In Raising Children, Less Is Often More
By STEPHANIE DUNNEWIND
THE SEATTLE TIMES 3/4/04
The best-intentioned parents might be raising spoiled kids. Too often, experts say, parents are spoiling kids not just with toys and gadgets, but by failing to set limits, not requiring chores, and smoothing all frustrations to keep kids happy.
"Parents think they overindulge out of kindness, but they're training kids to be helpless and irresponsible," said Connie Dawson, co-author of the new book "How Much Is Enough?: Everything You Need to Know to Steer Clear of Overindulgence and Raise Likeable, Responsible and Respectful Children."
"It looks good and it feels good at the time, but over the long haul, overindulgence undermines a child's confidence and competence," she said.
Two-thirds of parents say their children are spoiled, according to a 2001 Time/CNN survey. And it's worse than even a decade ago, 80 percent of those surveyed agreed.
"Clearly, parents are more indulgent than the previous generation," said Dan Kindlon, author of "Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age."
"Sure, kids in the Fifties were spoiled compared to their parents, but we've taken it up another step," he said. "A lot of parents now have gone off the deep end."
While parents uniformly agree that self-control and self-discipline are important for children to learn, only a third said they've successfully imparted these qualities, according to a 2002 survey by Public Agenda.
Likewise, just over a third said they've taught children to be independent and do for themselves, despite the three-quarters who say those traits are "absolutely essential."
Parents who overindulge ultimately fail at the most important task of parenting: helping their child grow up.
"Really, kids want to grow toward competence," said Dawson, a Kirkland, Wash.-based therapist. "What they need are adults to help them get there."
Dawson and her co-authors studied adults who were overindulged as children and discovered three main ways of overindulging:
- Giving too much. "With a constant barrage of too many and too much, children often experience a sense of scarcity because they fail to learn the vital skill of ascertaining what is enough."
- Over-nurturing. "There is no such thing as too much love. But true love does not hover or intrude or deprive a child of the opportunity to reach out, to learn new skills, to feel the thrill of achievement, or to experience consequences."
- Too little structure. "Soft structure is giving children too much freedom and license. Firm structure includes establishing and enforcing rules, creating firm boundaries, monitoring children's safety, teaching children skills for living, and insisting they do chores."
Whining and demanding might be the most obvious traits of overindulged kids, but as they grow up, they might:
- lack life and self-care skills;
- have an overblown sense of entitlement;
- have trouble learning how to delay gratification;
- expect to be the constant center of attention;
- be reluctant to take responsibility;
- have difficulty knowing what's normal or enough;
- have an unrealistic sense of their strengths and weaknesses.
Kindlon's research, which included surveys of 1,078 parents and 654 teenagers, found teens who described themselves as "spoiled" were twice as likely to have used drugs. "Very spoiled" teens were at higher risk for behavioral problems such as underachieving at school, cheating on tests, and skipping school.
"Most people are not consciously setting their children up for failure as adults, but parents aren't recognizing the long-term consequences," said Elizabeth Crary, a Seattle parent educator and author of "Dealing With Disappointment: Helping Kids Cope When Things Don't Go Their Way" and "Pick Up Your Socks ... and Other Skills Growing Children Need!"
Consistently protecting children from any discomfort denies them the opportunity to develop skills for dealing with disappointment and frustration, she said.
"It's less painful to learn those skills when kids are 3 or 5 than as young adults," she said.
Experts blame the trend of overindulgence on guilt and fatigue from parents' long work hours, ubiquitous advertising campaigns targeted at kids, and baby boomers' reluctance to say no.
"Our kids are so precious to us," said Kindlon, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and father of two. "We use kids as antidepressants - and we don't want to jeopardize our prescription."
Though they might tell themselves they're justified in pampering kids, overindulging parents opt for the easy path, experts say.
"Being too tired is the biggest obstacle to being a good parent," Kindlon said. "You can pick up their toys in five minutes or tell the kids to do it for 15 minutes. The first is easier for you, but is it the right thing for them?"
It's often educators who end up calling "Whoa." Teachers increasingly report dealing with "overentitled children who feel they can break rules that apply to everyone else," Dawson said.
"Educators tell me that in 90 percent of discipline cases, the parents are on the child's side against the school," Kindlon noted. "I can tell you it didn't used to be that way. Kids are not being held responsible at home."
In many families, even basic kid chores are often waived. Three-quarters of 1,015 adults surveyed said children have fewer chores than their counterparts 10 or 15 years ago, according to the Time/CNN survey.
But experts say chores are essential for children, whether it's taking out the garbage or feeding a pet.
"It doesn't matter so much what the child does," Crary said. "What's helpful is children feel they're contributing to the welfare of the family in some manner."
A long-term study of 84 children by a University of Minnesota professor, released in 2002, found that preschoolers who participated in household tasks were more likely to grow up to be successful as young adults.
One protective factor Kindlon found against dangerous teen behavior was whether teens were expected to keep their room clean. Though his research didn't delve into why, he suspects it's an indication that kids are supervised and expected to adhere to certain standards.
Teens who performed community service also displayed fewer problems, Kindlon said.
"Kids don't do chores because they're busy with homework and extracurricular activities, but what's overlooked is that all these activities are geared to help them - to get into a good college, to get a good job. Giving back to other people helps kids not take themselves so seriously."
Baby boomers especially shun the authority figure role, but Kindlon's survey found teens who reported strict parents also said they had fun together.
"It's not an either/or proposition," he said. "The kind of parents kids hate are the ones who let them get away with everything, especially if it's because their parents are never around."
* * *
Tips for instilling character
Ask yourself if the tools and skills you're teaching your child will serve him when he's 15 or 22. "How will this behavior be tolerated at a workplace?" queried Connie Dawson, co-author of "How Much Is Enough?: Everything You Need to Steer Clear of Overindulgence and Raise Likeable, Responsible and Respectful Children."
Make children pay you back. For example, if you help them do something they should be able to do on their own, require them to do an extra chore to compensate you for your time.
On children's birthdays, let them choose a new privilege and a new responsibility.
Hold children responsible for their actions, even accidental ones. Let children clean up messes, or if one hurts another, let the perpetrator get ice or a Band-Aid for the victim. "Otherwise, parents are teaching children that it doesn't matter what they do - they just have to say 'sorry' and they're off the hook," said Elizabeth Crary, a Seattle parent educator and author.
Don't save your kids. Example: Your child leaves the spelling list at school. Put the problem on him: "How are you going to get your spelling words, then?" Crary advises. Maybe he needs to call a friend and write down the whole list by hand. "Don't make forgetting easier than remembering," she said.
If you're tempted to overnurture, adopt a puppy or volunteer.
Let kids suffer consequences. You insist kids clean their rooms before going to a play date; they procrastinate. Don't step in and pick up toys because they'll be disappointed not to go. "It teaches children you'll do stuff if they just don't do it," Crary said.
Don't soften the blow. If parents impose consequences, kids are often unhappy. That's OK, Crary says. Don't make them feel better by letting them watch a favorite video or eat ice cream.
Don't assume that because you're not rich, you can't overindulge your kids. The majority of adults overindulged as children reported their family had the same, less, or much less money than their neighbors, according to "How Much Is Enough?"
If older kids balk at chores, discontinue family services, such as rides to friends or favorite snacks for school lunches.
If you realize you've been overindulgent, don't try to change everything at once. You'll get too much resistance from your child and end up giving up, which is another bad message. Instead, start with one step and enforce it consistently until it's habitual. Then move on to another challenge.
Help kids distinguish between needs and desires. "Kids should want for things once in a while," Dawson said. As her book notes, "If every day is an exciting high, the highs get flat and are never high enough."
Accept your unpopularity. "Kids will always push," Dawson said. "It's up to the parent to decide where 'no' is, and to hold it."
- Stephanie Dunnewind
The Seattle Times
SOME SUGGESTED CHORES, BY AGE
Older children can also continue those chores started at younger ages.
Ages 2 and 3:
Clear place at table after meals and put dishes on the counter.
Put recycling items in their containers.
Hang up coats on low hooks.
Set the table (not necessarily in correct positions).
Ages 4 and 5:
Feed pets (when reminded).
Get the mail.
Put dirty clothes in basket or hamper.
Help fill the dishwasher.
Make a peanut-butter sandwich.
Ages 6 and 7:
Water plants and flowers.
Put clothes away in drawers or closet.
Ages 8 and 9:
Take out garbage and recycling.
Sweep, mop, or vacuum.
Carry dirty clothes to laundry room.
Cook simple foods with supervision, such as eggs and toast.
Ages 10 to 12:
Do laundry, with assistance.
Load and run dishwasher.
Wash the family car.
Change sheets on beds.
Assist with younger siblings.
Source: From "Setting Limits: How to Raise Responsible, Independent Children by Providing Clear Boundaries," by Robert J. MacKenzie and "Pick Up Your Socks ... and Other Skills Growing Children Need!" by Elizabeth Crary