Our children will not go to hell in a hand basket if we occasionally spoil them. All of us could use a little pampering and a day off work from time to time. Children who are given excess attention and protection are at least getting the message that they’re loved. Unfortunately that’s only half the message children need to learn from parents. The other half is at least as important…our children also need to be taught to love themselves. If we regularly make our children’s lives too easy for them they will feel loved by us but they will likely not love themselves. Getting what we want makes us feel loved; facing what we don’t want makes us love ourselves. Too many of us parents forget that our main job is to build character in our children, not indulge our children or be their buddies. Persistently overindulging children robs them of character strength and really is all that harmful.
Indeed many parents are in good company in overdoing it with their kids. These days it’s expected that parents give too much attention, offer too much protection, give too many toys, become slaves to their children’s extracurricular schedules, and wouldn’t in their wildest imagination ever expect their kids to do chores around the house, pick up after themselves or follow family rules. Why it would be virtually un-American for parents to do so! Everybody knows that kids run the house! Unfortunately children who are allowed all this power in their families are in fact being harmed. When parents become pushovers, children lose their childhoods. Sadly, many parents who allow their children to run the household do so with good intentions, a great deal of love for their children and a lack of awareness and skills in how to take charge of their family. Indeed, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
How are children hurt by overindulgence?
Let’s look at the results of doing too much for kids. Unfortunately these days there is an overabundance of young adults in our culture who are technically proficient and intellectually talented but they lack critical life skills and emotional intelligence that will allow them to succeed in work and relationships. Cohert surveys of young adults find them to be followers, not doers. Too many young adults lack basic ego strengths…impulse control, capacity to delay gratification, ability to take criticism, awareness of the value of reciprocity in human relationships and perseverance in the face of adversity…and they lack a strong sense of self. These gaps are more extreme in this generation of adults. Employers don’t count on retaining new hirees and often have difficulty even filling entry level jobs with qualified workers as new hirees expect to be in top jobs from the get-go. Personal relationships suffer. Young educated women find it difficult to find male partners who can commit to marriage and family life.
Why is this? Children who were overindulged by their parents grow up to be adults who feel entitled to success in work and relationships without having to work for it. When the going gets tough they lack the internal skills to persevere and succeed and they run away from challenges and have difficulty committing. Males who are even less relationally oriented than females are hurt even more by overindulgence.
The clinical research on overdoing it with kids is clear. Indulged kids lack self-discipline, are often people-pleasers, become passive and socially avoidant, don’t know when enough is enough, don’t know how to be satisfied or grateful, are self-possessed and lack a sense of the greater good, and often feel life is meaningless and empty. Holy cow! You might ask, “How does so much damage occur just from parents being nice?”
A famous psychiatrist, Thomas Szaz, once said “The proverb warns that you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you. But maybe you should, if it prevents you from feeding yourself.” In fact, overdoing it with children robs them of the opportunity to solve their own problems and witness their own character strengths in handling adversity. A charmed life robs children of character much in the same way that doing our children’s homework for them robs them of learning. Too many of us parents focus on the superficial aspects of our children’s lives as we want so much for them to succeed. In focusing on earmarks of success we lose track of the bigger picture and we may micromanage our children’s lives. We do so out of our own guilt not accurate mindfulness of what’s best for our children. In the long run we deprive our children of ownership and pride in making their own way in the world and they become overly dependent on us to solve their own problems. A balanced approach with kids is amazingly preferable.
So why do we overdo it?
Some of us parents just can’t help ourselves. We simply can’t stand all the angst that raising kids brings up for us. We may be oblivious to all the unconscious feelings raising kids induces in us. Are we adequate enough to be raising kids? Are we able to spare our children from all the pain we grew up with in our own childhood’s? Do we have what it takes spiritually to comfort our children if they fail? Can we stand our own helplessness and uncertainty as our children pursue an unknown life journey? What will the neighbors think of us for not giving our children all the advantages? And the list goes on.
Too many of us parents overdo it with our kids in an effort to assuage our own internal feelings of guilt, inadequacy, emptiness and anxiety. Caring too much is not for the sake of our kids; it’s for ourselves. And we’re often not aware that rescuing our kids is really about rescuing ourselves.
Frankly, even when we are aware, it’s hard not to feel guilty and conflicted as a parent these days. Perhaps our children have special needs, are raised by a single parent or are going through a divorce. Shouldn’t they be compensated in some way? With all the media attention on how unsafe the world is and what we should do to protect and prepare our children how can we parents even sleep at night?
Finally, the consumer pressures on families is immense. They spend, spend, spend messages our children bring home so that they can be like other kids in school can easily put us parents over the top and be overextended financially. If we are working ungodly hours the last thing we may want to do is have an argument with our children over vacuuming, especially when quality family time is at a premium. Besides too many of us parents are living overindulgent lives ourselves. We couldn’t imagine being happy with anything less.
So how can we ask our children to buck up and sacrifice?
Moreover, some of us harried parents are embroiled in marital wars in which our children are unwitting pawns and skilled opportunists. Having one parent get back at the other parent through overindulgence can be an unending harmful pattern for children and a bitter dis-empowering experience for parents. Finally some of us parents aren’t working on our own spiritual lives. We may go to church and compare ourselves with other parents who are unfortunately doing too much for their children. Somehow the concepts of self-forgiveness, self-acceptance and just being good enough as we are, simply escapes us. It’s so much easier to distract ourselves with our children’s petty up’s and down’s than to nurture our own souls. Some of us parents may feel we have to indulge as we were indulged and we maintain a lost sense of self. It will be one fine day when we realize there is more to each of us than being a parent.
Knowing when enough is enough with kids
An obvious question is: How much is enough with kids? Parents ought to trust their hearts and brains in this regard. First tune in to your heart over how you are being a parent. Are you often resentful of having to do so much? Do you regularly feel used? Is there a futility to what you offer your children so that nothing you give is ever enough? Are you feeling over-responsible and working harder than your kids at what they need? Do you get sucked into feeling sorry for your kids? Do you take no time for yourself? Are you feeling compelled to buy your children’s love? Do you feel fraudulent in manipulating your children for short-term gains? Are you ashamed that you are contributing to your children’s immaturity out of your own needs? If you answer “yes,” chances are you’re overindulging your children.
Also, use your brain and be wise. Before making a parenting decision ask yourself the following questions:
- Does saying yes to my child contribute to his or her overall growth and maturity?
- Or, am I being asked to do something my child needs to do for himself or herself?
- Does saying yes balance the needs of others with his or her needs?
- Is saying yes more for my child’s best interest or for mine?
- Am I respecting myself in carrying out his or her needs?
- Is there harm to my child’s peers and society as a whole if I say yes?
Clearly the answer to these questions will depend on the age of your child, his or her developmental needs and maturity level. Most of all it depends on being clear-headed and not being afraid to say “NO.”
Maintaining balance with our children
Neither neglect nor excess is good for children. It’s best to know where to draw the line with our kids and get support from trusted friends or a caring partner to support firm limits with our kids. Asking for such support and explaining why it is essential is important. Perhaps sharing this article may help. Finally, if we lack such support, assistance from a professional helper may aid our efforts and get greater coordination in the parenting team. Some of us parents may need to team up with other parents who want to take a balanced approach with their children. Some of us parents may need skills training in balancing compassion with authority in our parenting. Read How Much Is Too Much by Jean Illsley Clarke, Ph.D., Connie Dawson, Ph.D., and David Bredhoft, Ph.D. (Marlowe and Co., 2004) and No by David Walsh, Ph.D. (Free Press, 2007). Some of us parents could use ongoing support such as a good Alanon group to not get controlling with our kids and accept ourselves apart from how our children turn out.
Frankly I hope you don’t read this article and roll your eyes, saying to yourself, “Oh great. Yet another article on how I’m a failure as a parent!” Take heart. One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned from delightful parents over the years is that there is a special place in heaven for those of us who are at least trying with our kids. We are already good enough!
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St.Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reach at 651-699-4573.
This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. Some of the links in this post contain affiliate links and we may earn a commission – at no cost to you.