Are we overindulging our children?

Can we hurt our children by giving them too much?

Overindulgence is defined as giving children too much of what appears to look “good,” to parents or children. It also occurs when children receive too many “things,” such as material items, time, experiences, or lack of responsibilities, which are inappropriate for children’s developmental stages, interests, or abilities. More importantly, this provision of “too much” is oftentimes to satisfy an adult’s desire, longing, or need…not the children’s needs. For instance, adults may feel guilty for working and being away from their children, so they buy them an abundance of material items to lessen their own feelings of guilt. Another example is when an adult may feel badly about a life transition, such as a move, a separation or a divorce; the adult tries to reduce these feelings by not asking children to perform chores that are age-appropriate and beneficial for children’s development.

Researchers have identified three types of overindulgence, which have been classified as giving (a) too many material items, privileges, or objects, (b) too much nurturing, or (c) too little structure.

Overnurturing is classified as giving too much attention to children, doing too much for them, and helping them too much. This type of overindulgence does not allow children to learn developmentally appropriate skills or responsibilities.

Not giving our children enough structure includes not enforcing rules, not giving them responsibilities, such as chores, or not providing age-appropriate rules or boundaries.

All of these types of overindulgence can have serious consequences for children. For instance, children who receive too many material items or privileges may grow up expecting that items be given to them, as opposed to earning the items or privileges. Children who are given too much attention may develop abnormal expectations for future relationships. Also, children who have too few rules, responsibilities, or boundaries may not learn to respect authority or rules.

Research shows that overindulgence thwarts children’s abilities to develop important life skills and lessons, such as how to resolve conflict, how to persevere, or how to deal with normal life experiences. Overindulged children may not learn how to understand the difference between needs and wants and may lack social skills. Clearly, these can have serious effects that last through adulthood.

There are ways to determine whether or not an adult’s behavior is classified as overindulgence. If an adult’s behavior is characterized by a “yes” answer to any of the following questions, the behavior may indeed be overindulgence:

1. Does it interfere with the child’s development?
2. Does it use too many resources to meet the WANTS (NOT THE NEEDS) of the child?
3. Does it benefit the child or someone else (parent)?
4. Does it harm someone or something?

Because overindulged children have a tendency to grow into adults who have low self-esteems, problems making decisions, and poor social skills, adults should identify their own behaviors to determine whether or not they are overindulging their children.

Donna Donald

Donna Donald is a Human Sciences specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach who has spent her career working with families across the lifespan. She believes families are defined by function as well as form. Donna entered parenthood as a stepmother to three daughters and loves being a grandmother of seven young adults.

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