Too Much of a Good Thing?

(When Helping  STOPS Being Helpful?)

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

This is the second 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!

Is it possible to have too much love? Too much care? The answer is probably "No." The idea that anyone could be over-loved may be hard to grasp, unless the expression of that love takes the form of an adult taking responsibility for what a child is developmentally able to be responsible for himself. For example, the adult:

Takes care of a small cut for a 16 year old

Cuts meat into small pieces for a 12 year old

Dresses a 9 year old for school

Are these actions always harmful? Does helping in this way give children a message that they are incompetent? Or do they really need the help? If the, 16, 12 and 9 year olds are unable because of injury or a disability to do these things for themselves, of course, they deserve the help they need. In such cases, parents or caregivers should allow the help to be asked for, or offered and agreed to by the child.

Nurturing, however, becomes overindulgence when it involves doing things for children they are able to do, and should be expected to do, for themselves. Then it becomes over-nurturing.

According to the studies on overindulgence, two of the statistically significant responses by college students (Study 2) and a mixed group of adults (Study 3) correlating with having been overindulged were:

Parents and other adults who care for babies take total responsibility for being attuned to and meeting babies' needs for nurture and protection. As the baby grows, however, he gradually learns to be attuned to himself, to learn what he needs and to acquire the skills to meet those needs. Will the child make "mistakes"? Of course. Each "mistake" is a learning opportunity. When the young child is safely able to act on his own behalf, the loving and mentoring adult allows him to do so, while standing by in case help is needed and by intruding whenever the child's safety is at stake.

For the usual child, beginning about eleven months of age, the adult’s job is to teach, step-by-step, the skills she needs in order to accept responsibility for herself. The child's increasing abilities, along with her desire to do things her own way, sometimes puts her in conflict with adults. This is as it should be. The young child must learn to deal with the frustration of not always having things go her way while retaining her self-confidence in the process. When her experiences with adult authority tell her that their control is in her best interest, even though she doesn't particularly agree, she learns to trust in their competence. Getting angry with the youngster who wants her own way isn't helpful. Neither is giving in.

 One Example of Over-Nurturing 
( Consider the story of Sam, who is four, and this recent interaction with his mother. )

Sam sat on the couch, carefully arranging his toy farm animals in their storage box. Mom told Sam she needed to run an errand and asked Sam to put on his shoes, shoes which were five feet away and in plain sight. His shoes had Velcro closures and putting them on was old hat for Sam.

Sam acted as if he hadn't heard Mom. She knew he had heard, however, and again asked him with a more forceful voice to put his shoes on. For his part, Sam drooped helplessly and looked as if he hadn't a bone in his body.  "What do I do now?"  Mom asked herself. First she tried encouragement.  "C'mon Sam.  You know how to do this."  Then cajoling.  "We won't be gone long.   P-l-e-a-s-e  put your shoes on.  C'mon, Sam."  She was conscious of a hint of whine in her voice.

Still nothing from Sam. Mom found herself getting mad, but, wishing to avoid an out and out confrontation with Sam, retrieved her son's shoes and plunked them down on the couch next to him.  "Please put your  shoes on,"  she said with a scowl and a little louder voice.

(No response.)

 "Just put your foot in a shoe,"  she said with separate emphasis on each and every word.

(Still no response.)

Worn out, Mom grabbed the shoes, jerked his feet into her lap, and put his shoes on him. Sammy wore an expression on his face which said,  "Ha! I won!   See.  I am the boss."  Mom's expression was one of exasperation and disappointment.

Disturbed by Sam's skill at wearing her down, Mom asked one of the parent educators at the local school for advice. The educator said:

"Don't do for him what he can do for himself. Your life with him will not be so great if he gets the message he can manipulate you to do what he knows very well how to do for himself. If you overwork on his behalf, he will 'under-work'. He may not learn how to be clear about communicating what he wants and needs and will expect others to read his mind and do things for him without having to ask. You're likely to see more and more helplessness to get you to do things for him.”

The ideas Mom chose to try were: The next day, Mom replayed the shoe incident by lovingly, matter-of-factly, and confidently announcing to Sam they'd be leaving for the store in a few minutes and telling him to put on his shoes. Then she promptly left the room. Sneaking a peek from around the corner, she saw Sam hop to the task. In quick time, he presented himself all ready to go -- with his shoes on.

Mom said, with a twinkle in her eye, "Good job, Sam! Let's get going!"

Of course the same method doesn't work with all children. Sam was accustomed to going on errands so Mom's directive came as no surprise. However, a child whose natural temperament was being slow to adapt might need more transition time.

Children must learn they are not the center of the universe. Mom gives Sam no choice about accompanying her because she chooses not to leave Sam home alone. Sam does not need to understand why he must go because it's Mom's job to do what keeps Sam safe. By her matter-of-fact demand that he come with her, she conveys her trustworthiness.

 Reasons Parents Over-function 
In Sam's case, Mom realized the pitfall of over-functioning to "win" desirable behavior from a child. There are many reasons we over-function. Some of them are:

Whatever our reason for tending to over-nurture, we can learn how to love and help children without taking away their opportunity to develop self-confidence.

 Learning What to Support and What to Discourage 
Another aspect of over-nurturing can be seen in a variety of situations and environments where adults, not wanting to frustrate their child’s offensive behavior, end up accepting any and all behaviors of their children. Adults make these noninstructive choices out of:

By being fearful, by not stopping the child's offensive behavior, the adult fails to teach the child which behaviors are unwelcome, unattractive or ineffective. A child who learns which behaviors help him connect with others and which behaviors push others away is a very lucky child indeed.

 When is Help Helpful to the Child? 

Adults intending to make a secure bond with their children learn to tell the difference between helping that fails to provide what is necessary and helping that affirms the child's competence and provides necessary help. That does not mean that the child always has a smile on his face. We're going for the long-term gain, not the short-term fix.

Another of the three types of overindulgence identified by several recent studies by Bredehoft, Clarke and Dawson was having been given too many things or having too much of something. This way of overindulging was the subject of the previous article entitled "What's in the Closet?"

Coming next

The topic of the next article in this series will be the third way of overindulging children, having soft structures (lax rules and lax consequences), and not expecting children to contribute to the overall functioning of the family.

Series Introduction
Topic =
Too Many Things
Topic =
Topic =
Soft Structure
Topic =
Adult Pain
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