My daughter, like many American children, lives a very good life. She’s seven. She occupies two bedrooms of our three-bedroom home. One room has a large, high, fluffy, bed, her preferred place to rest her head. The other has a brand new gorgeous twin bed; dozens of books about art, culture, princesses and super heroes; an art station complete with an easel; a television and dvd player; everything Mattel has made for Barbie (including brown, natural haired dolls that are extremely difficult to find); and oodles and oodles of clothes, shoes and accessories. It is literally overflowing with “stuff” and I cringe when I look at it sometimes.
As she and I shopped for a birthday gift for one of her friends the other day, I came face to face with an ugly truth. While I perused books to purchase, my daughter made a very sad face. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked. She pouted. “Why can’t I have a book too?” I became angry. A late November birthday (complete with a classroom cupcake celebration and a house party with a gigantic backyard bouncer for her and her friends along with several gifts), plus a Christmas complete with even more gifts, had not satisfied her. Here we were, not even two weeks past her last grand set of presents, and she still wanted more. Indeed, and I’m ashamed to admit it, she truly wants (and possibly expects) everything she sees.
I am part of the problem. Well, I am the problem, actually. As a child, I would listen to my parents talk about how they got nuts and fruit with maybe a piece of candy or two for Christmas. If the crops were really good, they might receive a new pair of shoes or a good coat, dress, or pair of dungarees. They would reminisce happily about those times of growing up poor and feeling rich because of the close bonds they shared with family. I, too, grew up with modest means. My parents were a part of a working-middle class who were able to buy homes in formerly all White communities, and who were busy, really, surviving and trying to raise a family in the eighties when crack cocaine and Reaganomics almost made such a feat impossible. Our families had gone from barely having their needs met; to having them met with a little “extra” (by way of extreme penny pinching and extended layaways); to this child having two rooms and more stuff than could comfortably fit in either of them.
Elizabeth Kolbert, in this exceptional piece for the New Yorker, wrote that “With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world.”
In my case, I realize, almost daily, that I am afforded privileges that my parents didn’t have. I have had access to higher education, which means I also have access to better pay and more control over my daily schedule. I can take an early afternoon away from my work to have lunch with my daughter at her school. If I see an interesting book, or toy, or fly pair of shoes that I think she will like, I usually have the resources to buy them. When she picks up something in the store, I often give in and buy it. In the interim, however, I am possibly shielding my child from the lessons that come with actually wanting something and being patient or working towards receiving it. More so, I am harming her by not teaching her (enough) to have an attitude of gratitude and thanksgiving.
Dr. Pamela High has this to say on my struggle, and the struggle of many parents who work to find balance between offering our children more than we had growing up while not inadvertently turning them into people we really wouldn’t want to be around as adults, “We all want our kids to be happy moment to moment, but there are some skills you learn from growing up with limits and the opportunity to experience frustration.” She goes on to say, “By setting limits, we’re teaching them what our values are and the way we think they can lead a happier, productive life.”
Rearing children who will lead happy, productive lives should be every parent’s primary focus, so I’m scaling back on the buying and boosting up the giving. Along with going through her toys in preparation to give many of them to less fortunate children, we are searching for more volunteer opportunities. I’m also reflecting deeply on what a “better life” really means.