Helping parents define boundaries and be OK with saying
By Angela Kennedy
As the holiday gift-giving season approaches, some parents find
it hard to resist getting everything on their child's wish list.
Armed with a double latte in one hand and a newly paid off charge
card in the other, they will forge through numerous malls and toy
stores marking off video games, dolls and action figures, one by
one. But one counselor teaches that, despite the best of intentions,
many parents are actually overindulging their children while
ignoring their real needs.
Connie Dawson, co-author of How Much Is Enough? Everything You
Need to Know to Steer Clear of Overindulgence and Raise Likeable,
Responsible and Respectful Children From Toddlers to Teens, is an
American Counseling Association member on a mission. Her goal: To
help families know when to say when. She is passionate about
spreading the message that overindulgence isn't just about
"spoiling" kids but a serious form of neglect in which parents
shield their children from taking part in developmental tasks and
learning necessary life lessons.
Dawson and her co-authors, Jean Illsley Clarke and David J.
Bredehoft, define overindulgence as:
- Giving children too much of what looks good, too soon and too
- Giving them things or experiences that are not appropriate for
their age, interests or talents
- Giving things to children that meet the adult's need, not the
- 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. The result is that children experience
scarcity in the midst of plenty
- Doing or having so much of something that it does active harm
to or at least stagnates a person and deprives that person of
achieving his or her full potential
Overindulging's harmful and long-term effects
There are three ways in which parents can overindulge their
1. Material/Too much Simply giving them too much and not
teaching them the meaning of having enough. Example: material items,
activities, clothes or distractions.
2. Relational/Overnurture Not expecting them to take
responsibility for themselves or their environment. Having the
parent (or others) do things for the child that the child is
developmentally able to do for himself or herself. Example: carrying
a child into preschool, not assigning household chores.
3. Soft structure Not enforcing rules and boundaries. Giving
children too much freedom or allowing them to dominate the family.
Not expecting children to learn life and responsibility skills.
Example: not enforcing curfews, not adhering to set punishments.
"The implicit message that the child gets is that they can't do
this or they have to have other people to do things for them,"
Dawson said. "And they grow up and develop skills to manipulate
others to do things for them." If children don't learn the
difference between not enough/scarcity and enough/abundance, she
said, they may continue to acquire things in a desperate attempt to
satisfy themselves as adults. "Parents do this with the best
intent," Dawson said. "They want their child to be happy, to be
successful and to be competent, but they don't realize that they are
actually hindering the child's development."
According to Dawson, overindulging children has several harmful
and potentially long-term effects. Children may face problems
- Learning how to delay gratification
- Giving up being the constant center of attention
- Becoming competent in everyday skills, self-care skills and
- Developing a sense of personal identity
- Knowing what is enough
"Overindulged children grow up missing skills," Dawson said.
"They don't know how to do things because they were never expected
to do them. They learn a certain kind of helplessness and they don't
feel confident. They may act like they are confident, but they don't
really feel that way inside about their own competence." When these
children grow up and become parents, she said, they don't feel as if
they are entitled to know what is best for their own child. They
feel that the child controls their life and are afraid to go against
the child's wishes.
Test of four
The authors of How Much Is Enough? developed a simple test to
help parents determine if an action is overindulgent. "We wanted to
give people a tool to help them decide if something they were going
to do for a child was overindulgent or not," Dawson said. Parents
should ask themselves four questions, she said, and if the answer is
"yes" to any of them, then the action is likely a form of
1. Does the situation hinder the child from learning the tasks
that support his/her development and learning at this age?
2. Does the situation require a disproportionate amount of family
resources (financial, emotional, space, time, energy,
3. Does this situation exist to benefit the adult more than the
4. Is the situation potentially harmful to others, society or the
planet in some way?
"No. 3 is the most telling one, because most of us as parents
want to give our children everything. It makes us feel better," she
said. "It can be for any number of reasons maybe we didn't get so
much when we were kids, so we want our kids to have more than we
had." Other illustrations are the soccer mom stereotype or martyr
syndrome, she said, where the parents' lives revolve around giving
and doing for the children in an effort to make themselves look
better or like more devoted parents. Dawson used the example of a
child forgetting his lunch at home and the mother rushing to school
with it and seeing the smile on his face. On the surface she looks
like a loving mother, but the child is likely to forget his lunch
again because he never learns that his actions have consequences.
"It's very hard for someone who perceives herself to be a good mom'
to look at that lunch sack on the counter all day," Dawson said.
"But it's those kinds of life lessons they need to learn on their
own. Overindulgence is when the mom or dad relieves the child of
struggles. Whether we like it or not, our life lessons are learned
Unspoiling and deprogramming
For parents who have overindulged their children but want to
change their family's habits, Dawson suggested first sitting down
with all the children and apologizing. "Say to them that you, as
parents, didn't understand how this was negatively affecting them
and may make them feel less strong or less confident in the long
run," she said. Parents should also collaborate and decide what they
are going to do instead, Dawson said, defining what is enough for
their family and then talking to the children about these new
"traditions" or "values." She strongly recommended that parents
don't overcompensate and try to "go cold turkey" by insisting that
children get only one holiday gift this year. "You can take small
steps and begin the transition away from chronically overindulging,
overfunctioning or overbuying," she said.
Instead of overindulging, the authors encourage parents:
- To teach their children self-care skills
- To assign household chores
- To take charge of the rules don't let the child run the
- To give children only enough to enhance them
- Not to overfunction by doing things for the children that the
children are developmentally able to do for themselves
"We are encouraged to spend, spend and spend," Dawson said.
"We've got to have the latest thing. The advertisers create needs.
Many of us have lost the ability to distinguish between a want and a
need. To parent in this way, as in to do what's appropriate for
their child's development, is counterculture parenting. There isn't
a parent on the planet that doesn't hear this and say that they
don't mean to be hurting their child or contributing to him not
growing up strong, but it's the difference between intent and
impact. In our materialistic, consumerism-driven society, adults can
become very confused. At the bottom of all of this is that adults
need to decide where it is they stand and clearly define their own
Dawson said counselors can play an important role by helping
parents define what is enough for their families and by showing them
how to replace misguided nurturing with assertive and supportive
Curbing overindulgence during the holidays
Here are some suggestions for helping families to avoid
overindulging during the holiday season. These tips were submitted
by readers to Jean Illsley Clarke, Connie Dawson and David J.
Bredehoft, the authors How Much Is Enough? Everything You Need to
Know to Steer Clear of Overindulgence and Raise Likeable,
Responsible and Respectful Children. The complete list can be found
- Talk about "enough" and take opportunities to point out to the
children when you have had "enough." For instance, "This food is
so delicious and I've had enough. I'm glad there'll be leftovers
for later" or "I might want everything in my collection, but right
now, it's enough to enjoy this one new addition." Let "Is that
enough?" be a common question in the household.
- Have your children make gifts for each other.
- Gift wrap your children's favorite books (ones that you
already own) and open one each day as a family. It's a great way
to make sure the whole family is spending time together during the
craziness of the holidays, and kids see that a gift does not have
to be something just purchased but also can be the treasures
within the house.
- Instead of making lists of things each family member wants,
make lists of things you want to do together as a family during
the holiday season. Each person "gets" at least three or four
things on his/her list; e.g., old movie night, a Monopoly marathon
or skiing. This helps instill family traditions and emphasizes
that what is of most value is time spent together.
- Have the family bake cookies and bring them to a local
- Parents should lead by example. Make a special effort to model
acts of kindness shoveling a neighbor's walk, inviting a single
person to a holiday dinner or offering the mail carrier a cup of
- As a family, clean out the closets and donate toys, clothing,
etc., to charity. For extended family members, instead of drawing
names and giving a gift, donate to a charity in the name of a
- Give each child a budget to follow for the gifts he or she
will purchase for others.
- Request that grandparents and others put money into an
education fund instead of buying toys. Ideally, education funds
can be used to cover sports, music, theatre, other lessons and
summer camps that can broaden the horizons of children but often
drain family budgets.
- The best way of avoiding the holiday "gimmees" is to help the
child become a giver, not just a taker. Recognize that some small
indulgences cannot be avoided and it is OK for children to have
fun with the special moments.