AMES, Iowa – Although the holidays can be a season of giving, sometimes the focus shifts to a season of getting, or so it may seem from a child’s perspective, says Mackenzie Johnson, a human sciences specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
“It’s OK to give gifts to our children. We all want to see our children happy, and as parents we give from the goodness of our hearts,” said Johnson, who specializes in family life issues.
“However, it’s easy to overdo it, especially around the holidays. This can become a pattern, and before we know it, we’re overindulging our children – giving them too much, too soon and for too long."
Research shows that overindulging children puts them at risk for a variety of negative outcomes, including a need for immediate gratification, an overblown sense of entitlement and a materialistic mindset and goals. Children who are overindulged may have poor self-control, as well as a more difficult time developing adult life skills, Johnson said.
Giving children too much stuff is just one form of overindulgence, Johnson explained. Other forms include soft structure, meaning a lack of rules and responsibilities, and over-nurturing – doing things for children that they should be doing themselves.
So how can parents know whether they are crossing the line into overindulging their children?
Researchers Jean Illsley Clarke, David J. Bredehoft and Connie Dawson started the Overindulgence Project – Overindulgence.info – in 1996, studying the relationship between childhood overindulgence and subsequent adult problems and parenting practices. To date, they have completed 10 studies investigating overindulgence involving more than 3,500 participants.
The researchers suggest parents ask themselves four questions:
- Do these gifts use a disproportionate amount of family resources?
- Does what I am doing harm others, society or the planet?
- Does this meet my needs (as the adult) more than the needs of my child?
- Does it hinder my child from learning developmental tasks?
If parents answer yes to one or more of these questions, they probably are overindulging their children. However, there are some simple ways to get back on the right track.
“First of all, if you have been overindulgent, take responsibility. Being in denial about it means that you can’t change anything,” Johnson said.
“Second, forgive yourself. If you’ve gone overboard in the past, don’t beat yourself up about it. Look at how you can move forward, do things differently and learn from your previous experience.
“Next, work on one problem area at a time. Don’t try to suddenly change everything about your parenting style at once, as that will likely be too overwhelming,” she noted. “Maybe you start by deciding not to give your children so much stuff – toys, electronics, etc. – this holiday season, but consider giving them the gift of your time.”
For example, parents could create a “gift certificate” for a parent and child lunch date, or plan for an afternoon playing board games or having a baking day together.
“Or start even smaller and decide you won’t give in to your child’s next temper tantrum at the grocery store,” Johnson said.
“Just because you’ve overindulged your children in the past, doesn’t mean your children have been damaged forever. You can get back on track and raise your children to become responsible adults who show respect for others,” she said.