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Overindulging our kids is a hazard, not a gift


Cathy Zimmerman

The Daily News
April 8, 2008



Too many things, too much help, rules that cave to the slightest pressure.

Children can be overindulged in more ways than one, said Dr. Jean Illsley Clarke, an author and child-rearing consultant who spoke at the Parenting and Family Education Conference at WSU Vancouver in March.

Even though “Overindulgence can come from a good heart,” Illsley Clarke warned, it is crippling a generation of American youth.

“Overindulgence is giving children so much of anything, including love, that it keeps them from learning their developmental tasks,” she said. “It has a negative effect on their lives.”

Wealthy parents have more to indulge their children with, but even low-income parents give in to buying, rescuing and letting kids rule the roost, Illsley Clarke said.

She spelled out three ways that parents overdo it.

When it comes to things -- toys, clothes, parties, cars and electronics -- moms, dads and grandparents give in not only to their own generous impulses, but to advertising and peer pressure that is more sophisticated and powerful than ever, she said.

“We adults never experienced marketing to this extent,” she said. “It used to be, ‘Buy this because your life will be better.’ ” Now, marketing preys on self-esteem issues. “ ‘if you don’t have this, you won’t be OK. You won’t belong.’ It sows feelings of doubt and fear.”

Many parents are just as vulnerable to these fears as their kids are, she said. Increasingly, they allow their kids to help decide major family purchases including cars and vacations.

Last year, Illsley Clarke said, “major marketers to children ages 18 months to 8 years spent $6 billion, on that age group alone. They want to instill brand loyalty before the age of 7.” Advertising to those age groups reportedly led to $16 billion of purchases influenced by young children last year.

She described her own little granddaughter, who expertly checked the label on a Christmas gift of pajamas and pronounced the gift good enough.

The second type of overindulgence involves nurturing: Helping too much, or interfering too much, with a child’s schooling, activities and decisions.

Kem Chism of Long Beach, who attended the Parenting Education workshop, talked with other participants about the urge to rescue our kids. Chism’s daughter, then a Running Start student at Clatsop Community College, faced a crisis with an end-of-term assignment.

The single mother of an only child, Chism is a resource advocate for Pacific County schools. She had planned a trip east of the mountains to see her mother that weekend. To help her daughter finish the assignment, “I let her drive and read the whole book out loud to her on the way over,” said Chism.

Her daughter wrote the paper in long hand, and when they got back home on Sunday night, Chism let the girl go to sleep and typed the paper for her.

Many parents leap into the breach when their kids face a crisis like this one.

But when parents make a habit of rushing to school to mediate grades, engineering school projects or rewriting their kids’ college entrance essays, “The message is, ‘You are not competent,’ “ Illsley Clarke said.

In her therapy and research, she has heard two major complaints from adults who were indulged as children: “They did things for me I should have done myself,” and “I never had chores.”

Two sisters, both in their 40s, told Illsley Clarke that they never recovered from being overindulged.

One of the women remembered asking her mother to teach her to sew doll clothes.

“Why would you want to do that?” the mother replied.

The child insisted she did want to learn, so the mother said she’d think about it.

“One morning, she woke up, and her mother had sewed a dress, petticoat, bonnet and coat for the doll,” Illsley Clarke said. “The little girl went and cried.”

As a middle-aged woman, she told Illsley Clarke, “It’s hard not to know how to do what other people know how to do.”

Parents who shield their kids from chores also are guilty of overindulgence.

“The most successful people in their mid 20s started household tasks at age 3,” Illsley Clarke said. “They want to help at that age. ... Human beings are wired to be competent; they have to be taught to be helpless.”

Parents may avoid teaching their kids to clean, cook and do laundry because it takes time and patience. “Overindulgence is just a way to get through the day,” Illsley Clarke said. “It’s easier to do it ourselves.”

Another trend adds to the problem. “Teens are way too busy with school activities and their peers to do chores,” she said. “Often, they’re too busy to sleep. We have kept our kids so busy that they cannot do their own laundry.”

Finally, overindulgence includes “soft structure:” discipline that is inconsistent, rules that are not enforced.

Parents who cop out to avoid conflict and tantrums train kids to be irresponsible, Illsley Clarke said, and sow a sense of entitlement. At the conference, she listed other behaviors of adults who were overindulged as children.

• They grow up to have extreme difficulty making decisions.

• They have a constant need for praise and material rewards.

• They take things personally that have nothing to do with them.

• They don’t have to grow up because other people will always take care of them.

• They often believe life is not fair; they’re always getting screwed.

In role plays, the parents who attended the conference acted out real situations from their own lives that illustrated overindulgent behavior. Illsley Clarke told them not to wallow in guilt but to watch for ways to stem the tide using the “Test of Four.”

Could helping the child by doing something for him or her delay learning of developmental tasks?

Would buying something or doing something for a child use too much of the family’s resources?

Does the helping behavior or purchase meet the child’s needs -- or the parents’ needs?

Will the purchase or behavior harm other people or the environment?

Parents and grandparents alike have to self-regulate, Illsley Clarke said. “Honor the good heart, but think about the impact. Is this best for my child?”

About Dr. Clarke

Jean Illsley Clarke is an award-winning parent educator and the author or co-author of a dozen books, including:

"How Much is Enough: Everything You Need to Know to Steer Clear of Overindulgence," Avalon Publishing, 2004

"Connections: The Threads that Strengthen Families," 1999

"Self Esteem: A Family Affair," Winston Press, 1978

To find out more about overindulgence or the writing of Illsley Clarke, see her Web site,

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