Although parents know more about child development and children’s needs than ever before, many tend to be too indulgent, giving their kids too much and expecting too little from them. In their efforts to provide a better life than they had and spare them some of the pains they may have experienced growing up, some fail to realize that many valuable lessons and tools for success in life are won through hard work, delayed gratification and even learning from failure. When parents attempt to be more emotionally connected and become friends with their children they may forget that children also need to become responsible. They need to face limits and consequences if they are to develop emotional maturity. In addition to feeling they have someone to support them; kids also need to feel that they have something of value to give to others. To know that they are also depended upon and are relied upon to contribute in important ways helps them to feel they are valued and significant. To do so, we will have to stop overindulging them materially and emotionally.
Dr. Dan Kindlon, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of “Too Much of a Good Thing,” believes many parents indulge their kids by giving them too much stuff, catering to their every whim, and demanding too little of them in return. And, in doing so, they undermine some of their children’s character development, shortchanging them in vital areas such as generosity, compassion, honesty, self-control, and empathy. He argues, “By protecting our children from failure, adversity, and pain, we deprive them of the opportunity to develop a realistic sense of their strengths and limitations, and to learn important coping skills. Indulged children are often less able to cope with stress, for example, because their parents have created an atmosphere where their whims are indulged, and where they have always assumed that life should be a bed of roses. The body cannot learn to adapt to stress unless it experiences it. Indulged children can also be at risk of being self-centered, angry, depressed, spoiled, envious, overly competitive, and driven or, on the flip side, unmotivated. They may lack self-control, and thus be more likely to get into trouble with drugs, alcohol, and risky sex.”
This concern is echoed by others. “Children who are given so much without having to work for it acquire a sense of entitlement and may not develop a work ethic, which they will need later in life,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist at Rutgers University. “Many parents live through their children and the indulgences they wanted for themselves. It seems absurd that there are families who are struggling to keep up with their bills and still manage to find ways of providing all kinds of expensive toys for their kids.”
Children can be indulged in nonmaterialistic ways, too. Some parents seem to be seeking their children’s approval as an affirmation of their worth. Rather than impose authoritarian punishments when their children misbehave, they want to talk things out with them, reason with them. While it is positive to be emotionally close to their kids and to have fun with them and be to some extent be their friend, this could also lead to a blurring of the line between being a friend and being a parent. This blurring seems to be a significant trend today, and it often results in confusion for parents and kids. The good news is that parents can set limits and still have fun with the kids. Lots of kids who said their moms or dads were “pretty strict” or “too strict” also said that they had fun with their parents most or all of the time.
The key is to have the best of both worlds. That is to be able to provide and establish close, nurturing relationships as well as pass on values, limits, and responsibility. We all have to live within certain limits and learn that we can’t have everything we want. This is part of growing up and developing emotional maturity. By setting limits parents also provide a measure of protection and safety. Kids need to know that they can’t go “too far” and knowing that there are limits offers assurance that someone is looking out for them, even when they protest. Setting limits within reason is a way of showing love and offering security for your children. Although saying no may anger your child, it also sends the message that you care enough to hold the line. They usually know it would be easier for you to give in. Kindlon asserts, “Often the fear is that by setting limits-saying ‘no’ for example- will destroy the closeness we have with our children and take all the fun out of parenting. But it is only by setting limits that we can help kids develop character and avoid underachievement and some of the dangers of adolescence.”
Character - the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life - is the source from which self-respect springs.
Editor’s Note: Dario Lussardi is a licensed psychologist-master, providing consultation and therapeutic services at the Community Counseling Center in Wilmington.