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The Uncomfortable Legacy

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

This is the fourth 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!

 What if I do overindulge a little? My child enjoys it, so what’s the harm? 

If you are overindulging your child and he or she is responsible, polite, appreciative and empathetic, you are lucky. But what about later on? Teenagers who have become accustomed to having things their way can be mighty hard to rein in.

 The Main Pain 

Many of the people who shared their experiences in the three studies of the overindulgence project reported that they had enjoyed being overindulged as children. Some even manipulated their parents to get even more. Some of them felt embarrassed because they were different from other children. But the picture of their adult lives was not so rosy. None of our adults who had been overindulged as children reported being glad about it as adults. None. Not one. No one blamed a parent as the “too much” had come from a good heart. But as they described the impact of the overindulgence on their attitudes and on their lack of skills, it became clear that the painful and confusing outcomes were not what parents with good hearts intended.

 What Is the Pain? 

Can the pain be described in one sentence? No. Is there a list or a profile of typical pains? No. The lacks created by overindulgence show up in each individual’s adult life depending on the type, length and severity of the overindulgence and of the decisions the child made about his or her life. Since overindulgence interferes with the learning of developmental tasks, whichever task or skill got shortchanged will show up as a deficit someplace in adult life.

Here are some paraphrases of some of the common complaints adults made.

 I don’t know what is enough.  Many people reported not knowing what is enough of one or more of the following: clothing, shopping, drinking, eating, love, sex, food, work, play, money, or stimulation.

 Delayed gratification 
 If I don’t get what I want when I want it, I think I am not a worthwhile person.  There were many expressions of low self-esteem, of self-worth as a reflection of the attitudes and actions of other people.

 Personal responsibility 
 If something goes wrong, it is someone else’s fault.  The process of learning to take personal responsibility for one’s life is a slow lesson learned over many years. This lack made holding a job difficult for many people.

 What is “normal” 
 My freedom, my demands upon and expectations of others, my being able to get by, my getting my way most of the time, all the things that may look great don’t feel that great all the time  Overindulged children and adults can wonder why they are treated differently from what is “normal.” They can wonder about what is real. They can wonder if they are real.

 Lack of skills 
 I’m embarrassed when I don’t know how to do things other people take for granted.  This list seemed endless. Some examples: care for my clothing, balance a check book, manage money, do laundry, plan an activity, show up on time.

 Parenting problems 
 I don’t know how to say no to my children so I don’t try.  Adults who did not experience firm structure as children don’t have “bone-knowledge” about how to handle their own children and may end up letting the children run the family. Overindulged adults become better parents by working hard at it: watching other parents, reading books, taking classes, getting counseling, deliberately building new habits instead of “doing what comes naturally.”

 Good Intentions 
Back to the original question: 
 What if I do overindulge a little? What’s the harm?  It may be hard to believe that something that looks so good can cause pain. And it’s hard to believe that what looks good on the outside doesn’t always feel good on the inside. But, it is imperative to remember that overindulgence comes from a good heart. The painful results are not what the parents intended. That very fact tells parents what to do instead.

Use the wellspring of energy from good intentions to set the limits that children need.

Use the love behind good intentions to learn to set limits, and to allow children to feel the discomfort that comes with learning to wait, letting others go first sometimes, and learning to balance their own needs and wants with the needs and wants of others. And always remember that an occasional extra that is the exception to the rule is not harmful. If the child is taught to be appreciative, infrequent extras of things, time, or attention provide a contrast to everyday life and a feeling of abundance.

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