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Parents Who Pamper

How To Stop Overindulging Your Child

I am an overindulgent parent. The realization hit me like a truck this past winter as I was navigating the normal morning tumult of getting my 7- and 9-year-old sons ready for school. To speed along getting dressed, I had come up with the idea of first putting their clothes in the dryer. It worked brilliantly. The clothes came out; the boys couldn't get that warm underwear on fast enough! But my ego was quickly deflated when several weeks into this routine, the dryer was full of wet laundry and the boys had to – gasp – put on room temperature clothing again.

"I can't wear this. It's not WARM. You have to warm these clothes up."

I was immediately crippled by horrific visions of these sweet little boys growing into ungrateful, spoiled men, whining to their future wives that they expect their clothes to be warmed each morning. I asked myself, "What on earth have I done?"

The Problem

Plenty, according to Dr. Betty Lou Bettner, psychologist, family therapist and co-author of several parenting books. "Pampering is an epidemic," she says. "We are producing the most indulged generation in history. The newspapers focus on abuse and neglect, which is the No. 1 worst thing you can do to a child. They don't say that the No. 2 worst thing you can do is pamper them."

I am not alone in my behavior. Dr. Bettner estimates that pampering or indulging goes on in more than 60 percent of households with children. It starts early and perpetuates itself.

Sue Butler of Lafayette Hill, Pa., mother of three boys ages 3, 6 and 8, recently noticed a troubling pattern in her home. "When something gets broken, my kids just expect to get a brand-new replacement," she says. "There is no sense of loss. We are so afraid of our kids being disappointed; we are constantly shielding them."

Despite her instincts to protect her children, Butler realizes that replacing broken items may be doing more harm than good. She wants her boys to be independent and understand concepts such as gratitude.

"Parents are confused," Dr. Bettner says. "They have good intentions but don't see their actions as irresponsible."

The Causes

So what defines over indulging or pampering? The most straightforward definition is doing something for a child that they can do for themselves, Dr. Bettner says. It also involves setting unhealthy expectations of entitlement. Examples of such parental behavior include the following:

  • Waking a child up in the morning
  • Helping to dress
  • Packing lunches
  • Fetching items
  • Supervising homework
  • Constantly reminding
  • Granting reprieves on chores
  • Replacing lost or broken items
  • Purchasing unearned gifts

By engaging in this behavior, parents are depriving children of critical opportunities to develop into independent adults. We are robbing them of responsibility.

There are many theories as to why we over indulge our children. Butler hypothesizes that with more dual-income families, the guilt factor plays heavily. She also thinks that parents who have fewer children have more time to indulge. "Once I had my third child, I physically couldn't do as much for each of them," she says.

Butler also notices that society fosters a sense of instant gratification and entitlement. "My 3-year-old knows that if you miss a TV show, you can 'DVR it,'" she says. "They realize that they are able to get whatever they want, whenever they want." This societal pressure is all the more reason for parents to provide balance.

The Cure

For parents who want to stop indulging their children, there are many points of entry. Dr. Bettner suggests a family meeting to kick off the process. "Sit down and tell your kids you've made a BIG mistake," she says. "That will get their attention. Tell them that you realized that you have been treating them like babies and they deserve better. They are going to start doing more things on their own and taking more responsibility for their actions."

Identifying together ways that children can become more independent allows the child to become vested in the course of action. It will be up to the parent to stay on the right track.

For certain tasks, it may be harder for the parent to let go. For instance, walking to school, waiting for the bus alone or cooking on the stove involves safety issues. For tasks such as these, a progression is appropriate and gives everyone a greater sense of comfort. Here's how:

  1. You perform the task.
  2. You perform the task with the child's help.
  3. The child performs the task with your help.
  4. The child performs the task alone.

Usually, if the child asks to do something by themselves, it probably means they are ready. Dr Bettner believes that children can do most household tasks by the age of six.

So what do you do when your child forgets that violin or school lunch? Dr. Bettner doesn't suggest leaving a child stranded without something they need. The key is to teach them it is not OK to forget. "Nobody is perfect, but the child must understand the consequences of their actions," she says. "Bring the violin to school, but let the child know that their forgetfulness consumed some of your valuable time. They owe you for that time. In the end, if you pamper your child in such a way that inconveniences you, you are disrespecting yourself."

Once the child is off and running on his own, it is important to offer positive feedback. Compliment the child on the effort – not necessarily the outcome. When mistakes happen, play them down. Don't focus on the mistake itself but ask her what she learned from it. "Self-esteem comes from what you can do," Dr. Bettner says.

Moving away from indulgent behavior takes parental perseverance and energy. Stacy Kincaid of Bethesda, Md., recently stopped making lunches and organizing dance and swim bags for her two girls, ages 10 and 8. "I do think it takes consistent reinforcement," she says. "That's the hard part. Sometimes they complain that it's hard to make a sandwich and spread peanut butter, but I tell them that it's no more difficult than putting a dress on a Polly Pocket."

Kincaid recognizes that even the most well intentioned parent has moments of vulnerability. "When you're tired and in a hurry and they're complaining about making their lunches, it's easy to just grab the Ziplocs and do it yourself," she says. "If you can take a minute and remind them of why they're doing it, and then leave the room ... it's amazing what gets done while my hairdryer is buzzing away upstairs."

Dr. Bettner reassures parents that you can still be kind without over indulging. "If you are in the kitchen and near the juice, it's absolutely OK to ask the child if he or she wants some juice." The difference between being kind and pampering is usually recognizable.

Parents must constantly ask themselves, "What qualities do I want for my child, and is doing this for them instilling or diluting those qualities?" I now ask myself this question every day, and it is beginning to yield dividends. My children still have warm clothes in the morning, but they pick them out and put them in the dryer all by themselves. And watching them, I feel warm all over too.

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