Overindulgence in Children: Soft Structure

Our last blog talked about over-nurturing, the second of the three categories of overindulgence in children from the book “How Much is Enough: Overindulgence in Children” by Jean Clarke, Connie Dawson and David Bredehoft.

Today we will talk about the final category—soft structure. Soft structure means children are given too much freedom and control. Here are some more specific examples of soft structure:

  • Giving children choices or opportunities that do not fit their age or stage of development.
  • Not teaching children the skills they will need to be competent adults.
  • Not requiring children to help with chores or make other contributions to the family.
  • Allowing children to make their own decisions because adults are not running the family as they are supposed to.

Case Studies of Soft Structure

Mom is fixing supper and four-year-old Shaliyah wants M&Ms. Mom says, “No M&Ms. We are having supper soon.” Shaliyah starts to cry and stomp her feet. Mom says no again. Shaliyah starts to hit her mom. Mom says, “OK, you can have a few M&Ms.”

Toby is a sixth grader who loves TV and electronic games. He starts watching TV when he gets home from school, including during supper. After supper, he switches to electronic games, some of which have violent or inappropriate content. Homework doesn’t seem to be important to him and he often neglects it. Toby has a TV in his bedroom and often watches late into the night. His parents have no idea what he is watching. They are concerned about this, but when they ask him to stop, he gets very angry and refuses. When Mom and Dad are asked about Toby’s screen habits, some of their responses include

  • “All his friends have those electronic games.”
  • “He can’t really advance to the bad parts of those games anyway.”
  • “We can’t be spying on him all the time.”
  • “When we try to limit his TV time, he gets so angry.”

Maura is 15 and her dad is very worried about her weekend partying. Apparently, some parents in the community are hosting drinking parties in their homes for teenagers. They justify this by saying the kids are safer in a home. Maura’s dad knows this is illegal, but he is worried that Maura will lose her friends and be a social outcast. Maura does not have a drivers’ license. When her dad is asked how she gets to the parties, he replies, “I drive her there so she’ll be safe.”

Applying the “Test of Four”

Let’s apply the Test of Four to these situations. Remember, you don’t always have to answer, “yes” to all four questions. Even one “yes” answer could signal overindulgence.

Is Soft Structure in these families harming the children?

1.  Does the situation hinder the child from learning the tasks that support his or her development? Yes!

  • Shaliyah has failed to learn that she can’t always have what she wants. She has missed the opportunity to learn that drama and violence should not be ways to have her needs met.
  • Toby is not learning to be responsible with his time, and he is missing opportunities to interact with his family by isolating himself with screens. His parents’ failure to set limits may affect his schoolwork and may be exposing him to inappropriate content on TV or on screens.
  • By allowing Maura to attend these parties, her dad has failed to teach her about obeying the law and the consequences it involves. He is also giving her the impression that her self- worth is based on what her friends think, even though they may not have her best interests at heart.

2.  Does the situation give a disproportionate amount of the family resources to one or more children? (Remember, resources can include money, space, time, energy or attention.) Yes!

  • Shaliyah’s mom has spent time, money and energy preparing a healthy meal that may not get eaten after a snack of M&Ms. She also expends energy arguing with Shaliyah before giving in.
  • Maura’s father is very stressed worrying about his daughter’s safety. He also worries about the legal costs if Maura is charged with under-aged drinking.

3.  Does the situation exist to benefit the adult more than the child? Yes!

In each of these situations, the parents are taking the easy “solution” rather than setting rules and limits and sticking to them. Sometimes parents don’t want to spend the time and energy required to make firm parenting decisions. Some parents worry that their kids “will hate them.” Sometimes parents are concerned that their child will lose friends if they enforce the rules. And sometimes, parents just don’t know how to set limits.


4.  Does the child’s behavior potentially harm others, society, or the planet in some way? Yes!

  • Shaliyah is not learning about good nutrition habits. She is not learning appropriate conflict resolution skills.
  • Based on research, society worries about how violent and inappropriate content may affect Toby in the future. In addition, he is not learning to manage his time well. His parents’ soft structure has taught him that resisting authority gets him what he wants.
  • Maura’s behavior has tremendous potential for harm! Even though she is a teenager and she thinks she knows right from wrong, the area of her brain that is responsible for judgment and predicting consequences is not fully developed. When you add alcohol to that level of immaturity, the potential for harm is very great. Dad’s soft structure—failing to say no to the parties and actually driving her there—removes an important safety net for Maura.

When you think about your own child’s behaviors and how you handle them, apply the Test of Four. If you are answering “yes” to the questions, it may be time to rethink the way you structure your home environment and how you set and apply rules and limits. Even though children protest against rules and limits, deep down they want parents to be in charge and make the decisions that they are not capable of making for themselves.

By Betty and Doniese

Family Life Instructors at Avera McKennan

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