“Do you really need that, too?”
Dear Dr T.,
I know life was really hard for children in earlier times, but, honestly, is there such a thing as just having it too good? My children have just too much stuff, and the minute they get something, they move on to next. Instead of being satisfied with whatever they get, do, or have, they just seem to crave more. I feel like we are creating a monster here – one that is impossible to satisfy!
What happened Sunday is a good example. We went to a family birthday party at a local pizza shop. All the aunts and cousins were there, and our great-aunt was treating everyone to ice cream. I told my kids we were going for ice cream, but when we got there, some of the cousins were eating pizza, too.
Before they even finished their ice cream, my kids starting begging for soda even though they knew they were coming for ice cream!
This is what gets me: the minute they get something, they want more.
I started arguing with them, but after awhile, I just gave in. Then I felt like a failure – because I wasn’t teaching my children anything other than that I was weak and would just give in. I know what’s righ,t and I should have stuck to my guns, but I just can’t stand up to the pressure. How can I get on top of this situation?
In this time of prosperity, it is often hard to keep our thoughts straight and our heads above water. We know what we believe and want for our children, we know what our core values are – but in the face of the excess and conspicuous consumption, it is often hard to say no. And, even if we feel strong and impervious to the pressure at times, our impressionable children find the pressure of “getting” too hard to resist.
Our conflict is between our children’s needs and wants vs. our responsibility to set limits. As parents we want to give to our children, as pleasantly and generously as possible. Yet, we also have an obligation to help them learn how to regulate their desires before they are consumed by them.
I’d like to begin with limit setting – something that is hard for many a parent. What the limits are depends on you – your background, belief system, environment and family. While the actual limits are individual and particular to you, the setting and maintenance of them is charted territory and basically the same for all.
The key to limit setting is being proactive – making the rule before, not during or after, an occurrence. To be effective, the rule must be absolutely clear to the child, and stated in a calm and confident manner. A weak, defensive statement of the rule invites an argument. Though there may be some discussion and/or modification of the rule when it is initially made, at the time it must be enforced without a fuss.
Mom hates to take the kids to the co-op because they always nag for nosh, prizes, and school supplies. Now, Mom is perfectly willing to buy a trivial something, but it seems like the minute the kids get one thing, they are off to the next. But, the kids love to go, and there really isn’t much else to do in their small town.
So, Mom sits down with the kids and tells them her rule. “You each may choose one item for up to $2.” When the family hit the store, Mom reminds everyone of the rule, just to be sure. With everyone on board, the family goes in.
Now, since this is not a fairy tale, we would assume that at least one kid tries his hand at bargaining (“It’s only 25 cents more!”), begging, or even tantrumming. Mom’s sole response is, “What’s the rule?” If the whining goes on, Mom is prepared to leave the store immediately. Eventually, if Mom is absolutely consistent, the kids will get the drill and learn to respect this limit.
The challenge in limit setting is doing it without causing resentment. I think we all can agree that most of us do not do well with dashed expectations. This is even truer for the young, immature child. So our children need to be absolutely clear about what to expect going in to a situation. To you, for example, an ice cream party meant only ice cream, but your child may have quite reasonably thought that ice cream was the main event, but additional items were okay, too. This would have been especially true if your children saw their cousins eating away. And, because it is no secret that too many limits – too many nos – invite bad feeling and even rebellion, the trick is to choose wisely – look at what is reasonable and doable for your children in their culture, at that particular time. In other words, because the rules of the pizza party were subject to interpretation (Only ice cream? Pizza or soda as well?), was it wise to stand your ground?
Though you did not feel good about giving in, I actually commend you for it. As parents, we have to choose our battles wisely. Making a to-do about a soda in a public place, among extended family, is embarrassing for your kids and humiliating to you. It’s far better to just look away and promise yourself that next time you will do it right. You will either state the rule clearly before you go, or decide to go with the flow once you get there.
Every generation feels your frustration and shares your belief that the present generation is so much inferior to the past one. You have only to listen to the teachers bemoan the students of today or even older family members talk about their younger sibs to know what I mean.
It is unfair to visit these feelings on our children. They are a product of their environment – for better or worse. As parents, we want to choose the best environment we can for our children – the right neighborhood, school, shul, etc. But after that, it is out of our control. It is damaging to the child and our relationship with him to make him feel guilty for doing what many of their peers are. It is also counter-productive to ask our children to have less than their friends.
We sometimes look with great longing at our children and how much they are given – and fault them for not appreciating all that they have. But, the challenge of excess is not limited only to our children; we face these challenges on a regular basis as well. By watching us deal appropriately with these challenges – by our modeling – our children learn how to cope. So, spare yourself the lecture and fighting with your child. Simply, you be the change you want to see and resist that challenge to keep up with the Schwartzes. Hopefully, as they mature, your children will develop the strength, ability, and desire to do so as well.