Overindulgence: the new normal

As my parents love to remind me, one of my favorite early phrases was “Me do it me-self.” They encouraged my self-sufficiency skills as I grew by giving me chores like feeding the dog, dusting the piano, and making the dinner salads.

They also set limits/ I had a bedtime, and I wasn’t allowed to see PG movies until what seemed like forever. If I broke a rule, I paid a consequence. 

My dad, who taught high school economics, made sure my brother and I understood the concept of wants versus needs. I did not get everything I wanted (like the snazzy plastic hotel featured in the Sears toy catalog), but I got everything I needed (including the cardboard boxes, paint and wallpaper samples to make my own). 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my parents were preparing me for life as a responsible adult. 

I know this wasn’t unusual for people of my generation. But I’m not sure my children will be able to say the same. The societal pressures on today’s parents to provide and do for their children are so pervasive that it can be difficult to step back, take a breath and consider/ Do my kids participate in too many activities? Am I doing too much for them? Do they have enough chores?

I’m afraid that the answers to those questions in my case too often are yes, yes, and no, respectively. But I am motivated to reassess our family patterns after talking to Jean Illsley Clarke, an internationally recognized parent educator based in Minneapolis.

Clarke has spent more than a decade studying adults who were overindulged as children. She and two colleagues, Connie Dawson and David Bredehoft, wrote a book called How Much is Enough? Everything You Need to Know to Steer Clear of Overindulgence and Raise Likeable, Responsible and Respectful Children. They’re now planning a revision to incorporate information they’ve gathered since the book was published in 2003.

Clarke says overindulgence has increased so much that it’s become the new normal, and it’s creating serious problems as overindulged children graduate from school and enter the workplace.

What is enough?

“The people we survey overwhelmingly resent having been overindulged because it is related to so many problems, such as not knowing what is enough, not having the skills that other people have, always having to be the center of the universe, being helpless, being irresponsible, and having an overblown sense of entitlement. These things don’t work well in adult life,” she says.

The three types of overindulgence are too much (toys, clothes, entertainment); over-nurture (hovering, doing things for children that they should do themselves); and soft structure (no chores, too much freedom, rules nonexistent or not enforced). It can happen at any income level, and although it stems from good intentions, it hinders children from achieving their full potential, which not only affects them but also affects society.

For example, Clarke says, one of their studies found that the main life goals for adults who were highly overindulged as children were to be wealthy, famous, and have a good image; and although these aren’t necessarily negative goals, these adults also were much less interested in improving the world around them, and in assisting other people in need (unless they got something in return). In contrast, adults who were not overindulged or who were less overindulged as children said their main goals were to develop close relationships, lead meaningful lives, and contribute to their communities.

“This drives me nuts because these two are so vastly different for the welfare of our culture,” Clarke says.

To test whether a child is being overindulged, parents can ask these four questions (a clear yes to any one of the four indicates a problem that parents should address):

  • Will this situation hinder the child’s development?
  • Will this give a disproportionate amount of family resources (money, time, attention) to one or more of the children?
  • Does this situation exist to benefit the adult more than the child?
  • Does the child’s behavior potentially harm others, society, or the planet in some way?

It’s not easy to swim against the cultural tide of overindulgence, but I know it’s worth the effort when I consider what’s at stake/ the raising of kind, capable, “do it me-self” children who will find fulfillment and make the world a better place.

What is overindulgence?

  • Overindulging children is giving them too much of what looks good, too soon, and for too long. It is giving them things or experiences that are not appropriate for their age or their interests and talents. It is the process of giving things to children to meet the adult’s needs, not the child’s.
  • Overindulgence is giving a disproportionate amount of family resources to one or more children in a way that appears to be meeting the children’s needs but does not, so children experience scarcity in the midst of plenty. 
  • A form of child neglect, overindulgence hinders children from performing their needed developmental tasks, and from learning necessary life lessons.

— From How Much is Enough?

Tips for avoiding overindulgence

  • Ask, “Am I doing this for my child, or for myself?”
  • Ask, “Am I doing something for my children that they are old enough to do for themselves?”
  • Let children make decisions that are appropriate for their age.
  • Hold children accountable for their behaviors.
  • Teach children to do chores and expect them to complete them.
  • Practice saying, “You have had enough for now.”
  • Emphasize and model the life goals of meaningful relationships, personal growth, and community contribution.
  • Teach how to save and share.
  • Insist that children figure out how they will replace a belonging that was carelessly damaged or ruined.