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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, or loving.

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 excellent condition.

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 it.

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 than gratitude.

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 kids.

"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 kimode@startribune.com,or 425
Portland Av. S., Minneapolis MN 55488. For past columns, go to http://www.startribune.com/ode.

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