Last week, we took our dog, Meeker, to the veterinarian for a teeth cleaning. More than $1,200 and four tooth extractions later, we were reminded of an important parenting lesson—indulging those we love is not necessarily a loving thing.

Meeker is the sweetest little Maltipoo. I call him my fashion accessory because at seven pounds of adorable fluff, he does nothing but spread joy to all who see him. And so for the past seven years, we have treated him like a little prince, enforcing rules of basic behavior but also doing our fair share of spoiling him, in particular when it comes to how he is fed.

I don’t remember how we started it, but we have always given him a combination of home-cooked chicken or beef (just a few tablespoons per meal, so it didn’t cost much) mixed with dried dog food. Well, of course, the roast chicken or steak scraps were far more delicious than the hard, dry kibble that, according to our veterinarian (though opinions differ), would theoretically clean his teeth while he ate. And since Meeker never liked gnawing on chew toys, rawhides, deer antlers and the like, he naturally gravitated to the softer foods rather than the pebbles people call dog food. Yes, we tried assorted brands and flavors over the years—all very high-quality—but still he would generally eat the yummies and leave the kibble behind. Meeker never begs…he just sits there quietly waiting to be noticed and fed when it’s time for the family to sit down for dinner. And because he is so cute, how could we resist?

And we didn’t resist…but now we are all paying the price. Beyond the money paid, all of our “love’ cost Meeker approximately 10% of his teeth (mature dogs have 42 teeth).

I have always prided myself on being a responsible parent, so this was devastating. When it comes to Meeker, my older daughter has accused us for years of ignoring all the parenting goals we had with her and her sister—self-reliance, healthy habits, independence. I would rationalize it by telling her that our goals for them were different than for the dog—we wanted the girls to be strong, confident, independent adults, whereas we actually wanted Meeker to be utterly attached and dependent upon us. Goals met on both counts. The girls are successful, independent young women. But…all that indulgence with the dog has had its price.

Now for the transition to my bigger point—does this sound familiar? Parents who don’t want to hurt or upset their kids…who don’t want to fight with them or force them to be uncomfortable or unhappy…who would rather indulge their kids than disappoint them…who make these “loving” choices without thinking about the long-term consequences.

All those parents who don’t want to enforce the rules—about food…bedtime…chores…you name it—don’t want to fight. They don’t want their sweet innocent kids to feel bad. Parents, too, just want to love their children and be loved in return. I get it, but…beware.

I just read a first draft of an article for a future issue of Bottom Line Personal about how to successfully allow your adult children to move back home. I was shocked at the perspective of this highly regarded expert who worried more about the feelings of the child who is “failing to launch” than about reinforcing that child’s need to respect the house rules where he/she wants to live essentially for free. (We will be talking in more detail to that expert before the article is published.) In the end, all of that love is costing a fortune—in therapy costs for depression, anxiety, inability to function independently, etc. We have severe social problems among the younger generation that may, at least in part, be tied to parents’ “extreme love.” Examples…

  • The rate of young adults who are returning to live at home increased by 50%—from 10% in 2000 to 15% in 2016.
  • Rates for depression are up more than 50% for teens and more than 60% for young adults since.
  • Suicide was the second-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24 in 2017.

Our compulsion as parents to ensure our children’s happiness and perfect lives is, in fact, doing just the opposite. Excessive protection and intervention inhibit their ability to exercise and strengthen their survival muscles.

Our loving desire to give Meeker delicious food has inhibited his own survival muscles. While the veterinarian generously reassured us that small dogs are prone to dental issues and that diet isn’t the only thing that influences oral health, we didn’t make life easier for him. We made it harder. So, even though they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, we are going to have to in order to prevent a much greater problem for Meeker. So more kibble…less people food…more frequent dental visits.

It’s difficult making those tough decisions and having your loved ones (be it kids or dogs) look at you with those sad eyes. But we are seeing the long-term consequences of indulgence…consequences that may last for generations if lessons aren’t learned soon. It may be painful but less so than a lifetime of emotional or physical distress.

As I said when my kids were young, they weren’t going to starve to death if they skipped a meal because they didn’t like what was being served. Same with the dog. Meeker—and we—will adapt and be healthier for it.