Overindulgence expert Jean Illsley Clarke tells Moneyish how teaching kids to fend for themselves makes them successful adults.
Too much stuff, too much help, too little structure — it’s a trap that leads well-intentioned parents into making life as a grownup hard for their kids.
Jean Illsley Clarke, the country’s foremost expert on childhood overindulgence — and its pitfalls — has a fresh, vested interest in helping millennial parents rein things in as they start families of their own: a brand new great-grandson, the first great-grandbaby in her family.
“I haven’t intruded anything yet. But I will!” she admitted, sitting down to talk to Moneyish in her mid-century modern Minnesota home a few weeks before her 93rd birthday.
Millennials, known for their overscheduled childhoods overseen by helicopter parents, may be the most overindulged generation yet — but there’s still hope that they won’t repeat their parents’ mistakes, Clarke believes.
“When people finally get it, how damaging this is, they’ll take action,” she said.
Her research shows that being overindulged as a kid has been linked to an inability to delay gratification, a lack of gratitude and self-control, and an increase in materialistic values as an adult. “Too many things results in lack of respect for things and people. Doing things for our children that they should be doing themselves results in helplessness and lack of competence. Lack of structure results in irresponsibility,” she said. “What we found in our big study was that nobody said ‘thank you’ to their parents, but the word ‘resent’ came up often.”
Clarke still thinks about a woman who told her that she didn’t do chores as a child and had never done laundry when she got to college. “She went to her roommates and said, ‘Which is the washer, and which is the dryer’? And they ridiculed her. And she made a very unfortunate decision. She decided she would never ask for help again. So her college years were not happy ones,” she said.
Clarke has collaborated on 10 different research studies on overindulgence, the most recent in 2013, and is still working, planning to release a new book this year. She said she writes letters to her grandchildren most Mondays.
An educator who has taught generations of parents, Clarke made up her mind to write her first book on her 50th birthday, she said. She ended up publishing more than 20. In the 1990s, she decided to learn more about why some adults told her they were angry that their parents had given them too much of everything, and did too many things for them as children.
Things have only gotten worse: A 2016 survey on “helicopter parenting in the workplace” by the company OfficeTeam found that one in three managers felt it was a problem — reporting issues like a mom “Skyping in” during a candidate’s interview, and parents calling to see why their children weren’t hired.
A self-described “World War II, Depression kid,” Clarke felt that she didn’t know much about overindulgence, just that it hadn’t been her own experience. She couldn’t find any research studies that adequately tackled the subject, so teamed up with fellow parenting expert Connie Dawson and David Bredehoft, a now-retired Concordia University professor, to study it on their own.
Eventually, parents started coming up to her during workshops to ask, “I want to know if I’m doing it.”
Through their research, Clarke and her collaborators discovered that overindulgence of some sort was happening at all income levels, and that it has serious consequences — serious enough that she grew to consider it a form of neglect.
They also found that “spoiling” is about much more than just stuff — while too many clothes or toys isn’t a good thing, it isn’t as damaging as doing too many things for kids that they should be doing for themselves. “That would include the helicopters,” said Clarke, who added that the effects of this are visible in kids early on. “The children say, ‘Oh, I can’t.’ Or, ‘Let my brother do it.’ Or, ‘My stomach aches.’”
In her book “How Much Is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children—From Toddlers to Teens—In an Age of Overindulgence,” which was written with Bredehoft and Dawson and updated in 2013, Clarke includes a test that parents of kids two and older can take to see if they’re overindulging. For example, “The majority of the time, I give my child all the toys she/he wants, yes or no?” and “The majority of the time, I hate to see my child be frustrated, yes or no?”
She also developed a quick test to see if doing or buying something is an overindulgence: Does it disproportionately drain family resources? Is it really more for the parents than the kid? Does it intrude on a kid’s developmental learning? Is there any possible harm to others or society? If you say “Yes” to any — it’s probably not a good idea.
As we talked, I couldn’t help but ask Clarke for help handling my own 3-year-old, who given one cookie, will ask and ask and ask for more until I can’t see straight. Moderation is difficult to maintain sometimes.
“They will try out begging, not because they’re greedy, but because it’s their job to find out if it works. And if you let it work, it will be worked,” she said. “Be gentle with yourself. You’ve got a long time to be a parent. So you have a long time to figure out how.”
She also chided all of us parents not to feel guilty.
“This is an age of overindulgence. So many aspects of our culture are pushing you: ‘You must give your children all these experiences. You must buy them all these things.’ The pressures are there,” Clarke said. “So don’t bite.”
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