The problem with raising children in a first world nation and giving them the best of everything you can is that you may inadvertently raise a group of self-involved, greedy little mites who are never satisfied with what they have... always wanting more.
I've noticed this problem a lot lately with my own kids and am trying to figure out what to do about it.
We aren't a family with a lot of extra cash on hand, so it isn't like my children are drowning in new gadgets. Their toys are mainly gifts from the grandparents at holidays, along with the hordes of $0.99 Matchbox racers that they earn for acts of unsolicited kindness to each other ("Caught you being good!").
Still, even though we don't have any Transformers or Star Wars toys yet, my sons are not suffering for the lack of nice things to occupy their time. They have bikes, scooters, soccer balls and basketball stuff. They have a gadzillion Legos of all sizes and every other sort of doll, train, etc. Most of all, they have a huge number of books overflowing their private bookcase and never lack for interesting things to read, art supplies or G-rated cartoon movies to view in the early evening while I am cooking dinner.
I do notice their lack of trendy toys but even so, I am consistently overwhelmed with a desire to get rid of ALL of their toys because I really hate how they respond to receiving gifts and going on special outings. Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot of "Thank you!" or "I love it!" Instead, we get a great deal of, "But why can't I have...", "That WASN'T fun!" or "I want what HE has!"
In short, my children are almost never satisfied.
This week happens to be their Spring Break from school and since we didn't have funds to send them to any kind of camp or special class, I put together a calendar of fun activities to fill up our days. Today was "bikes and kites" day, and I had intended to take them down to a local bay that gets great wind for kite-flying.
Unfortunately our car needed to go in for servicing (it's going to get a brand new transmission paid for 100% by the warranty, yay!) so we were stuck in the house for most of the morning and it turned out that we wouldn't be able to go down to the bay after all.
"That's okay!" I sang, "We'll ride bikes and fly kites at the local park instead!"
Here is a brief representation of the rest of our afternoon:
"But I wanted to go to the bay!"
"But I don't WANT to wear my helmet."
"But I don't LIKE that kite."
"But I didn't get my turn! I want another turn!"
"But he's being mean to me!"
"But I want a DIFFERENT kite!"
"But MOMMY, my bike isn't good! I want a NEW bike!"
"But I'm HUNGRY! We haven't had lunch yet!"
"But I didn't LIKE that sandwich! It wasn't yummy to me!"
"But I don't want to go home!"
"But it's not fair! I want to fly kites!"
"But I don't WANT chocolate cake."
"But I don't like chocolate!"
"But I DO WANT IT!!! I DO want the cake!"
"But I want more!"
"But I'm still hungry!"
"But I don't want to take a nap!"
And so forth. It turns out that you can take a perfectly beautiful sunny Spring afternoon with exactly the right amount of wind, three children with their own bicycles and helmets who have just eaten a healthy lunch, a clean and airy local meadow and three brand new kites PLUS a mother paying 100% attention to them (and offering homemade chocolate cake for an afternoon snack!) - and yet still, these kids aren't happy or feeling remotely lucky.
Sometimes I am honestly at a loss for how they can take so much for granted. I think about the children in Japan right now who are sharing tiny portions of food, forced in some cases to drink water filled with radiation, who have lost their parents or siblings and who may be all alone in the world. Children who truly have something to feel devastated about.
Then I look at my own smug, dissatisfied little family and wonder what on Earth I can do to make them understand just how blessed they are.
It is clear to me that we're nearing a time when our children could really benefit from volunteering; unfortunately, I'm not sure if there are *any* local volunteer organization that will take children as young as two and four for volunteer activities. The last time I checked on this, most of the organizations I contacted limited the family volunteering age to six and above, for liability reasons.
Our children do have chores around the house already... and the chance to earn money for their piggy banks. They do get to spend their own hard-earned money on things they really want to buy.
Yet, I don't see so far that it has made any difference in the ardor or volume of their requests, or their level of general appreciation. Unfortunately I seem to hear: "I WANT A NEW CAR/ BIKE /TOY /PUZZLE /LUNCHBOX /JACKET /DESSERT /COMPUTER GAME!" far more than I ever hear a simple thanks.
My children also donate all of their gently used clothing and toys to other children in need. I have already driven them many times through our local downtown area (on the way to their daddy's office) and pointed out to them how lucky we are to have a warm and safe shelter to sleep in, especially in bad weather.
The connection isn't getting made though, and I am sincerely concerned.
I don't want to make my children feel guilty or bad for leading a pretty solid, middle-class life. I just wish I could find a way to empower them with a sense of real gratitude.
Every time my three year old (who is a very picky eater) shoves his plate back at us and says, "I DON'T LIKE IT! THAT IS NOT YUMMY FOOD! MAKE ME SOMETHING ELSE!" I have to restrain myself from pulling up photos on Google of starving children in other countries to shame him for rejecting perfectly good, nutritious food that might save some other three year old from dying of malnutrition.
I have tried on my own to demonstrate my own gratitude in front of them and act as a role model, narrating for them my own gratitude for small and simple things like good weather, a simple act of kindness from a stranger (like holding the door open for our stroller), or even how lucky I feel that my husband works so hard - has a job in a poor economy - and that we can afford to purchase food for dinner.
It doesn't seem to be sinking in though. Just yesterday I heard my elder son saying how lucky he thought another family was because they can afford to take a vacation over Spring Break. "They have a lot of money, don't they mommy?" he said. "They are so lucky."
"There are a lot of different ways of being lucky," I responded. "We are lucky in some very important ways. We are lucky in love, and we are lucky in babies, and we are lucky that our babies are healthy. I wouldn't trade that kind of luck for all of the money in the world."
"I guess so," he replied, "But it would be good to go on a trip."
How do I turn his glass-half-empty into a glass-half-full?
This is a part of parenting I am still trying to figure out, day after day. I want my children to have everything they truly need (as opposed to everything they truly *want*). Yet, I want to instill in them a sense of joy and thankfulness that they have so many blessings and opportunities.
How many kids are lucky enough to have the financial means to move into the neighborhood containing the best public school in their district, just so they can get an amazing education? How many parents would uproot their entire lives to give this kind of chance to their kids? From my vantage point, our children really don't have anything to be complaining about.
Since the age of sixteen I've always had to work for every special thing I wanted: clothes, car, makeup, spending money, food - even the chance to go to college. I had a job continuously from the age of 16 until age 31 even while attending school full time... from restaurant jobs and boat rentals to magazine companies, universities and school districts... and since my 'retirement' four years ago I have worked harder than ever, raising these kids and writing content for my husband's company.
Working hard has always given me a sense of true appreciation for how lucky I am to have anything - and pride in my own accomplishments.
Perhaps for this reason, I have very little patience with the burgeoning sense of entitlement shown daily by our nearly-six and nearly-four year old sons. I'm sure there are plenty of small children in the world that would really appreciate even the simplest gift or most basic meal. I wish I knew how to explain their good fortune to my children in a way that they could really understand.
It's time to close with the meaning of today's blog, but I don't honestly have the answer yet to our dilemma. I love my children and I do think they have good hearts. They have so much potential for contentment and fulfillment... if only I can find the right pathway into their hearts.
I am actively seeking ways to teach them how to live every day with gratitude. I'm open to all ideas... so if anyone out there can enlighten me about how to take a passel of reasonably-privileged whiny children and turn them into similarly-privileged appreciative children, I'm all ears.