A Test to See If Parents Are Overindulging Their Children

A test that shows parents what overindulgence is. It’s called the Test of Four.

Posted Mar 11, 2019

David Bredehoft
Source: David Bredehoft

Parents often ask me, “How do I know if we are overindulging our children?” That’s a challenging question because each situation has to be examined individually. Consider the following situations.

  • Situation 1: “At the grocery store I put my 4-year-old right in my shopping cart. It’s easier that way. I can keep track of her because she wonders off if she walks. Each time we go through the checkout she throws a fit if I don’t buy her some candy. I believe the store intentionally puts all of that stuff right at her eye level. I cave in and get it because I am embarrassed by her tantrum.”
  • Situation 2: “My 10-year-old refuses to go to bed. I have tried everything I know and he still refuses so I give in and let him stay up as long as he wants. The next morning it is a battle to get out him out of bed for school.”
  • Situation 3: “I’m so worried about my 15-year-old son. He is in Cancun for a week with three friends and there are no adults with them. My friends asked me, why let him go? He earned it. It was his money. There was nothing I could do or say. I’m worried sick.”

The Test of Four

We have a test to teach parents when examining a situation for overindulgence. We call this tool the Test of Four. Parents need to ask four questions. Each question is based on our overindulgence research. A “Yes” answer to one or more question indicates overindulgence (Too Much, Overnurture, Soft Structure).

1. Developmental Tasks?

Will doing or giving this to my child prevent him/her from learning what he/she should be learning at this age? Will it prevent my child from reaching a developmental goal or task? 

2. Family Resources?

Does it use a disproportionate amount of family resources (money, time, attention, energy) to meet the wants not the needs of one or more of our children?

3. Whose Needs?

Whose needs are being met in this situation? Does it benefit the adult more than the child? 


4. Possible Harm?

Does it hurt others, harm the community, or damage the planet in some way?

If, after you examine the situation, there is a “Yes” answer to one or more of the Test of Four questions, it probably is overindulgence. Now think about the 4-year-old in the shopping cart, the 10-year-old and bedtime, and the 15-year-old on his own in Cancun. In your own mind apply the Test of Four to each situation. What did you decide? Overindulgence? Yes.

What Can Parents Do Instead? 

I have found that overindulgence comes from a good heart. I believe parents do not want the worst for their child—they want the best. The problem is they often go overboard. Here are 11 steps to follow for parents who are struggling with overindulgence.

1. Recognize and Own it.

The first step is becoming aware that you are overindulging. Own it and choose to do things differently. 

2. Get on the same page with your spouse or partner.

It is important that you work together as a team to reduce overindulgence. 

3. Use the Test of Four.

The Test of Four is a powerful tool and like any tool you get better the more you use it. Practice, practice, practice.

4. Work on One Problem Area at a Time.


It’s easy to say “I want a total parenting makeover, and I want it now,” but this is unrealistic and defeating. Instead, identify one overindulgence problem area that routinely surfaces between you and your child. It could be with any of the three types of overindulgence: Too Much, Overnurture, or Soft Structure. Choose only one. Think of a new, more effective way to respond and do it consistently each time the situation arises.

5. Let your child know.

In a caring but firm way, tell your child that things are going to change around that issue.

6. Come up with a plan to handle it in a non-overindulgent way.

The plan should be something simple, something you start to do rather than stops doing, something that is immediate (within the next 24 hours).

7. Consistently follow the plan.

Consistency, consistency, consistency. This is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the plan because it is so easy to fall back into old ingrained patterns.

8. If necessary, make course corrections.

If necessary tweak your plan to make it work better.

9. Celebrate your success.

Too often we don't celebrate our parenting successes. when you make progress and your plan is working, pat yourself on the back.

10. Forgive Yourself for Your Parenting Mistakes.

We all make mistakes. We are all human. Forgive yourself for past parenting mistakes so you can learn more effective ways of parenting.

11. Repeat step 1.

Additional Suggestions

  • Ask for Help and Support. We live in an age of overindulgence. I don’t think we can change that. That said, we are in charge of the choices we make in this overindulgent world. One choice is to ask others for help and to surround yourself with parents who are also concerned about overindulgence—find allies in this battle. Join a parenting group and receive as well as give help to others.
  • Take A Free Online Class. Parenting in the Age of Overindulgence is a free online course offered by The University of Minnesota Extension. This course is an exploration of overindulgence and how you can avoid it with your children. It introduces parents to The Test of Four and how to use it. The course takes about an hour to complete.
  • Test of Four Online Resources. The University of Minnesota Extension offers parents a variety of resources on the Test of Four. Click here to check them out, and print a free Test of Four Poster and post it in a prominent place for you to see as a reminder to use this powerful tool.
  • Subscribe to "The Age of Overindulgence" and return often.

© 2019 David J. Bredehoft