I was patiently waiting to purchase my New York Times, behind a young mother with a 4 yr. old. She was purchasing pink & white sunglasses and a pink frisbee for her daughter. Her daughter meandered away and returned with a bag of cheese doodles. Her mother said “No, Grandma is bringing chips.” The daughter made a face but didn’t cry, didn’t scream or otherwise protest, but she hardly had time – the mother caved in and purchased the cheese doodles before her daughter could muster a decent wail. I found it sad to witness once again, a demonstration that love means giving you whatever you want, whenever you want it.
It would have been best for both the kid and the Mom, if Mom would have stuck with her original “No.” Instead she gave her daughter a mixed message with the result that she is not believable.
A second option which would have been a massive improvement over caving in to a four-year old, would have been to create an opportunity for the daughter to practice making choices. Mom could have stepped out of line and taken the time to work with her daughter to have her pick, which two items she really wanted. One item would have been better but since the gateway was already at two items, it would be unfair to renege. That pinch of having to make a real choice about what is important instead of being indulged would help shape a youngster that doesn’t feel endlessly entitled. That kind of parenting is a crucial beginning to building character. They can have that very important experience of asking themselves what matters? Everything material can’t matter equally all of the time. Our entitled youth don’t understand the wonderful Bettye LaVette song where she sings “I do not want what I haven’t got.”
I believe that it’s not possible to practice the art of choicefulness with your children too much. Our lives are built on choices. Choices matter and making both good and bad choices and living with the results is great practice for the inevitable disappointment that is a part of life. A lot of my time as a therapist is spent teaching people to make their disappointments bearable. None of us are immune from the hard parts of life.
One of the most spiritual moments in my life was during a trip to Luang Prabang in Laos where I woke up at 5 in the morning to feed the monks. The monks silently march in a long line, through the streets in their saffron robes accepting gifts of nourishment which are placed in brass pails that they carry strapped over their shoulders. The first morning I did this it was drizzling, the monks carried black umbrellas and there were not many tourists. Whatever is collected is all that the monks will eat that day – they neither cook nor in any other way sustain themselves – it is the community’s responsibility. The monks would understand Bettye LaVette. I had been too generous in passing out the sticky rice balls that I had brought and there wasn’t enough for the monks at the end of the line. The second time I did this I was too careful so I had food left. We learn so much more from our mistakes, than from success.
Mistakes are such a crucial part of making choices. If there had been a third day I still may not have not gotten it right because beginnings are always the hardest parts. Feeding the monks led me to reflect on what really matters. Also watching foreign films like “The Pope’s Toilet” which is set in the life of a very poor family leads me to reflect about what matters in our lives. Needs and wants are two entirely different matters and children need to learn how to make the distinction. I wonder which one the four-year old really wanted the most. She obviously didn’t need any of them, she only wanted all of them. Even a four-year old can begin to learn the differences in the tug of war between wants and choices.