My husband and I have always worried about spoiling our children. We love them profoundly and we want to give them everything we can. We are pretty capable people, so we can give them a lot. It creates dilemmas.
For example, I know my strengths grew from my most difficult times. I most certainly do not want my children to experience those difficult times--ever. And if life does send them trials, I will be there for them, one hundred percent. Yet I do want my children to be strong. So how do we begin that? How do we prepare them for what comes, whether it's challenging or not?
Well...by not spoiling them?
So, when the kids were little, I offered my husband this measure: as long as the kids appreciate what they have, they're not spoiled. I am still not sure if that worked completely for him, but it gave me a guideline. If they work hard (mostly) at their activities, then they appreciate them. If they take care of their belongings (mostly), they appreciate them. If they treat the people in their lives well (mostly), then they appreciate them.
I'm not going to go into details here--it's not relevant-- but over the first half of the summer I noticed a disturbing and growing lack of Appreciation* in our house. And I don't mean that in the sense that I didn't feel appreciated. I mean that my dearly loved children were losing their Appreciation for the blessings in their lives, the Appreciation that brings true happiness. It showed in countless little ways, adding up to a pervasive message of "I don't care."
Maybe it is just a stage. Maybe every kid goes through it. I don't know.
One morning last week, as I tried to talk to them about what we would do that day--and I had in mind a pleasant mix of our normal Chore Day and some fun treats--I realized I was exerting all my willpower to get them to let me give them a good day.
Life will not do that for them.
By striving to do so much for my children, I was failing them. If I kept that up, they would learn to expect, to lean on, and to live within a false reality. School will not struggle against apathy to give them good grades. Jobs will not fix up the results of consistent laziness to pay them. Happiness will not knock their doors down and invite itself to stay. As an adult, I know that. As a parent, I need to teach my children that.
Yes, we make those efforts for babies and toddlers. We do for them what they cannot do for themselves. Amen! I believe in unconditional love and nurture for all children. Yet the expression of that unconditional love has to change as the children show themselves capable of more.
My children's amazing (really--they're impressive!) ability to resist my efforts to give them good stuff was a wakeup call. I thought, If they can do this, what else can they do? I mentally created a checklist of a lot of things that they can do—things that, unfortunately, I had been doing for them. I'm ashamed to admit it, but you know why...because it's easier/faster/less stressful to do it myself.
I had to do the hardest thing any parent does--let them see the natural consequences of their choices. So that day, I didn't force them to do anything. I didn't cajole, order, request, persuade, or remind. I let them do as they chose.
They managed okay until dinner time. When I didn't spend hours tracking their screen time, calling them to help with the meal, asking them to sit down at the table, they noticed. After the surprise, they came to the table--literally and figuratively.
We talked about how while we, as their parents, love them and support them, it's time they started investing in their lives and Appreciating their blessings. We talked about examples. We went to bed on a good note.
It was by no means the end of this lesson. We will be working on this one for a while! I will be constantly striving to remember that my goals is to teach these humans I've been blessed to know--that I want them to learn how to fish for all the good stuff in life, even though it's easier to just hand it to them.
In all, the day I decided to stop giving them fish may be one of the hardest days I've had. I felt like I took a huge risk--though what I risked, I'm not sure. It exhausted me emotionally. I would have loved to find a better way. Maybe, for us, that was the way. Who knows?
I do know that I believe true Appreciation is the foundation for contentment, resilience, and happiness. I know I could never have made it through that day if I didn't love them with every molecule of my being. I wish I knew instantly if it worked, but I don't. Even when you invest fully in your goals, results don’t come that easily.
*Appreciation with a capital "A" refers not only to the traditional definition, but also to the ideas Dan Baker discusses in his book, What Happy People Know.