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Kim Ode: Yes, you can have too much of
a good thing
Published December 14, 2003, Minneapolis
Star Tribune Page E2
An annoyingly durable adage says that the road to hell is paved
with good intentions. David Bredehoft wants everyone to remember
the part about the good intentions, even if your parents never
taught you how to do laundry. Chances are, they only wanted to
make your life easier. Who would have thought it could backfire?
Bredehoft studies the consequences of an effortless childhood.
He calls it an overindulged childhood, but he's not necessarily
talking about a mountain of material goods. Overindulged kids
might grow up with too few limits -- or too much forgiveness.
They're kids whose parents are always more than willing to help,
to advocate, to grease the skids.
The trouble is that these beloved kids stand a fair chance of
growing up into angry adults, which can come as quite a shock
to Supermom'n'pop, who were expecting some gratitude. The people
whom Bredehoft interviewed said they're embarrassed to find that
they don't know how to manage money, or remove an ink stain,
or show up on time. Some tell him they have trouble knowing when
enough is enough, whether they're eating, shopping, drinking,
Bredehoft is a psychologist and chairman of the Social and Behavioral
Sciences department at Concordia University in St. Paul. Since
1996, he and fellow researchers Jean Illsley Clarke and Connie
Dawson have done three studies and 2,000 interviews. They've
emerged with a pretty good map of the road. The pavement is in
What exactly is overindulgence? Bredehoft says it's when parents
give kids too much of what looks good, too soon, for too long.
Here's the key: It's more about what the parents need to do for
their kids than what the kids need from them.
Bredehoft's bottom line is blunt: "Overindulgence is a form
of child neglect." It keeps kids from learning basic lessons
of life, or of thinking beyond their own needs, partly because
their parents never let on that this was a sacrifice or hardship.
Maybe they never thought of it in that way themselves.
As parents, we've been counseled about setting limits, about
not spoiling our kids, about raising responsible adults. But
we also want our kids to like us. Parents who work long hours
may make up for their absence by fulfilling their kids' every
passing fancy. Families with little income to spare might compensate
by making sure that the kids don't feel stressed out or overburdened.
The subtlest messages might carry the most baggage: You can never
have enough food for a party. Let me do that. Sure, I'll drop
it off at school.
OK, this is hitting a little close to home. Where's the line
between enough and too much? Bredehoft acknowledges that it can
be a tough call. "We probably all do this at times,"
he said. He referred to a story on their Web site, www.overindulgence.info/,called
"The test of four: A case of persimmons," a true story
that poses four questions to help determine if we're overdoing
As the story goes, Mala took an entire case of persimmons to
a potluck. Good intentions, yes. But Mala wasn't acting out of
generosity as much as out of an inability to know when enough
was enough. She ended up irking the hostess, but also probably
felt hurt that her contribution inspired more sidelong glances
Which brings us to the kicker in the research: None of the adults
who said they'd been overindulged as children were happy about
it now. Not even one. They knew their parents had meant well,
but they still resented feeling at a loss when it came to making
a decision, or doing a household chore, or raising their own
"The more they were overindulged, the less they saw themselves
as effective people," Bredehoft said. So, what to do --
whether we're parents who suddenly see ourselves, or adults who
now have an inkling about why we feel so inept?
Bredehoft said that recognizing the problem is half the battle.
He suggests thinking about life as a highway. "We want to
stay on the road, but on some days, it feels like we're going
to end up in the ditch," he said. "And we might really
end up there. But the point is not to stay in the ditch, but
to pull our car back to the middle of the road."
Eventually, he said, we'll start to recognize when we're starting
to veer off. We'll start to hear the rumble strips that tell
us we're starting to overdo it again. And we'll gently steer
our lives back into the flow of traffic. With that experience,
we're more likely to reach our destination.
Kim Ode's columns run Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Write
to her at firstname.lastname@example.org,or 425
Portland Av. S., Minneapolis MN 55488. For past columns, go to