Giving Too Much Makes Discipline More Difficult by Jean Illsley Clarke

Dorothy reported on a visit from an old friend.  I haven’t seen them for years.  And I was looking forward to their visit, but it was a disaster!  They had brought their four-year-old son because they couldn’t find a babysitter.  No surprise.  He didn’t put down his portable DVD player except to complain.  At a restaurant, after being told by both parents that he could not have a soda, he ordered Pepsi.


I’m sorry, we don’t have Pepsi.  The waitress listed the sodas available, but only Pepsi would do.  Soon Sonny Boy was under the table kicking the table legs and the people’s legs and screaming that he must have Pepsi.  The parents looked helplessly at their hostess and tried to act as if nothing was wrong.  But wrong it was.  Big time wrong!

Dorothy, startled, asked, Does this happen often? All the time, the stressed parents lamented, and we’re exhausted.  They went on to explain that they buy the boy every toy he asks for, but that it doesn’t seem to make any difference.

Parents with good hearts, both working to provide for their beloved child, ended up stressed by the child’s behavior.  Let’s check this incident for overindulgence.

The Test of Four says parents’ offerings may be overindulgent if the behavior:

1. Interferes with the child’s development.

(In this situation, Sonny Boy is not learning self-control or to be responsive to other people’s needs.)

2. Gives a disproportionate amount of family resources to one or more of the children.

(His behavior definitely takes too much of the parents’ energy.)

3. Exists to benefit the adult more than the child.

(Possibly the parents’ need to provide things have outweighed the child’s need for structure.)

4. Potentially harms others, society, or the planet in some way.

(Any harm done?  Dorothy has a black and blue bruise on her leg where a flailing foot got her.)


It looks like overindulgence on all four counts.

So, back to the good-hearted parents.  There are so many messages urging parents to buy, buy, buy, and still some cultural messages to let children do whatever they want.  The problem is that this buying and this over permissiveness doesn’t meet children’s needs, so they respond with disruptive behavior. 

One way to think about it is to consider the SRS triangle.

All children (and adults) need a balance of stimulation, recognition, and structure.  Children, when they don’t get enough of one, will raise their bids for the other two and Sonny Boy did that in a big way.  RecognitionStimulation?  Everyone in the restaurant was looking at him.  ?  Kicking and screaming are highly stimulating.  Structure?  Missing!  Neither parent carried the child outside and told him how he was expected to behave.

What can good-hearted parents do when a child gets out of control?  They can:

1. Start by telling the child,

“We have been making a mistake with you.  From now on, we will be in charge.”

2. Announce and post with pictures a few rules and enforce them kindly, but firmly.

3. Limit TV time to one hour a day.  Parents choose the program.

4. Catch the child doing something well

Respond to it with high energy. Good job! isn’t enough.  Describe the behavior and say how much it pleases you.  I see you picked the book up off the floor.  You are learning to take care of your things.  I really like that!

5. Get help if they need it.

Sometimes when our good hearts let a child get far out of control, we need the support of a coach or a class or a book or a counselor to help us get ourselves and our child back on track.

Is it worth the effort? 

Yes.  For the parents and for the community, and for the child now and for his adult life. 

In the Overindulgence Studies, adults who had been overindulged as children told us that not growing up with rules made their adult lives difficult.  One said, “I wonder if this is why I can’t keep a job?”

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 MorgueFile free photo.  Graphic by David J. Bredehoft.

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