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Overindulged children may miss key values

'It's hard to say no when you can afford to say yes'

"You can't have everything — where would you put it?" — Comedian Steven Wright

Here's a scene you've likely witnessed in the toy section at the mall: Saucer-eyed youngster scans rows of action figures, dolls and radio-controlled gizmos before locking in on that prominently displayed, pricey toy. Soon a mantra of "I want," "I want," and "I want" begins. Mom or Dad scramble to foil an oncoming meltdown. The toy box at home, they say, is already overflowing. No luck. Tantrum ensues. Child begins wailing and collapses in rage to the floor. Defeated, red-faced parents snatch toy off the shelf, toss it into their shopping cart and hustle to the check-out line.

There's probably a clinical diagnosis for such behavior. A layman's term perhaps fits best: spoiled child.

It's apparently a common ailment. In a period of relative financial prosperity, demanding family schedules and easy, easy credit, parents are more prone than ever to overindulge their children. Newsweek magazine recently reported that U.S. parents with 3- to 12-year olds spend $53.8 billion annually on entertainment, personal care items and reading materials for their children — $17.6 billion more than parents spent in 1997. Meanwhile, teenagers can be found leaning on their parents for the high-end clothing and electronic gadgets that their classmates at school all seem to own.

"My children are so aware of what their friends have," said Miriam Church, an LDS Utah mother of four young children.

Indeed, Church leaders say LDS parents are not immune to overindulging their consumer-minded offspring. In his general conference address earlier this month, Presiding Bishop H. David Burton observed that parents who have been successful in acquiring more can have a difficult time saying no to their sons' or daughters' every wish.

"Their children run the risk of not learning important values like hard work, delayed gratification, honesty and compassion," Bishop Burton said. "Affluent parents can and do raise well-adjusted, loving and value-centered children, but the struggle to set limits, make do with less and avoid the pitfalls of more, more, more have never been more difficult.

"It is hard to say no when you can afford to say yes."

Playtime and having fun with favorite toys or games remain an integral, healthy element of childhood. Teens have perhaps always wanted to dress fashionably and follow trends. Bishop Burton said there is no need for parents to adopt Scrooge's miserly habits. All things in moderation. Yet Church leaders do warn that children who are toy-rich and responsibility-poor risk missing life's lasting lessons of happiness.

Amid the challenges of today's "more generation," there remains divine counsel for parents to teach their children the essential doctrines of repentance, faith and gospel ordinances. The meaning of more and less is not always clear anymore, Bishop Burton added. "Less pursuit of materialism may enable more family togetherness. More indulgence of children may result in less understanding of life's important values."

Raising gospel-focused children in a consumer-centered culture isn't easy. But much direction (and hope) is available, even for parents who have slipped into the trap of overindulgence.

Start by recognizing "the basic goodness in our children," said Kathleen Bahr, an associate professor at Brigham Young University's home and family living department. A mother of four herself, Professor Bahr said her children have recently learned the quiet pleasure of simply working shoulder to shoulder with their parents during school and household projects. The learning, she said, was discovered in the doing.

Professor Bahr points to President Gordon B. Hinckley's September 1996 First Presidency Message as timely direction for LDS parents trying to weather today's consumer-mad world:

"The observance of four simple things on the part of parents would, in a generation or two, turn our societies around in terms of their moral values," wrote President Hinckley. "They are simply these: Let parents and children (1) teach and learn goodness together, (2) work together, (3) read good books together, and (4) pray together."

The common denominator in each of President Hinckley's four points is, of course, togetherness, said Professor Bahr. "I think family home evening is a big key."

So how much stuff is too much stuff for children? Professor Bahr said parents should trust their own instincts. And learn to say "No." Never cite the family's bank account as a reason for not indulging a child's every material want.

"It's a big mistake to allow children to believe that the only thing standing between them and, say, a new toy is a lack of money," she said.

When one of Kristen and Tim Hudson's four children asks for a new toy or gadget, the Hudsons take time to sit down and talk with the child. Together, they determine if the desired item is truly needed right away. Then they give the child an opportunity to earn the item over time. As a family, "you decide what's important," said Sister Hudson of the Frisco 2nd Ward, Carollton Texas Stake.

Mothers and fathers who want to avoid overindulging their children would also be wise to examine their own wants and indulgences, Professor Bahr said.

"If parents' eyes are full of greediness," wrote author Katrina Kenison, "they're going to have a hard time reining in their children."

E-mail to: jswensen@desnews.com