Parenting in the Age of Plenty

February 12, 2014

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For the second week of Psychology Month, Suanne Collins looks at raising a child in the age of instant gratification. 

We live in a world of instant gratification where everything we want is at the touch of our fingertips and society tells us that you can never get enough of anything.   As a child psychologist, I have become increasingly alarmed at the numbers of children coming into my office struggling with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and poor behavior.  How are these two ideas related?  One word…Overindulgence.  This way of interacting with our children has crept up, like a virus, and invaded our ideas of how to parent to the point where it simply seems like the right thing to do.  There was the mother who said “I hated doing chores when I was a kid so I won’t make my children do them” or the father who asserted “I want to give my children everything that I didn’t have as a kid,” or the grandmother who quoted “it’s easier to just let him do it and not have to listen to the temper tantrum.”   We have a belief that our job as parents is to make our kids happy and shield them from life’s arrows.  But what is the cost?

What is Overindulgence?

When people think of this topic, they usually think of the spoiled child who gets whatever they want, but that is not necessarily the case.  Overindulgence is divided into three main categories:

1)     Too Much Stuff

This idea goes beyond just material things, but includes all things that cost money.   This can include sports equipment, activities, lessons, entertainment, junk food and vacations. It sometimes means that too much of the family’s income is spent on the kids. Children who are overindulged in this way often fail to learn the skill of knowing what is enough.

2)     Over-Nurturing

It is not possible to give too much love to a child, but it is possible to do things for children that they could or should be doing for themselves.  A child as young as two can help set the table or help clean up the mess that they make with their toys.  When the parent takes away the opportunity for a child to do some age-appropriate things for themselves, it deprives them of the experience of doing things on his or her own. It denies the child from feeling the thrill of achievement or experiencing consequences.   How can a child learn from their own mistakes if the parent never lets the mistakes happen?  If we don’t fail, how will we ever learn to get back up?

3)     Soft-Structure

Does Johnny set his own bedtime?  Does Sarah open the presents at another child’s birthday party?  Does Shannon decide when to go to school?  Soft-structure means parenting without limits or boundaries.  Children are able to make decisions that are not age-appropriate, do not follow the rules set by the parents, and are allowed to make decisions that should be made by the adults.

Effects of Overindulgence

The severity of the negative effects of this type of parenting cannot be overemphasized. Children who are overindulged face a lifetime of struggle, as do their parents.  They often have low self-esteem from years of not being able to accomplish anything on their own which leads to feelings of depression and anxiety.  They are self-centered, disrespectful towards authority figures, ungrateful, dependant, oppositional, defiant, and lack interpersonal, self-care and relationship skills.  Some experts have gone so far as to say that overindulgence is a form of child abuse.  These children struggle under the weight of their own sense of entitlement.  Bring these traits into the real world and we find an individual unable to meet the demands of the work force, unable to maintain their relationships with friends or partners, and often financially in debt due to their inability to differentiate between want and need.

The Importance of Saying “NO”

It’s a child’s job to push the boundaries and a parent’s job to set the limits.  Children who do not experience limits often feel scared, confused and insecure because they do not have the tools to make decisions and are at a loss without parental guidance.  In order to learn how to behave in the world, they need to be repeatedly taught, which is why consistency is so important. Saying no is like getting on a train, you have to ride it all the way to the station otherwise, if you go back on your decision, your train will derail and your intervention would have been for nothing; your child only learns that the limit is not secure and can be pushed.  If you have never learned how to cope with hearing the word “NO” at home, you are unable to handle those negative feelings when faced with them in the real world.  Some parents find it very difficult to say no to their children for fear that it is harming their self-esteem, but to the contrary, saying no to your children actually helps them acquire the skills they need to succeed in the world which builds self-esteem.  Also, it is important to start learning this lesson early because a temper tantrum at three is a lot easier to handle than a temper tantrum at sixteen.  Always remember that your responses today will set the stage for the behavior that is to come.  If your child isn’t use to hearing the word no, it will be difficult at first, but stay the course because it will get easier.

What are we Teaching our Children?

The fact is that overindulgence comes from a place of good intentions and wanting your child to be happy, but remember what the road to hell was paved with.   Our job as parents is not to make our children happy, but to prepare them for the world in which they live, a world in which we want our children to succeed.  When in a situation, always ask yourself “What am I teaching my child?”  Are we teaching them self-regulation or are we showing them that if they tantrum long enough that they will get want they want?  Are we teaching them important life skills or that someone else will do it for them?  You are the creator of your child’s future.  It’s a hard job, but you can do it.

Suanne Collins is a registered psychologist who works with children, youth and their families.  She graduated from Memorial University with a Masters Degree in Counselling Psychology.  She currently lives in Corner Brook with her husband and two young children. 

photo credit: JefferyTurner via photopin cc

  • Heather J. Nadon

    Exactly!! Very well said! My parents were limitless with their love and their time, but limited the luxrries ,gifts, vacation spending etc…boundaries and responsibilities were clear and solid, and consequences were clear. Did we always like it as kids? Of course not, but as an adult I now know it was the best way to grow up. Its very true, the more you give your children, the more you harm them.

  • Rob

    While you make some interesting points, I am left wondering how much of this is anecdotal and how much is grounded in scientific research. Do you have any references or citations to support your claims? You are making some pretty wide generalizations.

  • David Bredehoft

    Thanks for writing this entry and using our research and information to support it. Your readers will also benefit from reading Jean Illsley Clarke, Connie Dawson, and David Bredehoft’s new book on this topic titled “How Much is Too Much?” published by Da Capo press. It is supported by 10 studies that I conducted. You can also read about those at our website http://www.overindulgence.info.