—affluenza run amok.

The goals they aspired to the least included things like having a meaningful relationship with someone, experiencing personal growth, and contributing to their community or society.

How to Guard Against (or Stop) Overindulgence

So what can parents do to either guard against overindulgence or stop doing too much for their child? Here are some suggestions from Dr. Bredehoft:

In How Much Is Too Much?, the authors present an extremely helpful visual depiction of parenting styles that they call the "Nurture Highway." The "highway" structures ways of caring for a child into the following six categories: abusive care, conditional care, assertive care, supportive care, over-indulgence, and neglect. The two types of care that are the best are assertive and supportive, and both of these are depicted as being on the highway. The conditional and over-indulgence are depicted as being on the shoulder, and abusive care and neglect are in the ditches on either side of the highway. (Abusive care would be yelling at the child for asking for the game and neglect would be buying the game without being aware that the child is already spending too much time on video games.)

The authors present examples, such as a child asking for an expensive new video game, and show that different responses--saying a child can have the game if he stops begging (conditional) or buying an even more expensive game (overindulgence) need to be corrected to be back on the highway. In this example, the better options are going to the store and letting the child have it if it isn't violent and if the parent decides that the child doesn't have too many games already and they can afford it (assertive) or tell the child that if he gets this game, there will no games for his birthday or Christmas and loving but matter-of-factly asking the child to really be sure this is what he wants before buying it (supportive).

Some other strategies to try:

  • Give kids chores. Assigning kids everyday tasks, such as picking up their things or helping clear the dishes (things even younger children can do) gives kids many benefits, including building self-esteem and teaching them to think about others. And if allowances are tied to chores, it can help teach kids about the value of money and what it means to work for it.
  • Set expectations of gratitude. Get him into the habit of saying thank you when you make a meal for him, take him to an activity, or giving him clean laundry. Have him write thank you notes when he gets gifts or if someone does something nice for him. Once he gets into the practice of saying thank you for everyday routines, it will eventually be done automatically.
  • Teach her to take care of her things. If she loses or breaks something because she was careless with it, let her do extra chores around the house to replace it.
  • Get the whole family involved in charitable or service projects. Help make sandwiches at a church, help clean up a local park, or donate old and outgrown items to family shelters. There are many ideas for ways kids can volunteer and your child will learn about the needs of others (and be more grateful for what he has) as he grows into a charitable person.
  • Start small. Once you've identified the types of things you can do steer your child away from overindulgence, start by changing one area at a time. For example, if your child is overscheduled or is over-nurtured or doesn't have enough structure, slowly begin to make changes. For instance, if you've been lax about bedtime, set a non-negotiable time and only make allowances for occasional special events. If you've been buying your child extra toys to compensate for working late too many nights, come up with a different plan for spending time together and focusing less on material things.

Once you begin to make changes to help your child be more independent, responsible and focused on family and friends (rather than on material things), you will begin to see a child who is more confident, kind, good at making friends, not spoiled, proud of herself, and happy.

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.