Sometimes, lessons can be learned by working backward. When we see adult behavior that is annoying, hurtful or inept, we can say, “I wouldn’t want our children to grow up to be like that. I’d like to spare them the pain.”
Take the case of Melissa. She is fifty-something and was divorced last year. She finds herself in a cloud of confusion, asking, “What on earth happened?” Not so much about her marriage, but about her credit card balance. Melissa has managed to accrue a debt, which has finally gotten her attention. And now she’s worried.
Let me tell you a few things about Melissa. Her house is a pleasure to the eye. She says she only feels special in an outfit the first time she wears it. She lives alone now and every closet, even the one in the front hall, is filled with clothes.
Melissa reminisces about the special time spent with her mother as a little girl. “Almost every Saturday, we’d go shopping. She loved to get clothes for me. Everything matched, from hair ribbons to shoes. She loved to put a new outfit on me and then my father would take me for walks in the neighborhood, stopping to talk with anyone we saw. They all paid attention to me. ‘Isn’t she just darling!’ ‘You are so cute!’ My father would be all smiles.”
Now grown up, Melissa says, “When I see something I like, I buy it. I really want to know how to decide whether or not to buy something? What is the difference between wanting and needing something? I can’t continue to buy what I can’t pay for.”
I thought for a minute. Hmmm. How do I decide to buy something? For starters, I ask myself these questions:
· Is this a want or a need?
· If it’s a want, can I return to buy it later if I need it?
· Can I afford it? I pay off my credit card balance each month. If I can’t pay for what I want to buy at the end of the month, I don’t buy it.
“Who taught you that?” Melissa asked.
Another challenging question
“Unlike your family, my family didn’t have the option of spending money for things we didn’t absolutely need. I watched my parents worry about how to spend money. They hated debt. How much to spend and what to spend it on is probably based on what I learned from my parents. I hate the stress I have when I’m in debt.”
“Well,” Melissa said, “my parents were proud of how good I looked and proud of my good taste.” My husband would fuss about how much I spent, but he never said NO. We only had one really big fight about my spending when I bought a coat he considered outrageously expensive. But now, I’m on my own. No one is bailing me out and I’m in trouble.”
Test your understanding of overindulgence by putting Melissa’s situation as a child to the Test of Four: A “yes” to any of the four questions is a red flag that there is overindulgence.
Did her parents’ behavior:
1. Hinder Melissa’s development?
2. Require a disproportionate share of family resources?
3. Benefit the parents more than Melissa?
4. Harm others, the planet, (or in this case, Melissa as an adult)?
Yes, Melissa was overindulged as a child. As an adult, she has good reason to learn the skills she didn’t learn in childhood.
Melissa’s parents did not intend to cause their much-loved daughter pain in her adult life, nonetheless, that’s what happened. All parents can learn to avoid the long-term hazards of overindulging their children. The earlier, the better.
There is more help about avoiding overindulgence in How Much is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children – From Toddlers To Teens – In An Age of Overindulgence (2014, DaCapo Press Lifelong Books).