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(Counting May Not Help)

by  Dr. David Bredehoft
Dr. Jean Illsley Clarke  and  Dr. Connie Dawson

This is the first in a series of articles based on three research studies on overindulgence conducted by Drs. David Bredehoft, Jean Illsley Clarke and Connie Dawson in 1998, 2000, and 2001.
  Also see the researchers' Overindulgence.Info website!
Not having enough clothing can cause problems. Having too many clothes can cause other kinds of problems. Overindulgence in any area means that a child has so much of something that she doesn't have to learn what children her age should be learning. As parents, we want the best for our children, so we provide in the best ways that we can. But, we can't always be sure if we are providing the right amount, or if we have misjudged what is enough. When we offer too much of a good thing, or when we spend a disproportionate amount of family resources on one child, we overindulge.

The new research studies indicate that overindulgence generally falls into three categories; too many things, too much love or smothering, or too much flexibility in rules, roles and boundaries. One of the "things" categories that showed a high level of correlation with overindulgence was clothing.  When I was growing up, I was allowed to have any clothes I wanted. 

Well-dressed little girl

That statement raises a lot of questions. Any clothes I wanted? What if the child wanted only a few clothes, etc., etc. etc. You can think of more questions, but the important one here is not how many clothes are too many, but when and how does having too many clothes interfere with a child's development? Like most questions about parenting, the answer is: That depends. It would be so easy if we could say, Seven is the right number of outfits. But, we can't say that.

Aunt Elizabeth learned that lesson years ago when she visited her 20 month old niece in a distant state. Liz wanted to take little Kelly a very special dress. Probably blue with smocking and tiny pink flowers. At the children's shop, realizing she didn't know how big Kelly was, Liz decided to send the dress after she returned home.

Kelly's closet was a shocker. There, on little hangers, were thirty-two, count them again, thirty-two darling little dresses! Clearly a case of overindulgence Elizabeth told herself. How could this young couple afford all those expensive dresses? However, during the three days Liz visited, the little toddler, so active and filled with curiosity, was always dressed in comfortable play clothes. Finally Liz asked Kelly's mom, What about all those little dresses? Mom laughed and replied, Aren't they darling? It seems to me that everybody brings her dresses. I've never bought one. I think they are sweet. When we visit someone who gave her a dress, I tell her the dress was a special gift because that person loves her and she wears the dress. Then, ruefully, I hope I never get the dresses mixed up.

So, was this overindulgence? It was not taking a disproportionate amount of the family resources. It was not interfering with Kelly's development. In fact, her mom had turned it into a positive lesson: You are loved and we will honor the people who gifted you by having you wear the dress they gave you. Would this lesson in appreciation be lost on a 20 month old? Probably. And yet, here is a mom who is starting early to teach appreciation, a lesson learned only through years of small lessons. And remember, the dresses were not on the floor or stuffed in the toy box. They were hung neatly in the closet - an early lesson for Kelly on appropriate care of clothing. When Aunt Elizabeth returned home she sent a book.

Let's look at some older children. Andrew, four, is a barefoot kid. He seldom wears shoes longer than twenty minutes. But, he "needs" cowboy boots and he insists that he "needs them now!" His parents are wondering if they will be able to afford a summer vacation, but they buy the boots to stop his whining. Overindulgence? Most probably. Disproportionate amount of family resources spent teaching a four year old that he gets what he wants by whining and demanding.

Six year old Anna has lots of clothes, changes them often, and throws them on the floor or down the clothes chute after one try-on. She won't wear any garment with a missing button or a little tear because it is "wrecked." At all times her parents let her choose her clothing at the store and wear whatever she wants because they don't want to inhibit her. Overindulgence? Sounds like it. Anna is missing age-appropriate lessons about caring for her clothes and learning that certain clothes are suitable for certain occasions. She is also missing the important lesson that adults, not children, run the family and that she can feel secure in that knowledge.

Todd, nine, could care less about clothes. He wears whatever he grabs first and is off to more important matters. His parents put one outfit in a garment bag in the back of his closet and he is required to wear those dress clothes whenever the family attends a special dressed-up event. Overindulgence? Probably not. His parents are teaching appropriate dress lessons with a minimum of hassle.

When Todd is fifteen, he still doesn't care about clothes. His parents inform him that he is to have a clothing allowance and choose some of his own clothes. He objects and says that it is much easier if they just buy what he needs as he needs it. Mom lets him have his way and continues to buy his clothes. Overindulgence? Probably. (Mom violated a rule.) Todd is missing valuable lessons in wardrobe planning and in money management. Will there be a hassle if his parents insist that Todd start managing part of his clothes money? Probably. But, the hassle will likely be greater if they wait until he is 18 (or 35 and still living off them).

Tiffany, twenty-two, after traveling abroad during spring break of her senior year, just graduated from college with a student loan debt which she describes as horrific. To be ready for a job she hopes to get, she buys herself three expensive outfits. Overindulgence? It certainly looks like inappropriate allocation of resources and as if there are some much-needed lessons in differentiating wants and needs.

Remember, any time we notice there is so much of something that it puts our use of resources out of balance or keeps us from learning age-appropriate lessons, we are overindulging and we need to redirect our good intentions toward achieving balance.

Further research nuggets for you to think about

The following items were statistically significant:
 When I was growing up, I was allowed to have any clothes I wanted , from Perceptions Attributed by Adults to Parental Overindulgence During Childhood (Study 1), was correlated with:
Series Introduction
Topic =
Too Many Things
Topic =
Topic =
Soft Structure
Topic =
Adult Pain
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