As we approach the holidays, the lamenting that children aren’t thankful accelerates. Blogs, articles, and the accompanying comments on social media tell us that this is a sore point for parents. Phrases such as entitled, spoiled, and ungrateful are used and parents are upset, hurt, and simply confused. After all, they say they do everything to try to make their children happy!
I’d like to unpack what is likely happening. There is a distinction between child-indulgent parenting and child-centered parenting. On the surface these may appear synonymous but they have important differences; particularly on child outcomes in both the short-term and when children reach adulthood.
Let’s take a deeper look…
Child-Indulgent Parenting. The family revolves around the child and his or her wants and whims; and on their own impulse parents frequently give the child gifts and treats. Children are allowed to behave in any manner they wish and have anything they desire. Discipline is occasionally attempted by an indulgent parent, but rarely enforced when the child protests. Indulgent parents tend to label and see excuses as valid reasons for why a child cannot or should not have responsibilities. They have difficulty watching their child deal with challenging situations and therefore are very quick to step in and “rescue” the child. The parent may often behave more like a peer than a parent; related to attempting to have a close relationship with their child, something that is very essential to them.
It’s important to know that parents who align highly with an indulgent style of parenting do see their children in a positive light. However, they do not encourage their child to demonstrate initiative and rarely give them responsibilities at home. Such parents often perform tasks for the child long after he/she is capable of doing so independently; and they may also set up the child’s life so that no substantial challenges are experienced by the child. This has been associated with children feeling a high sense of entitlement and to child immaturity such as impulsiveness and misconduct; likely connected to the child expecting to always be given exclusive attention and material goods and to get away with misbehavior.
Child-Centered Parenting. Being child-centered does not mean the family revolves around the child exclusively with only his/her needs and wants considered as they do if overly child-driven and indulgent, but that the parent is responsive and attentive to the child in a genuine and warm manner. Rules and limits are set and enforced that are reasonable and the rationale is explained to the child. Children are encouraged to take part in decision making within the family. The weight given to their input changes according to their maturity level and can also depend on how important the decision is; but regardless, the child learns through experience over time how to effectively participate in such exchanges.
Parents who practice child-centered parenting behaviors show warmth, responsiveness, and affection toward their children in ways that include supportiveness during challenging activities and providing clear and more helpful assistance which encourages learning and mastery in children. Such parents tend to have positive expressions of emotions toward their children when they interact, such as smiling and laughing. What these parents give is their time, attention, and positive emotion versus material gifts and allowing children to do things that the parent actually disapproves of. Having experiences of child-centered parenting is related to children’s reciprocal warmth toward the parent, emotional security, better handling of frustration, and having empathy for others.
Tips to being less indulgent. I can relate to needing to keep myself in check here. Arriving at a family gathering when my daughter was a baby, my sister-in-law peeked in our minivan and commented, “I think Dale is buying some of these toys because SHE likes them so much” and that was true! If you are feeling that as a parent you’ve drifted too far toward the indulgent parenting side and would like to get back to child-centered parenting side, think about the following scenarios and choices:
- Give your child special tasks with his/her input to help the family celebrate, such as making a centerpiece, creating a special game for the family to play, or cooking a signature dish. These can become traditions that your child contributes each year.
- When your child makes his/her gift list, ask that at least one to two items be those that can be used to help others less fortunate. It can be very simple such as “Dad drives me to the donation center so I can donate my gently used toys”, “Yarn to crochet scarfs for the homeless”, “A new shovel so I can clear the sidewalk for our elderly neighbors”.
- Plan a special family activity with everyone’s input that you all can look forward to that doesn’t involve gifts. Karaoke, charades, homemade Pictionary, scrapbooking, a concert, volunteering…these get children out of the give-me-a-gift rut.
- Limit having your child (and you!) be exposed to the advertising onslaught that ramps up this time of year. Toss or hide the catalogues that come into your home. Limit traditional TV/cable by steering your child for their allotted time instead to watch DVDs or online streaming that does not have advertisements. Watch out for “advergames”-these look like games, and they are, but their main purpose is to serve as a vehicle to bring ads to kids. Research shows that while adults across parenting styles feel negatively about these, indulgent parents feel so to a lesser degree.
- Shop at local arts-and-crafts fairs and festivals versus big box stores and malls. Not only are you getting unique gifts and supporting your local community and economy but letting your children meet the person who created an item can have a lasting effect on both of you. I had this experience when my now adult son was a child. We were looking at small hand-made toy vehicles very fairly priced. There were cars, trucks, planes, and boats. My then 3-year-old looked at and examined every one of the items. Sitting on low shelves, laid out with space between them, and no plastic wrapping, they were displayed with this in mind. The minutes ticked by and he was struggling to decide as they were all wonderful. Finally, he picked up his choice to hand to the artist for wrapping and I pulled out my wallet. The man stopped me and said “Anyone who has such an appreciation for my work deserves to have one as my gift.” He handed my son his package, looked him in the eye, and said “Thank you for liking my work so much.” The smile and beam in my son’s eyes are still with me and I’m confident they are with him as well.
In closing, it’s continuous and conscious work to think about how to give our children what they need and not always what they want. But it’s not an all or nothing proposition. It is rewarding, fun, and exciting to see your child’s face when they get that special gift. And that is so okay! But it can also help to think about this American Proverb from time to time: “Don’t use a lot where a little will do”.
Dr. Lilla Dale McManis, President & CEO
Part of the Parent in the Know Assessments specifically cover Indulgent Parenting and Child-Centered Parenting. If you are interested in knowing your parenting wellness score in these areas along with the many others included, I invite you to learn more and get started at www.parentintheknow.com
Givertz, M., & Segrin, C. (2012). The Association Between Overinvolved Parenting and Young Adults’ Self-Efficacy, Psychological Entitlement, and Family Communication. Communication Research, 0093650212456392.
Evans, N. J., Carlson, L., & Grubbs Hoy, M. (2013). Coddling Our Kids: Can Parenting Style Affect Attitudes Toward Advergames?. Journal of Advertising, 42(2-3), 228-240.