What is Overindulgence Anyway? By David J. Bredehoft

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Parents often ask me if they are overindulging their children. They want to know what overindulgence is. They are curious, but aren’t quite sure. For example:

Did I overindulge my son? 

I recently bought my son a new pair of skis. The first time he used them he broke one in half jumping moguls. I quickly ran out and bought him a replacement pair because we were flying to Colorado on a ski trip the very next day.

My ninth-grade daughter never remembers to bring home the assignment folder which lists each week’s assignments. So, I email her teacher two or three times a week just to find out what her assignments are, and if she is turning them in on time. I really want my child to succeed! I don’t think I am overindulging her when I do this, am I?

I rarely ask my children to do chores around the house. I believe you only get to be a kid once in your life! After all, it is easier for me to do them, and I do them much faster.  Furthermore, I don’t have to listen to all of their fussing! Am I overindulging my children? So what is overindulgence, anyway? And why should you as a parent be concerned?

First of all, remember this: overindulgence comes from a good heart. You can see that down deep, each of these parents want the best for their children. They want them to grow up to be happy, healthy, competent adults. A parent doesn’t wake up one morning and say; Honey, let’s start overindulging our children! After all, we want them to be miserable when they grow up! No. Good-hearted parents are pointed in the right general direction, they just need to make a few small course corrections.

Defining overindulgence. 

How Much is Too Much? a book based on ten research studies with 3,531 adults describes overindulgence this way: “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.”

Did these parents overindulge? 

Yes. Even though their intentions were good, they gave too much, were over-nurturing, or did not provide the necessary structure for their children. And, more often than not, it is more about what parents need to do for their children rather than what their children need from them. Dad wants to enjoy his ski trip to Colorado, not put up with a pouting son who has to ski on his old skis. Mom wants her children to have a childhood because she felt she was robbed of hers.

Three ways of overindulging

The first conclusion of most parents is that overindulgence is about too many toys, too many clothes, or too many activities. Our research found that overindulgence is a more complex than simply Too Much. We found three types of overindulgence. Overindulgence can occur in one, two or all three of these ways simultaneously.

  • Too much (toys, clothes, privileges, entertainment, sports, camps, etc.)
  • Over-nurture (over-loving, giving too much attention, doing things for children that they should be doing for themselves, etc.), and
  • Soft Structure (not requiring chores, not having rules, not enforcing rules you do have, or not expecting children to learn skills, etc.).

As you can see, the father who bought the pair of skis to replace the new broken pair, overindulged by giving too much, whereas the mother who emailed her child’s teacher was over-nurturing, and the mother who didn’t ask her children to do chores was soft on structure and over-nurturing.

Why should parents care if they overindulge or not?

Overindulging children can cause them pain in their adult lives. Our research found that those who were overindulged are at risk for having the following difficulties. They:

·      need immediate gratification and have poor self control,

·      have an overblown sense of entitlement,

·      are ungrateful,

·      have poor boundaries,

·      are materialistic,

·      have overspending and overeating problems,

·      have goals of wealth, fame and image, and do not want meaningful relationships,

       personal growth or making the community better,

·      have not learned valuable adult life skills,

·      are irresponsible,

·      don’t know what is enough, and

·      have difficulty giving up being the center of attention.

Tips for avoiding overindulgence

  • Change only one thing at a time. Identify which of the three types of overindulgence you do most often and start to change that. After a time, address each of the other two types.
  • Insist that your child figures out how he will replace a belonging that was carelessly damaged or ruined.
  • Teach respect for people and things.
  • Decide which rules are negotiable and which rules are nonnegotiable.
  • Be sure to enforce rules using reasonable consequences.
  • Teach children that every member of the family benefits by doing household chores.

There is more help about avoiding overindulgence in How Much is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children – From Toddlers To Teens – In An Age of Overindulgence (2014, DaCapo Press Lifelong Books).

 All photos from Flickr.

© David J. Bredehoft, Jean Illsley Clarke & Connie Dawson 2004-2022;  bredehoft@csp.edu