When visitors used to come to Joanna Stingray's home and she opened the door, they'd invariably ask if she was running a preschool. "Every room had a play area," says Stingray, a divorced song lyricist who lives in Los Angeles with her 5-year-old daughter, Madison. "I'd matted the floors with rugs covered in letters of the alphabet. There was a play table in every room. In the master bedroom I had a Lego table and a miniature piano. It made Madison the queen bee -- all the other children just loved coming to our house."
Stingray devoted more than just her home to her child. "My whole life was about her," she says. "Every little thing I did, I wondered how it would affect my daughter's life." But as Madison turned 3 and then 4, her mother realized she'd overdone it. "A lot of the things I'd thought were cute -- like always asking to be first -- began to seem bossy and controlling," Stingray says. "Madison wanted everything her way."
It's the kind of scenario that has a growing number of experts worried. "We're hurting our children by expecting too little and giving too much -- too many toys, too much help, too much leeway in how they can behave," contends Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., an adjunct assistant professor at Harvard University and author of Too Much of a Good Thing. "By always trying to protect them from adversity, we're depriving them of the chance to learn coping skills. By not setting appropriate limits, we're undermining our children's character development. I worry about how this generation will handle the challenges of adulthood."
Others who work with children observe the same problem manifested differently. Ronald London, M.D., a Bronx, NY, pediatrician in private practice, says he sees far too many seriously overweight kids who've been kept on bottles long after they should have been weaned. "Children should be off bottles by 12 to 15 months, when they tend to become good eaters," says Dr. London. "But so many parents can't say no to their kids -- they're afraid their children won't like them if they do."
Some parents, too, are growing concerned. "In trying to be so loving and accepting, you wonder, are you leading your kids to believe the world defers to them in every way?" says Pamela Erens, a writer who lives in Maplewood, NJ, and has two kids, 3-year-old Hannah and 4-year-old Abraham. "We visited an Amish town a while ago and I got so depressed. Everything written about the Amish suggests their children grow up with a kind of equanimity, peacefulness, and patience. Meanwhile, we're driving around and our kids are screaming -- they want juice, they want this, they want that. I turned and asked my husband, 'Is it too late to become Amish?'"
Of course, researchers can't measure whether kids are overindulged today the way they can quantify things like school performance. Still, in a study Dr. Kindlon conducted of some 1,100 parents and 650 teenagers from upper-middle-class families around the country, nearly 60% of parents reported their kids were at least somewhat spoiled. About half the boys and two-thirds of the girls in the study agreed. How does this compare to previous generations? In a 2002 Child survey of more than 2,400 parents with children ages 8 and under, 91% of parents said discipline is less strict now than when they were growing up and 80% didn't think that's such a good thing. "We're trying to be different kinds of parents," says Dr. Kindlon. "We want open communication with our kids, not dictatorial rule. We want, to some extent, to be their friends. But sometimes that desire comes at a price: not being able to set a limit when a child needs it."
Parents may have more opportunity to be overindulgent than at any other time in American history. Increasingly, women are having children later in life -- and having fewer of them. In 1976, a woman in her early 40s had an average of 3.1 children. In 2000, the last year for which figures are available, a woman the same age had an average of 1.9 kids. The upshot: Because families are smaller, it follows that parents can concentrate more attention on each child -- and more of their resources.
"Years ago, pampering children wasn't a possibility for many people," says William Nicoll, Ph.D., chair of the counselor education department at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "Now, many middle-class parents outfit their kids with their own TV, phone line, and cell phone. From a child's perspective, the world starts to revolve around him. There's the expectation that parents will provide these things without any contribution from the child." In fact, 40% of parents in Dr. Kindlon's study said their children had a TV in their room, 50% said their kids had a phone, and 28% of parents reported their teenagers had a personal cell phone. Other surveys show that even 25% of preschoolers have a TV in their room.
Dramatic workforce changes of the last few decades may contribute to a culture of overindulgence in another way. More two-income families and single working parents mean more people juggling kids and work. "Parents feel guilty for having been away all day," says Jerry Brodlie, Ph.D., head of psychology at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut. "Kids can ask for whatever they want and parents give in because they want their time together to be all positive."
One obvious but difficult way to avoid harmful indulging is by setting firm limits. That means giving children rules and structure and saying no and sticking to it. It also involves teaching kids acceptable ways to vent any frustration they may feel. The issue of setting limits generally arises in the toddler stage: "It can be a very hard transition," notes Dr. Kindlon. "In infancy, you can't give a baby too much love. Then you have to change; you have to start saying no. I vividly remember with my own children how sad that was."
As difficult as it is, limit-setting is probably one of the most loving things a parent can do. In our hurry-up society, parents may be tempted to give in because it's easier and faster. Yet this causes problems in the long run. "Kids find security in limits and consistency," says Charles Thompson, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology and counseling at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "If they can get away with something one day but they're punished for it the next, they don't know where the boundaries are." It's also a parent's job to teach children how to delay gratification. "But too often when our kids are frustrated, we buy them something," says Dr. London.
The rule-bending becomes a slippery slope. "Early on it's, 'I want ice cream, and I'll yell and scream until I get some,'" says Dr. Nicoll. "Later on, it may become, 'If I'm picked up by the police, my parents will buy a good attorney and get me out.'" Consider the research: Recent studies at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, found that teenagers of loving but overly permissive and indulgent parents are more likely to do poorly in school and use drugs or alcohol than those whose mothers and fathers encourage independence and responsibility in the context of firm guidelines.
Then there's the smother-love phenomenon. "It starts with little things," says Dr. Nicoll. "A child is learning to walk, but the parents still carry her. They feed her, even though she's showing she wants to do it herself. What they should be doing instead, as a child shows more independence, is encouraging this behavior and instilling a sense of capability and self-confidence."
As kids grow older, parents should also let them experience the consequences of their mistakes. Nora Miller*, a southern California elementary school principal, observes that today's parents seem convinced their children can do no wrong. She recalls an incident when two of her second-graders made fun of a little girl in special ed. "Her mom was standing nearby and heard it," Miller says. "I had the boys come in and I asked them to think, 'What if someone did this to my sister?'" That led to a thoughtful discussion and the boys stayed in for recess. Later, however, the boys' moms got together and decided there was no way their sons would have done that. They called the mother of the girl who'd been teased and they came in for conferences.
In fairness, not every expert believes today's generation is unusually spoiled. Some point out that there's always been a tendency for older generations to be critical of those who come after them. "You can't make generalizations about such a complex topic," argues Peter Walsh, M.D., a psychiatrist at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. "You'll always have kids doing self-indulgent stuff, but the proportion hasn't changed radically from one generation to another."
Even those who've sounded the alarm are quick to stress that modern parents are doing many things right. "I don't think we should go back to being stereotypical 1950s families, when parents were more emotionally distant," says Dr. Kindlon. "It's great that our kids confide in us and we have fun with them. But too many parents have the mistaken notion that you can't have emotional closeness and set limits at the same time."
* The name and some identifying details have been changed.
When it comes to curbing the impulse to indulge, experts urge parents to think about the message their actions are sending. "When you have to make a choice because your child is pushing to watch a video or begging for a lollipop before dinner, ask yourself what you want him to learn from the interaction," says Claire Lerner, a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC. "Do you want it to be that he can always get something if he asks for it enough?"
Another important strategy: Don't overlook the benefit of chores. "Parents tend to forget that responsibility is a learned skill," says Robert Billingham, Ph.D., a human development specialist at Indiana University in Bloomington. "They believe that when children are older, they'll magically know it or schools will teach them. But kids need to gradually take on more responsibility, based on their age. Otherwise, they get a sense that nothing is required of them."
Parents should also keep the ancient adage "Know thyself" in mind. In many cases, notes Dr. Kindlon, when moms or dads bend over backward, it's to give kids things they didn't have as children or to protect them from hurts they themselves once felt. "We're reparenting ourselves through our kids," he says.
That insight resonates for Natalie Weiss, a writer who lives in Takoma Park, MD. For her daughter's fifth birthday, Weiss racked her brain to try to top the party she'd thrown when Katherine turned 4. She eventually hired a "mad scientist" who performed experiments with dry ice and other items. "Then my husband went with Katherine to another birthday party and he told me there was a clown, a popcorn machine, musicians, a whole series of events," says Weiss. "I felt jealous. I felt like, 'Oh my God, I've failed -- what can I do next year?'"
Weiss admits her daughter would probably have been happy with a less lavish affair in their backyard. "But some of my self-esteem is invested in this," she says. "When I was young, I worried about whether other kids would come to my parties."
Most children respond when parents mend their ways. Stingray, the Los Angeles mom, has changed her approach and sees the results reflected in her daughter. Her wake-up call came when she fell in love. "Once some of my focus was on someone else, I could see how 100% of my life had been about Madison," she says. "I'd been treating our family like a democracy, without enough acknowledgment that I'm the adult and she's the child."
Now she's agonizing less over denying her daughter things. Recently, for example, Stingray put her foot down and banned TV on weekdays. "It took a week of her crying and screaming, but I stuck to my guns and now she just plays with her toys," says Stingray. "She's becoming much more flexible. I think in some ways she feels freer -- now that I've given her more boundaries."
Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2003 issue of Child magazine.