by Ginny Seuffert
An Illinois native planned to move to her husband’s native Africa at some point in the future to raise any children they might have. This news started a lively conversation around our dinner table. “Why,” we asked, “would you consider raising children in Africa with all the civil unrest and rampant disease on that continent?” Her answer went right to the point: “I never saw an African child cry who was not in pain.”
Middle-class American children, who enjoy better health, the benefits of a peaceful society, and more material comfort than any children in the history of the world, often seem miserable. According to my friend, African children laugh and play the day away and are grateful for the tiniest favor, despite often living in what we would describe as grinding poverty. How can this be?
When we seek to make our children continually happy by giving them all the material things that they demand, are we unwittingly teaching them to be self-centered, greedy, and dissatisfied? The evidence confirms the Biblical admonition that we should not store up for ourselves the world’s treasures. Nor should we give them to our children.
Even the modern secular world is troubled by over-indulged children. Recently, I spotted a brochure for childcare workers, which claimed:
“Overindulgence of children has become a serious issue leading children and teens to conduct-disorder symptoms. ...Their overindulgences lead children to develop...a life without boundaries, balance, and conscience. The complications of overindulging children include symptoms of conduct disorder, acute self-centeredness, intense detachment leading to anger and resentment fueling misbehavior, excessive dependency, ‘it’s-all-about-me’ entitlement, manipulation, loss of self-esteem, missing social skills and impulsiveness.”
If a secular organization is alarmed about the level of selfishness in our young people, we faithful Catholic parents should be alert and concerned. We will remain calm, however, if we keep some simple ideas in mind. The following few easy-to-implement tips will go a long way in guarding against overindulgence.
Do not allow children to demand certain clothing.
Preschool teachers report that toddlers, especially girls, are concerned about fashion and are very aware of what others think about what they are wearing. Moms of three and four-year old daughters report that the girls often change clothes half a dozen times during the day, leaving discarded garments on the floor. Some boys apparently will insist on wearing super hero costumes for days at a time. These practices must be halted for at least four reasons.
First, it makes extra work for mom. Second, with the exception of “Sunday best,” preschool children should be so busy playing and learning that they are oblivious to the clothes on their back. Third, it encourages the “princess (or superhero) syndrome” where little children look cute to get attention, instead of behaving well. Finally, although it seems pretty harmless, changing clothing often and demanding to wear certain outfits, is an example of a child exerting his or her will over that of the parent.
Begin the habit of laying out appropriate clothing before bedtime. Deal with objections in a matter-of-fact manner. “We do not wear our Easter dress to the playground. Tomorrow you are wearing play clothes.” Give one warning about changing outfits without permission. If the warning is ignored, box up the clothes and put them out of reach.
Maintain control over the toy box.
American children have way too many toys and, because they know they will be replaced upon demand, they do not take very good care of them. Some children become selfish with their toys and refuse to allow others to play with them. A few simple ideas will help children develop a generous spirit about their belongings.
First, go through all the toys. Toss the broken ones, and box the forgotten ones to be given to charity. If the toddlers object, explain, “You have so many toys you never play with. We are going to give them to children who do not have any toys.” Be firm.
Find a shelf or bin for the remaining items. Make sure the children return them to the place they belong after play time. Try to buy toys that encourage cooperative playtime, like legos, blocks, sidewalk chalk, and simple board games.
Regarding sharing, the ordinary rule should be, “You always share with others.” On the other hand, we all know cases where the other child only wants to cause trouble. Mom needs to decide each case individually, but the proper relationship is, “Billy, you should share your toys. Janey, you need to play nicely or find something else to do.” If the argument continues, play time ends. Do that a couple of times, and the nonsense will become very rare indeed.
Do not buy your children something every time you shop.
Grocery shopping can be really boring for a child, and there is nothing wrong with buying a bag of pretzels or raisins to occupy them while you shop. The key is to know when a parent crosses the line from generous to spoiling the child.
There are three signs that may tip you off that your kindness might be eroding your child’s character. First, if you buy something for the child every time you go into a shop—even as a reward—that is too much. Children must learn to obey God and their parents, not to receive some small treat or trinket, but because it is the right thing to do. A second sign is if your children have the habit of asking for something every time you take them shopping. Finally, the most obvious way to tell if you have an overindulged child, is how he or she accepts “no” for an answer. If he screams, cries, or throws a tantrum, you need to take a serious break from buying them anything at all.
Reward your children for good behavior with your praise. Help them develop appropriate Christian attitudes about their toys and clothing. Let them realize that earthly happiness comes from time spent with those we love, not material things.