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Over-Indulging Our Children Over the Holidays

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Call us "Grinch-esque," but gift-giving frenzies that characterize this season raise an interesting question: is there a negative educational impact when a child gets "too much stuff" now, or any time throughout the year?

While the correlation between school and stuff might not be immediately apparent to some parents, there is a link, says Jean Illsley Clark, co-author of "How Much Is Enough: Everything You Need to Know to Steer Clear of Overindulgence and Raise Likeable, Responsible and Respectful Children" and co-creator of an Overindulgence website.

"We have found three ways that parents overindulge. One is with too much. Another is what we call 'over-nurture'—doing things for kids that they should be doing for themselves. And the third is lack of structure—not providing rules and enforcing them," says Clark, describing her research. "But for this month, let's focus on stuff." (While most of my K-12 Parents & the Public posts involve policy type stuff, here are some tips to empower parents in dealing with their kids on the all-important motivation issue.)

"What we've found is that too much stuff [creates] a big stumbling block to learning delayed gratification," she says. "The ability to delay gratification is a tremendously important personal quality for achieving those things that you want. Delayed gratification is absolutely basic to success in school."

"You can see easily that a child who is given everything he or she wants at the moment [might] expect school to come the same way," she said. They might think: "You mean, I have to learn all 12 multiplication tables?" Or, they might not develop the patience and discipline to go through all the steps necessary for writing a good paper—from outline to first draft, revisions and final draft.

In "Deferred Gratification," Daryl Capuano writes about this issue, addressing parents in a blog post when he says: "... your motivation to give is part of what has undermined the work ethic of many teens. They missed seeing the connection between work and reward. They missed the struggle."

Founder and CEO of The Learning Consultants, an Old Saybrook, Conn.-based company that provides tutoring and test prep, Capuano explains how teens from the opposite mindset see the world: "Those who are self-motivated are firmly rooted in the concept of deferred gratification. They learn the lesson that they must work beyond what is the comfortable now in order to get something special latter. They know that stuff doesn't just magically appear.

"It is ironic that many parents whose success can be firmly attributed to living this principle, inadvertently, teach the exact opposite lesson to their children.

"When our company works with students to shift their academic success, we know that teaching math and writing is secondary. We need to shift their motivation first," indicates Capuano, who wrote "Motivate Your Son: Inspire your boy to be engaged in school, excited for college, and energized for success."

Clark gave overindulging parents an A for intention, but an F for implementation on reasonable gift-giving to children.

"Parents parent from a good heart. They overindulge from a good heart. They want their kids to be happy, and they don't have a clue what the outcome will be. They're just being nice and kind and loving," she said.

To curb over-indulging tendencies, Clark suggests parents ask themselves four questions about a specific purchase before finalizing the sale:


  • Will giving this gift interfere with, or slow down, your child's learning what she needs to learn at this age?

  • Will giving this thing, activity or experience use a disproportionate amount of your family resources on one or more of your children?

  • Whose needs are really being met with this gift? Is it being considered more to please you, as the parents, than for your child's benefit?

  • Would buying it do potential harm to someone else or the environment?

"If the answer to any of those questions is 'Yes,' then this is an indicator that you need to seriously think about this purchase," said Clark, who also pointed out that what is over-indulgent for one child may not be for another.

What are your thoughts about overindulging children, and expecting them to delay gratification in school? Have you seen a correlation in your experience?

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