Dear Dr. T.,
That’s about all that I hear from my eleven year old daughter.
I wasn’t born yesterday and I do understand about peer pressure. I know that kids have more ‘stuff’ today than we did, but what bothers me is that she never seems happy: she is always looking forward to the next thing, treat, trip, etc. It scares me that she is so demanding, and yet so dissatisfied with what she has. Yet, I hesitate to deny her something that I could technically afford.
So, here is a good example. For afikomen she got a trip to Hershey Park. But, now she insists we must take a family trip when day camp is over. All her friends are and it’s weird to just stay home, she says. Is that a reason for me to go along with what she wants?
In today’s times, the line between giving to the child and spoiling him is often blurred. Unlike in previous generations, many of us today are actually able to indulge our children [and ourselves] and the question is not what is possible, but what is appropriate. Because our children are such wonderful advocates for themselves, and we understand that times are different, we often hesitate to take a stand, even against our better judgment.
The problem you describe is both a societal concern and a personal issue. Much has been written about our culture of conspicuous consumption and its deleterious effect on us all. Certainly our Orthodox culture is not immune to this malaise: excessive materialism has been called the nisayon, the trial, of our time. Yet, this problem is a personal one as well; and while most of us have little ability to change society, we can have an impact in our family.
As parents, we want to differentiate [and help our children as well] between their wants and their needs. Needs – and that includes social needs like having the ‘right’ lunchbox-must be addressed for the psychological well being of the child, in order to preserve his self esteem and his status with his peers. You are certainly astute in recognizing that kids today need a lot, and that life can only be lived in the present. You want to help your child adjust to his society, rather than attempt to turn back the clock. So, if you have determined thru discussions with others or your children that a need exists, fill it gladly if you can, without comparisons to the ‘olden days’ and all the guilt inducing that the comparison creates.
But, to the distraught child everything may seem like a need, and it is the wise parent who can help his child distinguish between his needs and wants. This ability to separate between the two is a skill that will serve your child well both now and in days to come.
So, through talk and discussion, you and your child may come to agree that a specific request is indeed a want. In that case, an issue to review with your child is that of values; how we spend our money is reflective of what is important to us. As Torah Jews, we want to help our children see that while pleasure and relaxation are necessary, there is more to life than ‘getting’ and fun. We can help our children see that many of the pleasures of life- our relationships, our interests, nature etc. - are free.
We also want to teach our children to make good choices; obviously, we all cannot have everything we want all of the time. Having to pick and choose allows the child to practice the process we all engage in – figuring out what we really do want and letting go of the rest. Lastly, teaching the child to delay gratification [i.e. – take a dollar later rather than fifty cents now] is a critical life skill for developing relationships and dealing with life’s disappointments – big and small. By considering some of these guidelines, together with your child, you can hopefully diminish some of the over-the –top requests.
Above all, what is most crucial in the process of inculcating good character [in this case, self control and gratitude] is the modeling and example of the parent. Our exercising restraint and good judgment, our showing appreciation for what we have- as opposed to anticipation for what we will get -is the best insurance policy that our children will do the same.
As parents, we want to give our children what they really want and need: our time and attention, our listening ear, our love and our care. When children feel ‘full’, they do not crave more and more to fill them up. All too often, people – children and adults alike- attempt to self-soothe- fill their emptiness or soothe their loneliness- by acquiring material objects, much as the addict needs his ‘fix’.
By being proactive and providing a warm, loving environment where the child feels cared for and understood, you go a long way in obviating the need for excessive giving. And, always remember, that while the good will created by the material things that you give may last a day or a year, the good feelings generated by giving of yourself will last a lifetime.