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Instilling An Attitude of Gratitude In Children

Most parents want to raise children who appreciate what they have, show responsibility, have a healthy perspective on material possessions, are generous, and think about the needs of others.  


Nowadays, bringing up children who feel grateful for, rather than entitled to, what they have is a challenge.


As you strive toward that goal, keep in mind that each parent decides for his family how much is too much and what is enough.


What you consider “right” depends on your personal values and what you want to teach your children about “things,” being responsible, and giving and receiving.

What is Over-Indulgence?

Over-indulgence is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon.  It exists on a continuum from one extreme to another:


  • from a child who is self-sacrificing, humble, and grateful for whatever he has

  • to one who is demanding, feels entitled, and lacks appreciation.


Children who grow up to be “spoiled” often don’t develop social skills that help them get along well in the world. Believing they deserve special treatment and that everyday rules do not apply to them, they can be annoyingly demanding, irresponsible, and untrustworthy.


Without the skills to cope with life’s challenges, they are easily frustrated and lash out. In general, they do not have a generosity of spirit. It is understandable that you want to raise your children so they do not develop these traits and behaviours.


How Parents Over-Indulge their Children

Research by Jean Illsley Clarke has found that there are three ways that parents can over-indulge their children:


  • Giving too much – time, money, material possessions

  • Over-caring – doing things for them that the children could and should be doing themselves

  • Lax discipline – not holding the children accountable for their behaviors


1. Giving Too Much – time, money, material possessions

Most people think of giving too many material items when considering the topic of over-indulgence.

However, another form of “giving too much” is allowing your children to participate in too many activities, especially when the responsibilities for fulfilling the obligation become a burden to you or if your children do not hold up their end of the bargain.


Examples of Giving Too Much

A five-year-old boy has an iPad and gets new apps as they are released. He doesn’t play his old games and doesn’t say thank you for the new ones.


Parents give their eleven-year-old son a new bike every year, although he does not take good care of it.


The Concept of “Enough”

The ability to know what is enough is one of the most important skills you can teach your children because it is through the understanding of this concept that children learn moderation and self-control. 


“Enough” is an elusive concept that is best taught slowly over many years by adults who say “You’ve had enough,” whether it is candy, gifts, excitement, recreation, or stimulation. 


You teach about enough informally a bit at a time as the situation arises:

  • “Time for a nap. You have been up long enough.”

  • “You and I are going into a quiet room to sit for awhile. You have had enough excitement for now.”

  • You’ve already had enough cookies.  I will cut up an apple for you.” 

  • “After we get your jacket and jeans, we will see if there is enough money left for the sneakers you want.” 

  • “Come for a walk with me.  I haven’t seen enough of you lately.”


The Concept of Needs vs. Wants 

Children don’t automatically know the difference between the things they truly need and those things they would like but can certainly survive without.  They are not born with the knowledge or judgment to calibrate their needs.


They experience all needs (and also what you might consider “wants”) with the same degree of intensity. It is up to you to teach them the difference.  For example:

Your two-year-old may desperately want a cookie. You can allow him to wait for it, knowing that he just had his lunch one hour ago.  Or your teen may desperately want a particular pair of designer jeans. You can deny the request or help him figure out a way that he can buy them with his own money, knowing that he has four other pairs of jeans in his closet that are in reasonably good condition.


You may feel pressure to satisfy all your children’s requests.

Needs Change Over Time 

Certainly with infants and babies, it is your job to satisfy their demands – it is a “developmental task” of babies to learn that their needs are important and that you care enough to keep them safe, healthy, and comfortable.


But as your children grow, if you were to satisfy every request they make, you would be doing them a disservice.  You would not be teaching them to prioritize their needs or to differentiate between what they truly need and what they would like to have but can live without.


Frustration Is A Gift

According to Jean Illsley Clarke, “Putting a child’s needs ahead of her wants is the greatest gift parents can give.” Every child deserves to be told “no” at times so he can learn moderation and how to deal with frustration.


Denying a snack for a four-year-old just before dinner time is a good example of having to deal with frustration.

As is a teen not being allowed to drive with friends in his car when you don’t think he has the judgment and skill to handle distractions. 


There are times when children need to not get their wants met in order to grow up physically and emotionally healthy.


Life Teaches Lessons

Happily for you, you don’t always have to be the “bad guy” by imposing artificial frustrations on your children; normal life imposes delays and frustrations enough, and you can use these as opportunities to help your children learn to deal with them.


For example, your child may:

  • not want to wait in line to buy an ice cream cone.

  • may want the gifts that were given to a friend celebrating a birthday.

  • may want you to take her to the movies when her friend gets sick and plans are cancelled.


You can empathize with their frustration while also teaching them some of the things they need to know to get on in the world: to delay gratification, to be patient, to feel happy when good things happen to a friend,  and to handle disappointments.


2. Over-Caring – doing what your children could and should do themselves

This is actually the most common type of over-indulgence, although it is not what most people think of. Studies have shown that adults who look back at their childhoods and feel that they were over-indulged mention this form of over-indulgence most often.


It does not occur because parents buy too many things for their children.  Over-Caring results from your not requiring your kids to be contributing members of the family and not encouraging them to learn life or self-care skills.


When you raise your children to expect that other people will take care of them and pick up after them, they do not learn how to care for themselves and or feel capable of doing so. Done for children in the name of love, this is a disservice which can result in a sense of debilitating inadequacy.


Examples of Over-Caring

  • The mother of a six-year-old hangs up his coat for him even though he can reach the hook himself.

  • Nine-year-old Sally’s father organizes all of her school work each night so she does not have to spend time doing it.

  • Thirteen-year-old Brian never makes his own social arrangements; his mother does that for him.

  • The father of a four-year-old still gets him water from the refrigerator even though the child has a very steady hand and is capable of pouring the water himself.

  • Ten-year-old Matthew is supposed to take out the trash, but when it is cold out, his father does it for him.


Not all Caring is Over-Caring

At times, you may want to do things for your children as a loving gesture, even if they are capable of doing those things themselves. 


You may want to make hot chocolate on a cold winter day when your teen gets home from school.  After dinner, you may choose to clear the table for your daughter knowing she has a big report due the next day.  You may help your child clean up his toys if he is especially tired at the end of the day.  But when it becomes a pattern or a burden to you or undermines of your child’s sense of competency, then it becomes over-indulgence.


3. Lax Discipline

Another form of over-indulgence occurs when you do not expect enough of your children in terms of responsibility for their actions.


When you do not set rules and establish consequences, your children do not have the opportunity to face the results of their behaviours. 


Knowing you will not hold them accountable for what they do, your children could learn that they do not have to:

  • be honest with themselves or others,

  • live up to standards,

  • or keep their word. 


Your lack of follow-through teaches them that they can “get away with things” and the rules do not apply to them.


Examples of Lax Discipline

  • A mother of a fifteen-year-old goes to school to get her child out of trouble when she is caught cheating on a test.

  • A mother calls her twelve-year-old’s teacher to give excuses for why he has forgotten his homework for the 7th time this marking period.

  • Eight-year-old Will does not have to apologize for breaking the neighbor’s window when he was playing ball with his friends.


Being Spoiled is an Attitude

Being spoiled does not necessarily result when a child has too many material possessions; you can actually spoil your children without spending any money on them.


Attitudes and actions of a spoiled child include:

  • not helping out,

  • not chipping in,

  • not taking responsibility for their behavior,

  • not being grateful for what they have,

  • expecting and demanding that others do things for them that they could do for themselves,

  • not being honest about what they have done,

  • feeling entitled to privileges that others do not have,

  • expecting to get their way,

  • and not feeling a need to be true to their word.


Unless you teach them otherwise, it is easy for children to continue to think of themselves as the center of the universe, special, privileged beings whose every whim should be immediately satisfied, and yet who never feel like they have enough.


Why Parents Over-Indulge their Children

Even though you are doing the very best you can to raise your children to be grateful and to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, there are a lot of factors that might lead you to over-indulge them, often without your awareness.

  • Parents who spend a lot of time away from home for their job may feel guilty and be reluctant to discipline their children during the little time they have with them.

  • Parents who are concerned that their children “like” them may not want to be the source of any frustration by saying “no.”

  • Parents who are competitive with friends or neighbors may feel a need for their children to have the newest and best of the latest “in” thing.

  • Parents who are averse to conflict may back away from establishing and enforcing rules.

  • Parents who grew up in poverty and felt deprived may want their children to have all that they did not have.

  • Divorced parents may want to show how much they love their children, and thereby “win” the competition with their ex-spouses.


Over-indulging may be motivated by a desire to compensate for an absent or abusive co-parent. It may be that parents do not have the skills to set limits. Parents may not set limits because not doing so is the path of least resistance, at least in the short term. Or parents may feel sorry for a child with special needs.


Whatever the reasons, it is helpful to acknowledge the attitudes and motivations that might lead you to over-indulge your children. Once you do, then you can begin to make conscious changes that will result in teaching your children what they need to learn about gratitude, responsibility, and accountability so that they can thrive in the world.


Tips to Avoid The Three Ways of Over-Indulging

  • Teach your children the concept of enough by using the word in everyday situations.

  • Help your children to know the difference between their needs and wants.

  • Satisfy all their needs as best you can, and satisfy some of their wants, as fits your values.  Don’t give your children everything they want or ask for; set limits based on your values.

  • Give your children responsibilities in the home, appropriate to their ages, maturity, and ability.  Small chores can start when children are as young as three-years old.

  • Be consistent with rules and follow through with any consequencesyou set so that your children learn that they will be held accountable for their behavior.

  • Don’t “bail” your children out when they get into trouble or if they shirk responsibilities.  You can be a support to them while still helping them to face consequences.

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