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Overindulgent Parenting – What is “enough” for Preschoolers?

By Nancy Olsen-Harbich, MA

We live in an environment on Long Island that encourages all of us to overindulge. There are shopping opportunities at every turn in the road, plentiful entertainment, arts, and sports activities to choose from, and many service providers for the tasks we can’t seem to find time for – house cleaning, lawn care, car maintenance, etc. Some disposable income is all it takes to slip into a little overindulgence, and Long Islanders are more likely to have this than families in other parts of the country. Those who can afford to (and some who can’t) treat themselves and their children very well. But are we also using the necessary restraint to avoid spoiling our children? If we are able, why not make children’s lives as happy and comfortable as possible?

Research into family life since the 1990’s (Clark & Bredehoft 1998, Kindon 2000) points to some very good reasons to try to stem the tide of entitlement flowing in the direction of our young children. Receiving too much, too soon, in conjunction with what is called “over-nurturing” (doing for children what they could do for themselves) seems to deter young human beings from developing good character traits like perseverance, helpfulness, cooperation, and consideration for others, and seems to encourage self-centered attitudes and behaviors.

Starting to feel uncomfortable yet? We are all guilty of this to some extent, and it is love for our children (a GOOD thing; they can’t have too much of that) that inclines us towards overindulgence and over-nurturing. Here’s some common sense advice from the experts concerning “giving” of possessions, time, and service to your children:

Learn about your child’s developmental stage

What’s reasonable to expect from a child in terms of chores and self-care? What toys and activities help to support the learning they need to do now as opposed to later? How can you tell the difference between normal frustration intolerance and tantrums that become a habitual behavior in order to get what they want? Attend parent education workshops, look for opportunities to be around other families of young children to compare notes, try to read and learn as much as you can about supporting, in healthy ways, your child’s growth and development.

Avoid the “Happiness Trap”

Be willing to say “no” when saying “yes” would not, ultimately, be in your child’s best interest, even if it makes them unhappy at the moment. Sometimes they are very loudly unhappy. Young children haven’t yet learned the boundaries of budgets and time, or the need to weigh one member of the family’s individual needs against the bigger, overreaching goals of the family. It is a parent’s job to set necessary limits. And you’ll be very unhappy if you don’t, ultimately resulting in a negative attitude towards parenting that impacts your children much more seriously than losing out on a new toy.

Empower Preschoolers to “do for themselves”

Even a 3 year old can bring their finished dish to the sink. Look closely at the level of service you provide to your children. Yes, they need our help, but “doing for” constantly sends the message that they are not very competent. Put the paper towels where they can reach them themselves to clean up messes, create organized toy storage areas so that they can put things away in a place they belong. Expecting young children to contribute to the family and their own self-care teaches life skills and builds confidence.

Watch your spending

A small collection of good toys (balls, blocks, trucks, dolls, puppets) gives young children tools for learning and exploring through play. A huge collection of toys (gathered through parents buckling under the pressure of demanding children) can create storage chaos and actually result in poorer quality play and concentration – there’s just too much. In addition, having to wait for a holiday or birthday for a special toy can be good practice in delayed gratification, an important concept to understand in adulthood when you must work towards your own goals.

Keeping the “long view” in mind is challenging when our natural inclination is to want to please our children. A little indulgence, once in awhile, spreads joy in their hearts and ours. But a steady diet of overindulgence is no gift at all.

Nancy Olsen-Harbich is Program Director and a Human Development Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Family Health and Wellness Program. She can be reached at 631-727-7850 ext. 332 or at


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