Parents, does this scenario sound familiar to you?
You’re at the grocery store and your four-year-old starts screaming because they want you to buy them candy. For a myriad of reasons — they’re crying and distressed, you’re exhausted and embarrassed — you surrender to their demands.
This is what overindulgent parenting can look like, says Lauren Silvers, a child psychologist based in Washington state who specializes in children with social and behavioral problems. It’s when you give in to your child’s whims and desires because you don’t want to see them frustrated or uncomfortable, or want to avoid conflict.
This can be harmful to a child’s development if it becomes routine, says Silvers. “There are lots of negative outcomes associated with overindulgence, anything from over-dependence on others and being unable to learn necessary life lessons.”
Research has shown that this kind of parenting is associated with children who have low self-control, social anxiety such as fear of missing out, general anxiety, stress and low life satisfaction, says Ming Cui, a professor at the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Florida State University. On the other hand, she says, children who have experienced less overindulgence are likelier to exhibit “higher levels of emotional regulation, better problem-solving skills and coping abilities.”
So how do you know if you’re overindulging your kid? And how do you raise your child to become a healthy, independent and responsible adult? Silvers and Cui share a 4-question test and helpful guidance for parents — including how to start enforcing new ground rules at home.
What is ‘overindulgent parenting’?
Unlike spoiling a kid, which is about catering to a child’s needs and wants for the sake of the child, overindulgence is about the adult — the caretaker “having some sort of need or discomfort they’re trying to alleviate, whether or not it’s in [the child’s] best interest,” says Silvers.
This form of parenting comes in many forms, she adds. Researchers have identified three types:
- Material overindulgence: This is when you acquiesce to your child’s material demands, like a toy or a treat. “It is our job as parents to say enough is enough,” says Silvers.
- Relational indulgence: This happens when “parents tend to do more for their kids than their kids actually need them to be doing,” says Silvers. “Parents are over-functioning and then it causes the child to under-function.” As a result, kids don’t learn developmentally appropriate tasks.
- Structural indulgence: This happens when parents struggle to set and enforce rules, says Silvers. “Kids don’t like rules or being told ‘no,’ but they need them. They need to learn a sense of responsibility and know where the boundaries are so they know where they can feel safe.”
Questions for parents: ‘The Test of Four’
Parents can determine whether they are overindulging their kids by taking the “The Test of Four,” a set of questions co-developed by the late teacher and parent-educator Jean Illsley Clarke. It asks parents to examine their own relationships with their children.
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, it’s a signal that you may be overindulging your child, says Silvers. This test can be used for children of all ages.
1. Are my actions hindering my child from learning tasks that support their development?
This question gets at your child’s ability to achieve age-appropriate developmental milestones, says Silvers. If you are doing tasks for your kids such as “packing their lunch, cleaning their room or tying their shoes,” and they’re at an age when they should be able to do those things for themselves, then you’re holding them back from “their [ability to learn] new life skills.”
2. Am I giving a disproportionate amount of family resources to one or more of the children?
If you are giving more money, space, time, energy or attention to your kids than a situation calls for, “that places a burden on the family and takes away from where those resources might be needed,” says Silvers. Parents shouldn’t be going into debt to pay for a toy they can’t afford or spending all their free time doing child-centric activities just to keep their child happy.
3. Do the choices I make exist to benefit me, the adult, more than the child?
“If you are giving in [to your child] to keep yourself comfortable and to keep the day flowing, then there is a problem with overindulgence,” says Silvers. For example, steering clear of the toy aisle to avoid the headache of having to deal with a potential tantrum. Even though that may help the parents stay calm in the moment, it doesn’t serve the child in the long term, she adds. Kids need to learn that not having their way is OK.
4. Does the child’s behavior potentially harm others, society or the planet in some way?
“If you are allowing your child to do something that is harmful, disrespectful or defiant, or breaks a rule or infringes on somebody else’s rights, that’s a sign that there is overindulgence,” says Silvers. That includes throwing trash on the ground or wanting the largest piece of cake at a birthday gathering. Kids should understand that they have a responsibility to behave appropriately, she adds.
Breaking the cycle of overindulgent parenting
If you said yes to one or more of these questions, here is what you can do to set boundaries with your kid and set them up for emotional growth and independence.
Learn to say ‘no’
Pick one area where you might be overindulging your child and say “no,” says Silvers. For example, if you usually let your kid ditch chores, like loading the dishwasher after dinner, because they whine about it, try a new approach.
The next time they ask if they can do the dishes later (which for some kids, may be code for “can’t you just do it?”) say “no.” Kids need to know how to contribute to their household — and a little responsibility is a great way to boost a child’s self-esteem. The computer game they wanted to play first will be waiting for them after they finish the dishes.
When you say “no,” make sure you follow through. That builds trust and shows kids you mean what you say.
Silvers acknowledges that saying “no” is hard on the parent. So get comfortable with the feeling of “your children being upset with you for hearing ‘no,’ ” she adds.
Make changes slowly
Don’t change all the rules overnight, says Silvers.
If you do, she warns, “they’re not going to react favorably. There is going to be a big emotional reaction if all of a sudden things go from being one way to completely different.”
Work up to a new rule or chore gradually, says Silvers. For example, if you tell your child you want them to be responsible for packing their own lunch, help them out the first few weeks. You might say, “I will make your sandwich for you [to put in your lunchbox], you pack your fruit,” she says. After a few days, you might start laying out the ingredients for them to assemble their own sandwich. Before you know it, they’ll be packing the whole thing themselves.
Give kids room to learn and grow
Allow your child to do things incorrectly so they can figure it out, says Silvers. Your kid may not be great at making their own sandwich the first time around, but that’s how kids learn.
While it might be easier and faster for you to do tasks for your child without their help, like picking up their toys after playtime, Silvers says this teaches kids that parents or caregivers will just do things for them. It tells them, “I can make messes and I don’t have to clean them up. Mommy will make sure I have everything I need.”
And it doesn’t set our kids up for real life. “In the real world, you are not there to pick up their stuff or make sure they have all their belongings. And so it’s important we take the time to teach our kids,” says Silvers.
Help kids earn what they want
So how should caregivers deal with a kid who demands, say, dessert every night or extra screen time?
Silvers says this is the perfect opportunity to teach them how to earn what they want. Just as parents have to work and save money to pay for things, kids should put in a little effort as well.
Let’s say you’re at the toy store and your child really wants a new Lego set, but it’s pricey — over $150. In the moment, you can say, “that looks like a really cool toy. Let’s talk about it once we get home,” says Silvers.
Then you can make a plan with your child to help them earn that toy. Maybe you create a sticker chart or set up a marble jar to track when they do a good deed or complete a chore, like taking out the garbage. When they reach whatever goal you both agreed to, then they can get their toy.
The conversation may make your child realize: “If I have to work for it, do I really want it that bad?” says Silvers. “Or would it just be cool to have it because somebody else is paying for it and I can get it right this second?” If they still want it, then it’s a great opportunity to teach them that we have to work for the things we want.
The audio portion of this episode was edited by Sylvie Douglis and produced by Carly Rubin. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual producer is Kaz Fantone. We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at [email protected].
Listen to Life Kit on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and sign up for our newsletter.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.