When Receiving   H U R T S   Instead of Helps

by    Dr. Jean Illsley Clarke

NOTE: The below article resulted from Study 1 (1998). Effective June 8, 2001, and throughout the next year, this website will present a series of articles resulting from Study 2 (2000) and Study 3 (2001). You will find introductory information on this recently completed research project in the following article Grasping a Slippery Topic: Overindulgence.

 Wanting the Best for Our Children 
I want my children to have the best I can give. I want my children to have advantages I didn't have.

What parent hasn't had these thoughts or voiced similar desires? Probably we all have. Isn't it because we care? Yes, we give because we care, but sometimes we give too much. I want her to have what the other kids have. I want to boost his self-esteem.

Sometimes the children wheedle, cajole, nag, or manipulate us into giving more than they need. She wanted it so much I couldn't deny her. He is so persistent I finally yield. I can't stand whining so I give in just to keep the peace. I'm gone so much I feel guilty if I'm empty handed when they say, "What did you bring me?"

 Giving Too Much 
Who among us does not wish to give our children all that will be helpful to them? And who among us does not consider from time to time that we may have given too much? At times, giving too much doesn't hurt, but sometimes it becomes overindulgence.

This article answers these questions. Future articles will address what effects the overindulgence had and what to do instead. The answers are drawn from interviews with adults who were overindulged as children. All research, I believe, is influenced by the researcher, so my colleague, Dr. David Bredehoft,1 and I have made every attempt to report what people told us accurately and then to make clear which thoughts are our own. The whole project was a tremendous learning experience for both of us.

Since I was not overindulged as a child, I thought I was neutral about the subject because I had no firsthand experience to judge by. What I discovered, as I conducted the in-depth interviews, was that I had made many assumptions about what overindulgence is, who does it, and why they do it, and what the impact of it is. Almost all of my assumptions were wrong. Usually, interviews are guided by an interviewer who asks questions. I asked very few. Interviewees told me that they never talked about their overindulgence because people ridiculed them. Once they found that I was willing to really listen, they talked and talked and I listened. I was surprised and shocked, but I listened. I have included, as author comments, some of my own thoughts and surprises in hopes that they will stimulate you to think about your own assumptions. Many of my assumptions seem to be reflections of the current cultural myths about overindulgence.

 The Cultural Myths 
William, the father of three, recently said, I don't need to hear about overindulgence. I know about it. It's the clothes and toys and expensive trips and camps that rich people give their kids. Some grandparents do it too. They shower grandchildren with stuff that is too old for the kids and that the kids don't need or even want. Don't talk to me about overindulgence. I buy a few toys now and then, but my kids aren't spoiled.

Overindulgence is not quite the same as spoiling. When we refer to a child as spoiled, we usually describe behaviors that annoy the adults. While an overindulged child may act spoiled, the results of overindulgence are more far reaching than that.

William's response to overindulgence indicated that he was comfortable accepting the cultural myth about overindulgence, that only other people are overindulging by spending money on children. But some parents are beginning to question if they might be giving too much. They say:

Tell us more about overindulgence.
How do we know if we are doing it?
Does it really harm children?
If we have been overindulging, what can we do about it?

In response to these challenges, author Jean Illsley Clarke enlisted the aid of her research partner, David Bredehoft, Ph.D. His search of the literature did not reveal any research on overindulgence so we launched a research project of our own. It exploded many of the cultural myths.

 What is Overindulgence? 
Probably every adult has a definition of overindulgence based on personal observation or experience. But what one parent thinks is overindulgence another thinks is just fine. Before we look at a formal definition, write your own description for each of the following:

Too Little

--- What is too little or scarcity?


--- What is enough?


--- What is abundance?

Too Much

--- What is too much or overindulgence?

If you do this exercise with other people, you will notice that concepts of too little vary from abject poverty to barely enough to meet developmental needs. Enough may seem to one person to be the minimum quantity required to meet basic needs while to another person it is the amount needed to feel satisfied. Abundance for some people produces a feeling of extreme well being or joy and to others signals that they have enough to share with others. Too much for some people is the amount that takes the edge off the joy that abundance brings. Others describe too much as smothering, stopping, debilitating, depriving others.

When parents give too much, they are overindulging. That is the focus of this article so pay special attention to what too much means to you as you interpret the information presented. That can help you assess the parenting you are doing and think about the parenting you received.

 Definitions of Overindulgence 
Dictionary definitions of indulgence range from tolerance to dissipation. Overindulgence is defined as to indulge to excess. Not much help there, so David Bredehoft and I determined to identify a definition of overindulgent parenting by finding out what it means to adults who were overindulged as children.

Through my newsletter2 and at workshops that I led (on any topic) I invited any adults who had been overindulged as children to volunteer for in-depth interviews about their experiences.3 The composite definition of overindulgence that follows and the research survey questions4 were built directly from the information given by those adults.

Overindulgence is a form of child neglect

Overindulging children is giving them too much of what looks good, too soon, too long. It is giving them things or experiences that are not appropriate for their age or their interests and talents. It is the process of giving things to children to meet the adult's needs, not the child's needs.

Overindulgence is giving a disproportionate amount of family resources to one or more children in a way that appears to be meeting the children's needs but does not, so children experience scarcity in the midst of plenty. Overindulgence is doing or having so much of something that it does active harm or at least stagnates a person and deprives that person of achieving his or her full potential.

Overindulgence is a form of child neglect. It hinders children from doing their developmental tasks, and from learning necessary life lessons.

The research sample5 consisted of 124 people who indicated that they had been overindulged as children. It tells us about people who cared enough about overindulgence to respond to our invitation to be part of the research. As you look at the results of the survey, keep the sample in mind.

 Questions and Answers 
Here are some of the myths the survey challenged with percentage responses and typical answers from those who were overindulged and also with a few author comments.

 Who overindulged? 

Myth: The typical overindulged child is an only child.
Reality: No, most of our respondents had two or more siblings.
Myth: Parents who overindulge are well-off economically.
Reality: Not necessarily! Most, 64%, reported growing up in families with the same amount of money or less than others in the neighborhood.
Myth: Grandparents are the most notorious overindulgers.
Reality: Another surprise! Grandma got off with a 4% response and Grandpa didn't even make the list. The report was:
Both parents = 43%; Mom, 42%; and Dad, 11%.
Parents were the indulgers in 96% of the homes.
Parents were the indulgers in 96% of the homes

 What went on in the families? 

Myth: Overindulgence occurs mainly with young children.
Reality: No.  21% reported being overindulged during childhood, 38% as adolescents, and 22% indicated they have been overindulged their entire life span.
Myth: Parents who overindulge just want their children to be happy and go to extremes to avoid physical abuse.
Reality: 19% said they had been physically abused. Half of those reported being hit with a belt or other objects.

Author's comment: I had assumed that parents who overindulged cared so much that they would not think of abusing. Wrong assumption! Examples:

Author's comment: Overindulged children can become very demanding and maybe, after a time, if parents don't set proper limits, they yield to the urge to hit.

Myth: If people overindulge, coddle and give in to children, they would not engage in psychological abuse.
Reality: Wrong again! 70% reported they had been ridiculed, shamed, discounted, and experienced the withholding of love. Examples:
  • My parents made me feel not good enough.
  • My body wasn't good enough.
  • I wasn't smart enough.
  • My dad made fun of me when I made a mistake and called me stupid. I felt shamed.
  • I got material things but no closeness.

Author's comment: What a strange experience for a child-to have too much freedom or too many things and too little love. How can a child make sense of this withholding of love without deciding, at some level, that he or she must be defective?

Myth: Parents who overindulge would not invade a child's sexual boundaries.
Reality: 14% said there was sexual abuse in the family.

Author's comment: Think of the boundary dilemma this form of abuse creates-You can expect no limits in some areas, but you can't have your sexuality or your body to yourself.

Myth: Since families with addictions often expect so much of their children, they probably wouldn't overindulge.
Reality: Almost half of the people responding, 49%, reported addictions including alcoholism (66%), other drugs, and workaholism next.

Author's comment: Think of the double binds - parent overindulges, and then parent is unavailable. Or there is role reversal when the parent needs care from the child instead of caring for the child.

Myth: Overindulgence means that children have too many toys.
Reality: Wrong! Over half of those surveyed reported that having things done for them with no consistent chores expected was how they were overindulged. Among the things they reported and regretted not learning are: how to clean, how to organize personal space, how to budget, how to be financially adept, how to complete things, social skills.

What areas where they experienced overindulgence adds up to more than 100% because respondents could select more than one choice.

Areas of not having to be a contributing family member Areas that usually cost money
Having things done for you 54% Clothes 41%
Privileges 36% Toys 35%
Freedom/dominate family 33% Lessons 22%
Not having to learn skills 32% Entertainment 18%
Love/Not having to follow rules 23% Holidays 17%

Too many toys was not nearly as often a problem as not having to do chores.

 Do Parents Who Were Overindulged Overindulge? 

Myth: Parents who were overindulged will overindulge their children.
Reality: Not necessarily. In answer to the question:
Do you overindulge your children? 7% reported never, 32% said seldom, 53% responded sometimes, and 8% said often.
Too many toys was not nearly as often a problem as not having to do chores

According to this survey, the overindulgence was done by the parents and the major area of indulgence was not money and things, but instead was not having to be a contributing member of the family, being done for, not having to learn skills and follow rules, too much freedom, and too many privileges.

 Why Parents Overindulge 
Since overindulgence is a form of neglect and causes such pain, inconvenience, and distress later in life, why would parents do that? Here again we run into myths. It is very common to hear that parents overindulge by giving children toys because the parents feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children. Or that parents overindulge their children because they, the parents, didn't have enough when they were little. Answer the question, why do parents indulge? for yourself and then take the following true-false quiz and guess which reasons were reported in our research.

Circle "T" if you believe the statement is true or "F" if you believe the statement is false.
TFGuilt - a little guilt / a little gift
TFParents were overindulged
TFCame from scarcity
TFTo mask favoritism
TFTo compete with other adults
TFTo control kids
TFTo "make smooths" - fear confrontation or rejection
TFTo project the parent's vision of the child
TFTo feel like I am a good parent
TFNo skill at setting limits
TFBeing fair
TFCompetition with spouse over control of child
TFPath of least resistance
TFQuick fix for whining
TFTo cover conflicting goals
TFSeduction - to be popular with the child - for needs of seducer
TFCompensating for abusive parent
TFCompensating for absent parent
TFBuying love by absent parent
TFBuying favors
TFChild idolatry
TFBuild parents' own self-esteem - "What a good parent I am"
TFMedia programming
TFTo make child happy
TFTo set up peer group competition among children
TFTo compete with parent peer group
TFAfraid of child's anger
TFFor a child who is "less than"
TFGives love without balancing it with rules
TFProject parents' needs onto children - hockey camp, to be captain because Dad was or wasn't
TFContrary parenting - to oppose spouse or grandparents
TFWant child to have what they didn't have
TFDon't know child development
TFYield to pressure of media or children
TFHabitually codependent with everyone
TFTo please the grandparents or other adults
TFIllness of anyone in the family
TFLack of time and energy - fatigue

If you circled True for all 38 reasons, you are correct. All of these reasons were reported. You may know others.

 The Research Tells Why 

Myth: Why did parents overindulge? Was it for the welfare of the children?
Reality: No.   67% of those who were overindulged reported that the overindulgence related to problems the parents had, not to the children's welfare. Examples:
  • My father's work-related absences.
  • My mom felt guilty due to my dad's emotional neglect and physical abuse.
  • One sibling is deaf, mother felt responsible.
  • Mother's job out of the home and her poverty as a child.
  • The death of my father when I was four.

So, we parents may overindulge because we think it is for the welfare of a child, but most of the adults who were overindulged as children saw the overindulging as something that was done to meet their parents' needs. This gives us a direct clue about how to avoid overindulging - recognize our own needs and get them met directly, NOT through our children. Then we will be able to see whether what we are giving is hurtful or helpful.

BOOK NOTE:  Jean Illsley Clarke's book, Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children has an entire section (Misguided Nurture, Inadequate Structure) devoted to this topic of Overindulgence. This book's title (above) is a direct link to our review of this book from which it can be ordered directly from Please visit this website in the future for Jean's additional material on this topic.


  1. David J. Bredehoft, Ph.D., L.P., professor of psychology and family studies, Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota.
  2. Jean Illsley Clarke, "WE" Newsletter, What About Overindulgence? Vol, 14, No. 4, Issue 79, Mar, 1995 (Daisy Press, 16535 9th Ave N., Minneapolis, MN 55447)
  3. The first surprise about overindulgence came when I invited people who had been overindulged to be interviewed. People seemed very eager to talk, but very secretive about it. They didn't want anyone else to listen. They all spoke of ridicule, that when they had tried to talk about it they had been laughed at or scorned and told they were stuck up or lucky. Some told me I was the first person who had been willing to listen to the pain and what a relief it was to finally have a name for it and to talk about it. Several said they could not talk with their parents about it because overindulgence comes from love.
  4. Research survey questions will be given at a future date.
  5. Sample Characteristics:
    730 subjects were surveyed (84.5% female; 14.4% male).
    Subject's age ranged from 17-83 (mean age = 42.8).
    78.2% of the subjects were parents with a mean of 2.39 children.
    The subjects were highly educated:
    (4.2% Ph.D.; 34.2% masters; 34% bachelors; 23.2% less than or equal to 12th grade).
    The majority (86.4%) grew up in dual parent families.
    Sub-sample Characteristics:
    Of the 730 subjects:
    124 (86.3% female; 12.1% male) identified themselves as an adult child of overindulgence (ACO's)
    2.4% of ACO's had earned a Ph.D.; 29% masters; 37.9% bachelors; 3.2% trade school; 26.6% less than or equal to 12th grade.
The questionnaire was distributed through the newsletter "WE", at workshops and meetings, and in some college classes. 730 people returned the eleven page survey. Of those, 124 indicated that they had been overindulged as children. The respondents were mostly female, most grew up in dual parent families and most were highly educated. Most were American, a few were Canadian, English, or Australian. Since this was not a random sample, we don't know if it applies to the whole population or certain segments of the population. That statistic about dual parent families most likely reflects the age range of 17-83 and might be very different if a group of only 17-25 year olds were surveyed.

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