When Receiving H U R T S Instead of Helps
by Dr. Jean Illsley Clarke
Wanting the Best for Our Children
I want my children to have the best I can give. I want my children to have advantages I didn't have.
What parent hasn't had these thoughts or voiced similar desires? Probably we all have. Isn't it because we care? Yes, we give because we care, but sometimes we give too much. I want her to have what the other kids have. I want to boost his self-esteem.
Sometimes the children wheedle, cajole, nag, or manipulate us into giving more than they need. She wanted it so much I couldn't deny her. He is so persistent I finally yield. I can't stand whining so I give in just to keep the peace. I'm gone so much I feel guilty if I'm empty handed when they say, "What did you bring me?"
Giving Too Much
Who among us does not wish to give our children all that will be helpful to them? And who among us does not consider from time to time that we may have given too much? At times, giving too much doesn't hurt, but sometimes it becomes overindulgence.
This article answers these questions. Future articles will address what effects the overindulgence had and what to do instead. The answers are drawn from interviews with adults who were overindulged as children. All research, I believe, is influenced by the researcher, so my colleague, Dr. David Bredehoft,1 and I have made every attempt to report what people told us accurately and then to make clear which thoughts are our own. The whole project was a tremendous learning experience for both of us.
Since I was not overindulged as a child, I thought I was neutral about the subject because I had no firsthand experience to judge by. What I discovered, as I conducted the in-depth interviews, was that I had made many assumptions about what overindulgence is, who does it, and why they do it, and what the impact of it is. Almost all of my assumptions were wrong. Usually, interviews are guided by an interviewer who asks questions. I asked very few. Interviewees told me that they never talked about their overindulgence because people ridiculed them. Once they found that I was willing to really listen, they talked and talked and I listened. I was surprised and shocked, but I listened. I have included, as author comments, some of my own thoughts and surprises in hopes that they will stimulate you to think about your own assumptions. Many of my assumptions seem to be reflections of the current cultural myths about overindulgence.
The Cultural Myths
William, the father of three, recently said, I don't need to hear about overindulgence. I know about it. It's the clothes and toys and expensive trips and camps that rich people give their kids. Some grandparents do it too. They shower grandchildren with stuff that is too old for the kids and that the kids don't need or even want. Don't talk to me about overindulgence. I buy a few toys now and then, but my kids aren't spoiled.
Overindulgence is not quite the same as spoiling. When we refer to a child as spoiled, we usually describe behaviors that annoy the adults. While an overindulged child may act spoiled, the results of overindulgence are more far reaching than that.
William's response to overindulgence indicated that he was comfortable accepting the cultural myth about overindulgence, that only other people are overindulging by spending money on children. But some parents are beginning to question if they might be giving too much. They say:
Tell us more about overindulgence.
How do we know if we are doing it?
Does it really harm children?
If we have been overindulging, what can we do about it?
What is Overindulgence?
Probably every adult has a definition of overindulgence based on personal observation or experience. But what one parent thinks is overindulgence another thinks is just fine. Before we look at a formal definition, write your own description for each of the following:
When parents give too much, they are overindulging. That is the focus of this article so pay special attention to what too much means to you as you interpret the information presented. That can help you assess the parenting you are doing and think about the parenting you received.
Definitions of Overindulgence
Dictionary definitions of indulgence range from tolerance to dissipation. Overindulgence is defined as to indulge to excess. Not much help there, so David Bredehoft and I determined to identify a definition of overindulgent parenting by finding out what it means to adults who were overindulged as children.
Through my newsletter2 and at workshops that I led (on any topic) I invited any adults who had been overindulged as children to volunteer for in-depth interviews about their experiences.3 The composite definition of overindulgence that follows and the research survey questions4 were built directly from the information given by those adults.
|Overindulgence is a form of child neglect|
Overindulgence is giving a disproportionate amount of family resources to one or more children in a way that appears to be meeting the children's needs but does not, so children experience scarcity in the midst of plenty. Overindulgence is doing or having so much of something that it does active harm or at least stagnates a person and deprives that person of achieving his or her full potential.
Overindulgence is a form of child neglect. It hinders children from doing their developmental tasks, and from learning necessary life lessons.
Questions and Answers
Here are some of the myths the survey challenged with percentage responses and typical answers from those who were overindulged and also with a few author comments.
|Myth:||The typical overindulged child is an only child.|
|Reality:||No, most of our respondents had two or more siblings.|
|Myth:||Parents who overindulge are well-off economically.|
|Reality:||Not necessarily! Most, 64%, reported growing up in families with the same amount of money or less than others in the neighborhood.|
|Myth:||Grandparents are the most notorious overindulgers.|
Another surprise! Grandma got off with a 4% response and Grandpa didn't even make the list. The report was:
Both parents = 43%; Mom, 42%; and Dad, 11%.
Parents were the indulgers in 96% of the homes.
|Parents were the indulgers in 96% of the homes|
|Myth:||Overindulgence occurs mainly with young children.|
|Reality:||No. 21% reported being overindulged during childhood, 38% as adolescents, and 22% indicated they have been overindulged their entire life span.|
|Myth:||Parents who overindulge just want their children to be happy and go to extremes to avoid physical abuse.|
|Reality:||19% said they had been physically abused. Half of those reported being hit with a belt or other objects.|
Author's comment: Overindulged children can become very demanding and maybe, after a time, if parents don't set proper limits, they yield to the urge to hit.
|Myth:||If people overindulge, coddle and give in to children, they would not engage in psychological abuse.|
Wrong again! 70% reported they had been ridiculed, shamed, discounted, and experienced the withholding of love. Examples:
|Myth:||Parents who overindulge would not invade a child's sexual boundaries.|
|Reality:||14% said there was sexual abuse in the family.|
|Myth:||Since families with addictions often expect so much of their children, they probably wouldn't overindulge.|
|Reality:||Almost half of the people responding, 49%, reported addictions including alcoholism (66%), other drugs, and workaholism next.|
|Myth:||Overindulgence means that children have too many toys.|
|Reality:||Wrong! Over half of those surveyed reported that having things done for them with no consistent chores expected was how they were overindulged. Among the things they reported and regretted not learning are: how to clean, how to organize personal space, how to budget, how to be financially adept, how to complete things, social skills.|
|Areas of not having to be a contributing family member||Areas that usually cost money|
|Having things done for you||54%||Clothes||41%|
|Not having to learn skills||32%||Entertainment||18%|
|Love/Not having to follow rules||23%||Holidays||17%|
Do Parents Who Were Overindulged Overindulge?
|Myth:||Parents who were overindulged will overindulge their children.|
Not necessarily. In answer to the question:
Do you overindulge your children? 7% reported never, 32% said seldom, 53% responded sometimes, and 8% said often.
|Too many toys was not nearly as often a problem as not having to do chores|
Why Parents Overindulge
Since overindulgence is a form of neglect and causes such pain, inconvenience, and distress later in life, why would parents do that? Here again we run into myths. It is very common to hear that parents overindulge by giving children toys because the parents feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children. Or that parents overindulge their children because they, the parents, didn't have enough when they were little. Answer the question, why do parents indulge? for yourself and then take the following true-false quiz and guess which reasons were reported in our research.
|T||F||Guilt - a little guilt / a little gift|
|T||F||Parents were overindulged|
|T||F||Came from scarcity|
|T||F||To mask favoritism|
|T||F||To compete with other adults|
|T||F||To control kids|
|T||F||To "make smooths" - fear confrontation or rejection|
|T||F||To project the parent's vision of the child|
|T||F||To feel like I am a good parent|
|T||F||No skill at setting limits|
|T||F||Competition with spouse over control of child|
|T||F||Path of least resistance|
|T||F||Quick fix for whining|
|T||F||To cover conflicting goals|
|T||F||Seduction - to be popular with the child - for needs of seducer|
|T||F||Compensating for abusive parent|
|T||F||Compensating for absent parent|
|T||F||Buying love by absent parent|
|T||F||Build parents' own self-esteem - "What a good parent I am"|
|T||F||To make child happy|
|T||F||To set up peer group competition among children|
|T||F||To compete with parent peer group|
|T||F||Afraid of child's anger|
|T||F||For a child who is "less than"|
|T||F||Gives love without balancing it with rules|
|T||F||Project parents' needs onto children - hockey camp, to be captain because Dad was or wasn't|
|T||F||Contrary parenting - to oppose spouse or grandparents|
|T||F||Want child to have what they didn't have|
|T||F||Don't know child development|
|T||F||Yield to pressure of media or children|
|T||F||Habitually codependent with everyone|
|T||F||To please the grandparents or other adults|
|T||F||Illness of anyone in the family|
|T||F||Lack of time and energy - fatigue|
The Research Tells Why
|Myth:||Why did parents overindulge? Was it for the welfare of the children?|
No. 67% of those who were overindulged reported that the overindulgence related to problems the parents had, not to the children's welfare. Examples:
BOOK NOTE: Jean Illsley Clarke's book, Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children has an entire section (Misguided Nurture, Inadequate Structure) devoted to this topic of Overindulgence. This book's title (above) is a direct link to our review of this book from which it can be ordered directly from Amazon.com. Please visit this website in the future for Jean's additional material on this topic.
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