I live in one of the more affluent parts of the U.S., a place where children don't want for much and even our homeless and indigent have free services to keep them fed and warm. Naturally, much of this wealth trickles down to our kids in the form of toys, clothes, shoes and organic-gluten-free-muffins... and I'm no exception.
I buy my daughter lots of things, everyday, which meet her wants rather than her actual needs.
My friend Peter would say "we've made it!" Meaning that anything we desire is within reach and, unlike our parents and grandparents, we no longer have to be frugal and self-sacrificing to survive. Our kids can, literally, have their cake and eat it too. But what does that do to their psyche? I can hear my hard-working, Jewish grandmother from Queens rolling in her grave. Not only is she ranting on about the soup lines during the Great Depression, she is highly concerned about the overall fate of her great-granddaughter in such a context.
In her day, "spare the rod, spoil the child," was the saying for a generation of parents who used physical beatings and deprivation to keep their kids in place and make sure they didn't get "too big for their britches." Of course, we now know that this approach backfired, negatively reinforcing messages of low self-worth and essentially stunting the growth and free-expression of millions of children... costing them millions of dollars in therapy as adults.
But what's the alternative? We've also seen the Veruca Salt's of the world, screaming, "Daddy I want one now!" all the way to the bank, clearly the one in charge. So, we know that doesn't work either. Giving in to a child's every whim can create a monster attitude.
As a young parent in today's world, I worry about over-doing it and I worry about under-doing it, constantly walking a tightrope of give and take... so I thought I'd examine what it means to actually "spoil a child."
Usually, we think about spoiling children in terms of material objects, giving too much stuff. I hear it from friends and family when I buy my daughter new things. "Be careful not to spoil her," they warn, causing me to freeze up with worry. "Is this new bug-catcher going to be the thing that sends her over the edge and into a rotten version of herself forever? Is she like that too ripe banana I should've eaten yesterday, but had to throw away this morning? Is there a tipping point?" The fear arises each time I offer her something new, as if the object itself has the power to destroy her innate nature.
But I believe that our innate nature is good and kind, every one of us, and I can't see how making our children feel special and important could ever alter that.
In fact, the only people I've ever met or read about who are really "spoiled" (as in rotten to the core and should no longer be able to interact with the general public), were denied love as children and raised in fear of the rod... they were not given too many toys or over-loved.
It seems to me that the child who "has too much stuff" is more of a symptom than a root problem. There are plenty of polite, grateful children from affluence and plenty of rude, entitled children who come from poverty and vice versa, so it's not the stuff itself that affects our children poorly. It's our attitude around the stuff.
Too often, toys and treats are used as expressions of love, replacing the real connection our kids desperately seek. TV and Internet commercials urge us to make our kids happy by buying them the latest, but plowing our kids with objects of distraction, when they're actually demanding our time and undivided attention, doesn't really satiate them and they're soon back, begging for more, whether the gift was expensive or cheap.
You see, toys can't give back.
Just like a lover, our kids see right through us when we are half-hearted and mentally absent. Sure, they'll take the bait, but they're not buying it for long.
I can spend so much time and energy trying to get my child occupied by something other than me, that at the end of the day I am weary from the battle and we are both unsatisfied and grumpy. If I can stop myself, however, readjust my approach and give her one solid chunk of me (no cell phone, no tablet), she's usually happy to transition to playing quietly by herself, with any of the dozens of old toys on the shelf... as long as I make them come to life, they are suddenly new to her and she has instant company.
In the end, it's not about stuff at all, it's about the desire to be in the world with others, to be important and to feel listened to. If I can gift her one good hour of my time, I find that I get at least an hour in return to attend to my many other needs, and the day ends with more equilibrium and less exhaustion for both of us.
So, I know that the rude, demanding behavior I often associate with "a spoiled child" comes from a much deeper place than material. When she's screaming for more ice cream, maybe what she really wants is more time with mom, sitting on the curb, laughing in the sun. When she's begging for a new toy, maybe she just wants the time daddy takes to unwrap it and play with her on the floor. Turns out, it's love and attention that they always want more of.
I made a mental note this month to start considering the root of my daughter's demands as they arise, to determine the real motivation behind the fit and to try to meet her there instead. Rather than simply giving in to her irrational demands for "more!," I vowed, in that moment, to give her more time, more attention, more control... all while holding my ground on the treats, toys or TV she claimed to desperately want.
In those difficult moments, when giving her another cookie would be the easy way out, I committed to the harder path: saying no to the object, while simultaneously barraging her with my attention.
"I know you want another cookie, and it's disappointing that the answer is no, but guess what? You get a tickle fight with mama and a super special couch-fort instead!"
That's not to say she won't melt down in a puddle of frustration-tears at not getting another cookie (sugar is a demon to compete with), but I can be sure that she's getting something positive and reinforcing in those hard moments.
It feels good to give, while taking something away.
To my surprise, she usually drops the desired object quickly and gets on board with the present action. While she may still feel the loss of the cookie, it's nothing compared to the care and love she gains when I focus on her.
So next time you're standing in line at the toy store, secretly wondering if it's too much, if you're ruining your child with things, remember that the hunk of plastic you're holding is only as magical as you make it, and that the only way to ruin our kids is to ignore them and abuse them.
"Spare the love, spoil the child" is my new mantra, because hugs are always free and in never-ending supply, as is my ability to listen to her and play in her make-believe world... if I can just remember to make that leap.
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