When making his list and checking it twice, Santa has more to think about than who’s naughty or nice. What effect will each gift have on the child who receives it?

Children’s learning is the sum total of their experiences. That said, the experiences of getting and giving holiday gifts are part of what makes them who they are now and as adults. There is a tendency to strive to give a child all that is on his or her wish list. Jean Illsely Clarke, MA, an award-winning parent educator warns that you can get too much of a good thing.

Clarke’s latest research is on overindulgence. From her studies she derived, “Overindulgence is giving children so much that it keeps them from achieving their developmental tasks.”

Clarke interviewed adults who had been overindulged as children in her studies. They told her that the underlying message throughout their childhood was, “You are not competent.” She notes, “As people who were overindulged as children become adults, there is a huge impact on their confidence level. These are the people who are most likely to report that they don’t feel they have control over their children.”

Interestingly, Clarke has found that overindulgence is far more than getting too much or too many of the things money can buy — toys, camps, lessons, etc. It also includes over-nurture. This is when adults do too much for their children in everything from chores to coping skills and interpersonal relationship skills.

A third type of overindulgence Clarke calls “soft structure.” In this situation there are no rules or follow-through by the adults. Children have too much freedom and often run the family. Trained irresponsibility is the result. Children become those adults who believe that rules do not apply to them or who blame others for their problems.

What do children learn from getting too much? There is plenty of evidence that they become people who do not learn when enough is enough. They believe they are the center of the universe and expect instant gratification. Sadly, they lack respect for things and people. Clarke has found that as adults these children are attracted to spouses who were also overindulged, and then tend to give their children too much.

This holiday season we can give the children in our lives the gift that keeps on giving — limits. Choose that one special gift, stick to a schedule as much as possible, enforce family rules, give children chores that teach them how to be competent. You can read 37 ideas on “How to Curb Holiday Indulgence” and more on Clarke’s Web site, www.overindulgence.info May you experience the wonder of a child this season and have a Happy New Year.

Frasier B. Zahniser is family living/4-H youth educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension in Mercer County.

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