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Parents who overindulge set kids up for resentment, difficulties later in life

Joey, Natalie, and their father, Rich McFarlane, gather around their Christmas tree to explain their family's technique for avoiding overindulgence during the holiday season on Wednesday, Dec 10, 2014, in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

Joey and Natalie McFarlane, 1 and 4 years old respectively, are the only grandchildren their grandparents have.

Each year on Natalie's birthday, Dec. 15, "we have her two grandmothers, three uncles and two aunts loading this child up with presents," said her father, Rich McFarlane of Grand Forks.

"Then my in-laws come to town for Christmas and load her up," he said. "Then we travel to see my parents and siblings in Florida and she gets loaded up there. Within 10 days, our daughter gets a small mountain of gifts.

"My wife has resorted to creating a spreadsheet to keep everyone's gift plans straight because people don't want to duplicate gifts."

It's not that the McFarlanes don't appreciate the generosity, it's just that they have a lot of relatives and that -- combined with Natalie's birthday being so close to Christmas -- creates the overload.

"We are just now realizing how far things have spiraled out of control," he said, adding that he'd like to limit each relative to one gift for the birthday and one for Christmas. "But try telling that to two headstrong grandmothers."

He has reason to be concerned.

While his story is about family buying too many special-occasion gifts for his daughter, habitual overindulgence by parents in the long term can have a detrimental effect on children, their expectations and how they relate to others, experts say.

Parents may think that they're treating their children well, but overindulgence is likely to cause resentment and difficulties later in life, said Dr. David Bredehoft, professor emeritus of psychology at Concordia University in St. Paul, who retired last year after 37 years in teaching and research.

'Good heart'

Parents' desire to give their children things and make their lives easier "down deep, comes from a good heart," Bredehoft said. "We all want the best for our children."

His research indicates that most often parents who overindulge do so because of some "issue or problem" they have, such as guilt or a lack in their own childhood.

"Maybe they grew up in poverty, experienced pain, and they don't want their kids to have to go through that," he said.

It could also stem from guilt because both parents have jobs and don't have time to spend with their kids, he said. "Or there's been a divorce, and now (the father) becomes the 'sugar daddy' on the weekends."

Parents may try to compensate by spending too much on material things or by having a lack of structure — no rules to follow, no chores to perform — in the home.

In the book "How Much Is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children — From Toddlers to Teens — in an Age of Overindulgence," Bredehoft and co-authors Dr. Jean Illsley Clarke, an expert in parenting education, and Connie Dawson, a therapist, describe what they've learned through their research studies.

Basically, there are three types of overindulgence, they concluded: "too much" (parents giving children too much stuff, toys, clothes, games, sports), "over-nurture" (you do things for your kids that they should be doing themselves) and "soft structure" (not having rules, not enforcing rules or not requiring kids to do chores).

Among people who participated in the studies, those who were over-nurtured as children said they felt good about it at the time, Bredehoft said, but later they realized they didn't know how to do basic things.

"And who are they mad at?" he said. "Their parents."

During his career, he conducted 10 studies on overindulgence, using surveys that measured the correlation between being overindulged as a child and adults' attitudes about things such as delayed gratification, entitlement and gratitude.

"It's pretty astounding how childhood overindulgence leads to lots of these problems," he said. "Does that mean it always will? No, but with more overindulgence, and over time, you're more likely to see problems."

Center of the universe

It's normal for very young children to see themselves as the center of the universe, Bredehoft said. "But when they're older, the normal thing is to abandon that position and begin to think about others and develop empathy."

One of primary truths he learned in doing research is that "there's an opportune time for us to learn to do what we need to do in life," he said.

"For example, age 2 is the opportune time to learn to talk and walk. If you don't learn then, can you learn later? Yes, but it's usually a lot more difficult. That doesn't mean you won't learn it."

Children who are overindulged "grow up to think, 'It's all about me,' " he said. They also exhibit a disrespectful attitude toward their own property and other people's property — and other people.

Because their parents always stepped in and carried out tasks for them, "they have a sense of helplessness."

This helplessness "seems to be the most painful" aspect of overindulgence, Clarke said. "If someone did everything for you, that's unfortunate."

Among other deficits, adults who were overindulged as children "do not feel competent as parents," she said. "They feel frustrated and say things like, 'there's nothing you can do.' "

If there's one message she wants most to convey to parents it's that "adults who were overindulged as children resent it," she said. "They don't say, 'I was lucky.' They say (about their parents), 'They gave me things and I wanted them.' "

Entitlement

Overindulgence produces "an overblown sense of entitlement," which is evident to those who interact with college graduates seeking jobs, Bredehoft said.

"A common thing I hear — especially from people who do hiring for companies — is that kids want, in their first job, to make as much as their parents did, even though (the parents) have been working for 30 or 40 years."

A recruiter who interviewed students at a prestigious university told him that "parents are demanding to sit in on those interviews," he said.

Another recruiter said that afterwards parents, not the applicant, call her to find out why their kid didn't get the job.

"A long time ago, the kid learned that when he had a problem, he went to the parent. They're your 'hired gun,' " he said.

In his studies, Bredehoft found that what adults who were overindulged as children wanted most from life was "extrinsic aspiration" — wealth, fame and an attractive image, he said.

Least important to them is "intrinsic aspiration," which refers to meaningful relationships, personal growth and making contributions that improve their community or other people's lives.

Affluent society

Parents don't usually recognize — or want to recognize — they have a problem with overindulgence, Bredehoft said. They see it in a relative's or friend's behavior, but rarely their own.

Living in a generally affluent society — where two-income households are common — makes it easier for parents to overspend on their children. Many parents in the past simply could not afford expensive items, and their kids knew it.

"I think it's extra tough for parents now," he said. "Kids know their parents have (the money)."

But it is possible for parents to stop overindulging, Bredehoft said. "In some cases, it's learning to say no and becoming more responsible."

Although "we don't want our kids to experience pain," he said, parents should "not always bail out your kids. They need to let them solve their own problems."

He also recommended "setting appropriate rules, and assigning chores and following through to make sure they get done," he said.

Grandparents, too, can be guilty of overindulging, Bredehoft said. He suggests parents discuss it with them or ask them to contribute to a college fund instead or give their grandkids something more meaningful, such as time and experience, which builds relationship.

"You could teach them how to make your favorite recipe. Involve them in making it in the kitchen, and tell them stories about how you learned to make it. They'll cherish that forever."

In today's world, where media messages to buy things are so strong, "sometimes I think our work is kind of counter-cultural," he said. "I do believe overindulgence has become the 'new normal.'

"We really do live in an overindulgent society."

Are you overindulging your kids?

Here are a few questions that will help you determine whether or not you are overindulging your children.

The Test of Four:

  •  Does the situation hinder the child from doing the tasks that support his or her development and learning at this age?
  •  Does the situation give a disproportionate amount of family resources (money, space, time, energy, attention) to one or more of the children?
  •  Does the situation exist to benefit the adult more than the child?

Parents sometimes do things for the child just because it's easier or quicker. It's best to think about: Whose needs are met? Am I doing this more for me or for my child?

  •  Would this situation potentially harm others, society or the planet in some way?

If you answer "yes" to one or more of these questions, it may be time to consider a different approach.

What are the risks of overindulgence?

Here are the consequences of overindulgence that are based on decades of research:

Center of the universe syndrome: A child should understand early on that the world will not solely focus on them.

Disrespectful attitude: Having disrespect for one's own things easily leads to disrespect for other people's things.

Helplessness: Doing for children what they should be learning to do themselves takes away the opportunity for them to learn how to be competent.

Confusing wants and needs: Young children can't tell the difference between wants and needs and have to be carefully taught.

Overblown sense of entitlement: Adults who were overindulged as children often feel that they are entitled to more of everything and that they deserve more than others.

Irresponsibility: Constantly protecting children from experiencing the consequences of their actions and not holding them accountable for completing tasks leads to irresponsibility.

Ungratefulness: Soft structure in the home can lead to individuals being less likely to be grateful for things and to others. ("Soft structure" refers to such things as: having no rules, not enforcing rules and not requiring kids to do chores.)

Poor self-control: Parents need to insist the child learn self-management skills.

Relationship problems: Issues that result from overindulgence — such as poor conflict-resolution skills and expectation of immediate gratification — spill over into all other relationship forms, from friends, to family, to workplace.

Personal goals distortion: Studies show that the more an individual was overindulged as a child, the more likely it is that their personal life goals are externally motivated — fame, fortune, vanity — as opposed to internal aspirations such as developing character and cultivating meaningful relationships.

Source: David J. Bredehoft, Jean Illsley Clarke and Connie Dawson, authors of "How Much Is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children — from Toddlers to Teens — in an Age of Overindulgence."

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